I am the law!

I recently got called for jury duty and served! My incredibly long story within…

The summons said to be there at 1:30 – parking was terrible to find given I wasn’t sure about whether I’d be able to feed the meter (they only go for 2 hours and I was short on change anyway), so I ended up parking 8 blocks away in an expensive garage. That kinda sucked.

As I walked in I had to go through a metal detector/X-ray thingy. The security guard (who looked a lot like Dr. Kelso on Scrubs) told me I should get a man-purse since I had so much crap in my pockets πŸ™‚

In the criminal justice center, they had a lot of airport-like screens all over the place listing names, times, and cause numbers. I never did figure out exactly what the deal was – I figured they’d be cases being heard, but for example the court I was in had a list of 10 or so people for that day, and as far as I can tell the court never did anything with them. The cause number included the year – about 80% of them were 08, most of the rest were 07, and there were a few outliers like 94.

26 people had been called for Voir dire – I think all ended up showing up. I was #6, which I figured meant I had a pretty decent chance of getting chosen.

After we lined up and sat down, the judge talked to us for a few minutes about the process, which I was already somewhat familiar with (see previous jury experience). He said the court was misdemeanor court and the case should be done by Friday.

Then the prosecutor got up and started. (interestingly, or perhaps not, both prosecutors and defense attorneys were women, as were the bailiff and court reporter) Her name was Ms. Trumm, and she said she had taught high school before getting a chance to get to law school for free (she made it sound like it just happened out of the blue, and we never heard anything else about it) and ended up wanting to work in the “women & children” (words mine, not hers) department…but she was just starting out so she was doing this instead πŸ™‚ She was quite young and she seemed a bit nervous. She had a powerpoint presentation that covered a lot of the same stuff as I had seen the last time – if you don’t believe in judging people or in the one-witness rule, etc., this isn’t the right case for you.

She also said the crime was a DWI, and although they weren’t allowed to discuss the facts of the case, it was pretty clear that there was video evidence but no breathalyzer test.

The defense attorney seemed better organized (she also had a powerpoint presentation) and she asked a series of questions that we had to answer on a scale of 1 to 6 (1 = strongly agree, 6 = strongly disagree). Some of the questions were “Do you trust a police officer more than a citizen just because he/she is a police officer?” (hint: the correct answer is no; under the law, you’re allowed to take into account the officer’s experience and training, but not the fact that he’s a police officer) and “The police never make a mistake.” Anyway, her partner was writing down all of our numerical answers which was kinda neat.

It was pretty obvious some people near me were going to be disqualified – the woman whose husband is a firefighter (and so sees lots of DWI crashes), the guy who had been in a house that was raided by the Austin Police and then they realized it was a wrong address, etc. I had a feeling from my answers that I would be picked, and lo and behold I was juror #3. The judge dismissed everyone else and the bailiff showed us to the jury room (which was not as awesome as the judge last time had led us to believe πŸ™‚ ) – it had a table, some chairs, a fridge and sink and a TV with a VCR/DVD player. The judge told us to report here at 9 AM the next morning and instructed us not to talk to anyone about the case.

The next morning, I dropped David off at NI at 8 to make sure I had plenty of time to get downtown and park. This time, I had a parking pass which made things a lot easier – found a spot two blocks away and walked in. Arrived around 8:30 and had some time to chat with the other jurors (who all ended up being pretty nice) and try to not fall asleep.

Then the bailiff brought us in to the court (one of the jurors showed up late so we didn’t enter until around 9:30). The judge swore us in and then the opening arguments began. The prosecutor went first (it was neat when she said “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury” and she was totally talking to me!), and she again seemed somewhat nervous, but explaining that we would see a videotape of the defendant clearly intoxicated. “Intoxicated” according to the law means that they’ve lost “normal” use of their physical or mental faculties as a result of alcohol or a drug or some combination of alcohol and drugs. (or it means a BAC above .08, but that didn’t come into play here since the defendant refused a breathalyzer test) She finished up by saying something like “After seeing all the evidence, I think you’ll find the defendant not guilty…I mean guilty.” The defense’s opening argument was more polished, and outlined their plan: the defendant was tired, and not a bright guy who didn’t understand the tests that the officer performed that we would see in the video.

The prosecutor called her first (and only) witness, who was the officer who made the stop. Actually, she called the witness, then left the courtroom for a good 90 seconds before returning with the officer. It was somewhat anticlimactic. Anyway, turns out the defendant had run a stop sign and the cop had to slam on the brakes to avoid him, then he did a traffic stop and did the field sobriety test. Luckily, APD has video cameras on all their cop cars so we could see the defendant doing the tests. As it turned out, the defendant only spoke Spanish – the cop spoke Spanish too but there were some translation issues that came up later…

The first test is to follow a pen with your eyes while keeping your head still. The defendant had a big problem with this – he kept saying that he was tired and wasn’t used to doing this sort of thing so he kept moving his head (at least according to the police officer – the video was zoomed out enough we couldn’t see very clearly). The second test is to walk nine steps forward heel to toe while watching your feet and keeping your arms at your side. This was somewhat bizarre – he clearly was having trouble understanding and took a few steps asking the officer if he was doing it right. Then he did nine steps pretty good and then took nine steps backwards, without turning around. Apparently in Spanish the phrase for “nine steps back” and “nine steps backwards” are pretty much the same, although the officer demonstrated so I’m not sure what the deal was.

The third test was to stand one one leg with the other leg raised six inches off the ground and hold that for thirty seconds (counting “one thousand one, one thousand two…”). Obviously there was a misunderstanding again, because he lifted his leg, counted “one thousand one”, then stepped forward, lifted his other leg, and counted “one thousand two” in a Pink Panther-esque walk.

Anyway, we got to watch this in court, as well as a court-appointed transcription/translation to English. At one point, the prosecutor asked a question, the defense attorney objected but the officer answered anyway, which made the judge kinda peeved.

It was interesting to watch how they had to introduce something into evidence: the process was ask the judge to approach, show the evidence to the court reporter, ask the witness to describe what it was, then bring it to the other attorney to see if she had any objections. At one point she did but didn’t want to talk about it with us around, so we got led back to the jury room while they hashed things out.

The whole process was pretty interesting: it felt kind of odd that obviously all the lawyers were very prepared and such and their audience was us: six basically random people off the street. I guess that’s how the system’s supposed to work, though. It was kind of awkward at times – we saw them outside of court once or twice and they didn’t say a word to us – in fact, they’d often look away to ensure nothing improper happened πŸ™‚

Wording was clearly important to both of them: the prosecutor always used the term “field sobriety test” while the defense almost always said “coordination exercises” or “government test”. In fact, the defense called the prosecutor the “government attorney” a few times, which the prosecutor actually pointed out in her closing argument!

The closing arguments were pretty short – interestingly, the prosecutor went first, then the defense, and then the prosecutor again, which the judge justified by saying the state “had the burden of proof”, which is of course true but seemed a bit off to me. Then (right around 5:00) we retired to the jury room – the judge said to let them know in 30 minutes or so if they wanted them to order dinner for us.

At this point I had gone back and forth about the case a lot – the defendant had definitely failed some of the sobriety tests, but it did seem possible that he just didn’t understand some parts of them, and on some parts he did do pretty well. Of course, he also ran a stop sign. Upon entering the room, I asked who wanted to be the presiding juror (i.e. the foreman/woman) to which there was 5 seconds of silence and the guy next to me said “the first one who says something”. So, yes, I did become the presiding juror, which I was kinda excited about.

I wanted to take a straw poll at the beginning, but other people wanted to talk for a bit first, so we went over the evidence and quickly decided we wanted to watch the tape again, so I submitted a request for that to the bailiff. We watched it and talked again and realized we were going to be there for a while so we had them order pizza and soda for us (thanks, Austin taxpayers!) At some point we took a straw poll and the results were: 3 not guilty, 2 (including me) guilty, and 1 undecided.

Pizza came and we ate and chatted some more. The discussion got a little heated at times – the guy next to me, who was the other “guilty” vote, was prone to making inflammatory statements which pissed others off, and the guy next to him had a flair for the dramatic and brought up totally irrelevant points. (“What if he’s an illegal immigrant?” Well, we don’t know that, and if he is or isn’t, so what?)

Eventually I came around and decided that, while he was probably drunk and definitely shouldn’t have been driving, there was enough doubt that met the burden of “reasonable”, so I switched to “not guilty”, and at 7:20 PM the last holdout also changed his mind. (turns out he used to work crazy night shifts and often drove tired) I signed the “not guilty” line of the charge, we filed back into the court, and the judge asked me if we had reached a verdict, to which I replied “we have, your honor” which was awesome πŸ™‚ He then read the verdict (without asking me if it was correct!) and then thanked us for our service.

He then said that we were free to talk about the case (or not if we didn’t want to) and that the lawyers were usually interested in talking to the jury. So I hung around and talked to them, which was pretty cool. They said they usually tried to pick who they thought the presiding juror would be but guessed the guy next to me, although they did say that I seemed to be enjoying the experience (guilty as charged!). We talked about what we discussed in the jury room and why we eventually voted not guilty, although it was a close case. On the way out I chatted with another lawyer who explained that in voir dire, they only get 3 peremptory strikes of potential jurors – all the other strikes have to be “for cause” (i.e. if both sides or at least the judge agrees there’s a possible bias).

Anyway, the whole thing was a fun experience, even though I had a ton of work to do, and I definitely hope to do it again some time, even though there were long stretches of boredom and I was tired most of the day. I felt proud to be part of the legal system πŸ™‚

8 thoughts on “I am the law!”

  1. Oh wow, I totally imagined this happening in black and white. And in my mental version, Henry Fonda was there. Very cool experience! πŸ™‚

    Like

  2. I keep trying to jinx myself, but not matter how many time I say that I’ve NEVER been called for jury duty, it doesn’t work…

    Like

      1. I was called once in Dallas when I lived in Houston for school, so got an out. Since then, I’ve not been called. I might be on a black list somewhere, having been married to a prosecutor once upon a time.

        Like

    1. Oops. Pushed post too soon. Anyway, just wanted to say that I enjoyed your commentary and like you I left jury duty feeling positive that they system works.

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s