[This is part 3 of a series about my jury service. Part 1 was Jury Duty, Day 1: Vwar Deer and Part 2 was Jury Duty, Day 2: Testimony.]
[Note: In all accounts of this trial, I’m using fake names for the people and locations.]
I get to the courthouse at 8:45 and head down to the cafeteria to score a couple of Diet Pepsi’s from the vending machines, but one of the other jurors intercepts me and tells me the defendant is in there, so I divert to the Jury Assembly room instead, explain the situation to the guard, and use the vending machines there. When I get back upstairs, they still haven’t let the jury into the courtroom.
Eventually, they let us in, we have breakfast, and they trot us out to listen to closing arguments.
The male prosecutor gave a perfunctory two-minute close. He did try to address something the defense had implied the day before, but he goofed on the details. He claimed that even if it wasn’t how he was trained, it was a reasonable and natural reaction for Officer Reyes to close his eyes and turn his head in anticipation of the headbutt. The problem is, Reyes never testified he turned his head. Reyes said he ducked his head, which makes more sense because you’re better off taking a blow on the hard bone of the skull than on the side of your face and because ducking explains the injury at the front of his hairline. If we hadn’t remembered the actual testimony, the prosecutor would have hurt his case.
Skippy the defense lawyer is next, and his close is a lot longer. He emphasizes that the cop is bigger than the defendant ( 6’3″ v.s. Jose’s 5’6″) and armed with a gun, so is it really plausible that the defendant would be crazy enough to attack him? He also implied that Officer Delgado was lying when he backed up Reyes’s story because of his statement that “all police officers are my friends.”
About half-way through, he told us that since this was his last chance to talk, he was going to try to anticipate and respond to some of the prosecution’s points. For some reason, the blond prosecutrix objected to that but was overruled by the judge.
Skippy concluded his argument with the same line he started it with: “The answer is as plain as the nose on Jose’s face,” referring to Jose’s injuries.
Finally, the young blond prosecutor got up to rebut the defense argument. This was clearly the prosecution’s real closing argument, because it was pretty long too. She responded to the suggestion that Officer Delgado was lying by pointing out that if he was going to make up a story, he could have made up a better one: He could have said he saw the headbutt as he pulled up.
She made other points too, but by now my memory of both sides’ arguments is a little fuzzy because we-the-jury have argued these points ourselves and reached our own conclusions. I do remember that while deriding the defendant’s credibility she referred to his truck as a “jalopy.” We all made fun of that during deliberations.
After closing arguments, we received instructions. The judge told us there are three things that must be proven to find someone guilty of Aggravated Battery, Police Officer in the state of Illinois:
- The offender has to intentionally or knowingly harm the victim or contact him in an insulting or provoking nature. (That’s Battery)
- The victim has to be a police officer. (And the offender has to know it.)
- The officer has to be performing official duties. (So, getting in a bar fight with an off-duty cop doesn’t sink you.)
I remember that when Officer Reyes’s testimony wound down, the female prosecutor conferred briefly with her partner and then asked two more questions of the officer: Were you a police officer at the time of the incident? Were you empowered to make arrests?
It was obvious she was making sure something was on the record, and now we knew why. She wanted to avoid an embarrassing dismissal motion by the defense for not proving these elements.
(Not too long ago, there was a story about a prosecutor in a bank robbery case who forgot to ask any of the bank employees what sort of business they were in. He may have proven that the defendant committed robbery, but we’ll never know since the judge dismissed the case because there was no evidence in the record that a bank had been robbed.)
Finally, we retired to the jury room for deliberations.
By now, the weight of the situation was settling on me. The defendant’s parents had been there in the courtroom with us, but so was was Officer Reyes. My gut favors the underdog—and aren’t all defendants underdogs?—so I hated like hell the thought of having to send this poor kid to jail in front of his parents. On the other hand, I don’t want to let someone attack a cop and get away with it.
I know neither the parents nor the officer are supposed to affect my verdict, but their presence served to remind me that the next few hours were going to be very important.
The rest of this posting is the most difficult part for me to write. In discussing our deliberations, I’m worried that I’ll reveal my ignorance of the world of cops and criminals. I’m worried that I was taken in by some nonsense that criminal justice experts would have seen through. Even worse, I’m worried that I was taken in by nonsense that I should have seen through.
Even worse than that, what if we did something really wrong and screwed up the trial? Maybe we were out of control. Maybe we were stupid. More to the point, maybe I was stupid. I hate when that happens.
I think we did everything in a reasonably correct manner. But then again, doesn’t everyone?
Sigh. I can’t very well post thousands of words picking over everyone else’s performance and then not tell you about my part in this. I do ask, however, that people reading this remember that we were working with what we were given.
News reports always talk about the makeup of a jury, so I’ll throw that in: Six white men (including me), two black men, one Hispanic man, two white women, and a Hispanic woman. The alternates had been a white woman and a black woman. I can’t remember the race of the jurors ever making a difference during our deliberations, but perhaps the minority jurors would disagree.
The alternate jurors had also been the two most addicted smokers, so we didn’t have to take a smoking break during deliberations.
We picked the most talkative guy in the room as our foreman, and took an immediate vote just to see where we stood. I wanted to spend more time thinking about it and was still undecided, so I voted not-guilty, as did about half the jury.
Minutes later, we were at each other’s throats. I mean that literally. We were re-enacting the confrontations with each other.
I have to say, when I had been on a civil jury, a lot of the participants were pretty goofy. They didn’t take it very seriously, they had some wild things to say, and it took a while for those of us who cared to wrestle them around to follow the judge’s instructions. That didn’t happen this time.
We had a fast-moving, wide-ranging, and loud discussion of everything we heard. I can’t possibly reproduce it in order—because there wasn’t much order—but I think I can reconstruct our thinking on each of the major topics.
We all understood, and at some point explicitly agreed, that the alleged victim was a police officer and that he was performing his duties, and that the defendant admitted he knew these things. The main issue in dispute was going to be about the harm to the officer.
(Now I understood the elaborate questioning about Officer Reyes’s uniform and about events leading up to the stop: The uniform would have made it obvious to Jose that he was a cop, and the account of why Reyes stopped him established that this was a legitimate stop and therefore part of his official duties. Also, when Jose admitted he was driving without a front plate or side mirror—and that he knew it was illegal—he was admitting that he knew officer Reyes had a legitimate reason for the stop.)
Both sides had closed by telling us to use our common sense, and my common sense told me (and other jurors agreed) that Officer Reyes’s story made more emotional sense. His story was one of escalation: It started with the defendant’s harsh words and progressed through getting out of the car, approaching the officer, shoving, grappling, and then the headbutt and resulting injury. Jose’s story requires that the officer’s mood goes from polite (according to Jose himself) to violent in a matter of seconds because of a single impertinent question. It happens, but not too often.
The defense had asked why Jose would be stupid enough to attack a cop who was nine inches taller and armed with a gun. The first problem with that argument is that while the defendant may have been shorter, he weighed 240 pounds by his own testimony and was built like a tank.
The second problem is that, again, Reyes didn’t describe an immediate attack. He said the defendant came out swearing and walking, not running and swinging his fists. The defendant may have originally intended only to get in the cop’s face, but the situation escalated from there.
The third problem with that argument is that anybody big or small would be foolish to attack a cop, yet it happens all the time. People get wound up and do stupid things. Also, Jose claimed that when he accused Reyes of stopping him for being Mexican, Reyes responded “I’m Mexican too, Pendejo!” So Reyes verbally provoked Jose, according to Jose.
Another way of looking at the overall situation is that one of these people behaved in a way that made no sense, either attacking a cop or attacking a helpless driver. However, it’s only Jose who testified to something senseless: He was offended by the officer’s following him rather than pulling him over right away. None of us could understand this. Cops always do that. It doesn’t prove the case, but it shows Jose had something strange going on in his head.
On the other hand, a couple of us had a problem with the traffic tickets. Reyes testified that he had just turned away from the defendant’s car to head back to his own car to write the tickets when he heard the door open and the defendant came out. The fight started, Reyes was injured, he called for backup, Officer Delgado showed up and helped subdue the defendant, and then an ambulance came and took Reyes to the hospital.
So when did he write the tickets? We had them right there in the jury room with us, but his story didn’t explain where they came from. The defendant’s story did. Jose had testified that the cop attacked him after returning from sitting in the patrol car writing the tickets.
This was what had been bothering me about the cop’s testimony the night before, but in the overall picture, it didn’t seem like a huge flaw. We could imagine that Reyes wrote them during the wait for the ambulance, or that he did the paperwork later (as he did in the case of the police report), but it wasn’t covered in the testimony.
We re-enacted the headbutt as described by both the cop and the defendant. Each side had claimed that the wounds on both people were inconsistent with the other side’s story. After considering their testimony, we re-enacted several possible versions of the story with jurors of similar height differences. (The short Hispanic woman was scary fast when it came to the headbutts.)
It seemed that if Jose was pinned back over the fender of his car as he claimed, it would be hard for Reyes to lean far enough over to bring the crown of his head into contact with Jose’s nose. However, in general, the wounds were roughly consistent with either story, and the headbutt alone didn’t tell us much.
We also didn’t put as much weight on Jose’s nose injury as the defense wanted us to. Jose clearly lost the headbutt, but that could have happened no matter who started it.
We did, however, wonder why the cop would headbutt Jose at all. If Reyes wanted to tune him up a bit (in NYPD Blue speak) he could simply hit him with his nightstick, his flashlight, or even his gun. Or throw him down and beat him Rodney-King-style. Or nail him with pepper spray. Or maybe a Taser. Why on earth would he risk injury by headbutting him?
We also re-enacted the Jose’s description of how the cop got him out of the truck. He claimed Reyes reached in through the window and grabbed him on the collar with his left hand and pressed his fingers into his neck, and then, without letting go, pulled him out of the truck.
So how did Reyes open the door? Jose didn’t say he was pulled out through the window, and that sounds like the sort of thing you’d mention. Besides, Jose weighted 240 pounds. Reyes would have to be extremely strong to pull him out of the window, especially on a pickup truck where the windows are pretty high up.
Reyes could have popped the door latch before reaching in, but then why reach in through the window instead of opening the door all the way? And how did his arms clear the window frame as he dragged Jose around? Jose and his lawyer had re-enacted this part of the incident, with Jose playing the cop, and he didn’t deal with this issue.
It occurred to me that some vehicle doors don’t have a metal frame around the window. The glass just sticks up out of the body of the door and, when the door is closed, presses directly against the rubber seal of the door frame. In that case, Reyes could have popped the latch and then reached in over the body of the door to pull the defendant out. With the door unlatched, the cop could pull the defendant against it to open it, and he could pull Jose around the door without having to let go.
That idea fell apart when I remembered that the defense had provided a photo of the truck. We checked it, and we could clearly see the metal frame around the window. If Reyes reached in through that window, he would have had to let go of Jose to get him around the door, and Jose’s testimony and re-enactment had been quite clear that he never let go.
Ultimately, the issue of the door clinched it for a lot of people. Jose’s elaborate story was wrong on a detail he shouldn’t have missed if it really happened. We took a vote on the specific issue of whether the cop pulled Jose out or he got out himself, and all of us agreed that he must have stepped out of the truck himself.
That alone makes him a liar.
I tend to believe that everyone is lying a little bit, and you have to work around that. For example, both Reyes and Jose denied using harsh language, but I don’t believe either of them. This thing about being pulled out of the truck, however, was a lie that went right to the heart of the defense case.
Here’s another question we had: If Officer Reyes started the whole thing and was merrily kicking ass, why did he call for backup? Jose even claims Reyes managed to cuff him before the other officer arrived. So, again, why the distress call?
And yet another thing: Jose claimed to have bled a lot, yet we had three photos taken shortly after the incident (two from booking, one by his sister later), and none of them shows any blood on his light-gray shirt or anywhere else.
Jose claimed to have been wearing a sweatshirt that would have absorbed the blood. (He says the police lost it, they say they never saw it.) However, Jose was very descriptive about his bleeding, describing the way it flowed down his chin. He said his nose started bleeding when Reyes injured him and he kept bleeding throughout the ride to the police station and then in the ambulance until he got to the hospital, a time span of about half an hour.
If he bled for that long, wouldn’t the blood have soaked through the sweatshirt? And if blood was dripping down his chin, wouldn’t it have run down his neck and inside his sweatshirt to reach the collar of his t-shirt?
These problems with the defense theory of the case just kept building up. I suppose we might have been willing to ignore any one of them on the principle that the defendant gets the benefit of the doubt. But when we collected these problems one after another, improbability on improbability, we felt it was too much. The defendant’s story was a fabrication.
That left only the cop’s story.
Earlier in our deliberations, I had set off a discussion of whether Officer Reyes’s testimony, taken by itself and ignoring the defendant’s testimony, would prove the crime. My thinking was that if Reyes hadn’t testified to the elements of the crime, then we could end our deliberations right there without wasting time on the defendant’s story. But we decided that Reyes had indeed covered everything.
In addition, Reyes’s story made sense to us from beginning to end, and was not contradicted by any evidence or any testimony except the defendant’s, which we now disregarded as unreliable.
So, after two and a half hours of deliberation, we voted, and we all agreed Jose was guilty. We signed the guilty verdict form and the foreman notified the deputy. About 15 minutes later, they took us out into the courtroom. The full defense table was present, but the blond prosecutor was nowhere to be seen.
Once again, we were a bit giggly, this time with nervous tension, kind of like laughing in church. The judge asked us a question and then made a joke which we all laughed at. I can’t remember what it was, but I remember that even the defendant laughed. I felt really bad for him right then.
Then the judge went through the protocol and read the verdict.
The defendant and his parents became very still. I can’t remember what the defense lawyers did, but the male prosecutor never even looked up from his notes. The judge ordered us polled, and the clerk called out our names one by one and asked us if this was our verdict and we all answered “yes.”
Then he thanked us and sent us back to the jury room.
[Tomorrow, the last installment: Jury Duty: Reflections.]