[Note: In all accounts of this trial, I’m using fake names for the people and locations.]
Quick story I can’t believe I forgot to mention on the first day:
Right at the beginning, as the judge was explaining the basics of jury duty to our pool of prospective jurors, a cell phone rang out. The judge stopped talking, and I thought someone was going to get yelled at.
Then he said “That’s my cell phone.” He pulled it out and glanced at it. “It’s my wife.” I could see him think about it for about a second, but then he turned it off and put it away.
In this last posting, I’m just going to bloviate about stuff that didn’t fit into any of the earlier parts of my jury duty saga. I don’t know how many of you have been reading this stuff, but I promise I’ll get back to regular blogging after this.
One reader I am aware of is Virginia prosecutor Tom McKenna over at Seeking Justice, who had this to say:
Not the case of the century, but Windy’s recitation of the way the evidence came out, the demeanor of the lawyers and the defendant, and especially the deliberations of the jury, make for interesting reading, especially for trial dogs who often wonder how we’re perceived by juries.
That’s what I was hoping for. I read a bunch of legal blogs (or blawgs), and I know some of the criminal lawyers are very interested in hearing about the jury’s view of the trial. I wanted to capture as much of it as I could remember and write down. It’s nice to hear that at least one of them got something out of it.
McKenna also says,
The good news is, if Windy’s jury is representative of juries in general, they actually pay attention to the evidence and deliberate on it pretty thoroughly.
Oh, I’m sure we had our moments of stupidity, which my selective memory has left out. Also, in organizing this narrative, I’ve necessarily edited things into a sensible story, which may make us look smarter than we were.
Still, I think we did all right. Nothing obviously outrageous happened. No racist epithets. No outrageous claims about cops framing minorities for no reason. On the other hand, we didn’t blindly assume the police were telling the truth. Instead, we explored their testimony, and we found it sound. The jurors who changed their mind did so not because of pressure to hurry up, but because we listened to their arguments and made ours. I think we honestly debated the things we’d heard in court.
(Things weren’t quite as smooth in the personal injury trial I served on a few years ago. We found for the defendant, but our reasons were pretty diverse. I felt the plaintiff hadn’t proven the car accident was the cause of his back pain, but some of the jurors actually didn’t think the defendant was responsible for the accident, even though he offered no explanation for rear-ending the plaintiff’s car, which was stopped at a red light.)
McKenna goes on:
The bad news is, as I have found out, sometimes they can get hung up on really trivial details. For example, in Windy’s case, the tickets the officer wrote the defendant were introduced into evidence for some reason. This lead the jury to wonder if the officer was telling the truth about the incident, since he testified he was attacked before he could write the tickets.
Now what surely happened was that the tickets were written ultimately after the defendant was subdued. This would seem so apparent that the prosecutor never bothered to actually ask the officer about it. Fortunately, Windy and his fellow jurors figured that the tickets were probably written after the incident was over. But that they spent time on such a matter underscores an important lesson for a prosecutor (or any litigator, for that matter): you may know what happened to the last detail, but the jury doesn’t; you may understand what the typical process would be in a certain situation, but the jury may not: therefore assume nothing and establish everything down to the last detail! You never know what seemingly trivial fact the jury will seize upon and perhaps decide the case upon.
I like to think I know a little bit about law enforcement and the justice system, but I know nothing compared to the professionals. A lot of my information comes from obviously faulty sources like television shows and crime novels. Even the more reliable sources, such as non-fiction books about cops and lawyers, take a simplified approach to the subject.
Also, nearly all popular trial writing is about murder trials, which usually involve a lot more evidence and a lot more expensive investigation. Nobody was going to be showing computer simulations of a headbutt at this trial.
My personal experience is pretty limited too. I am neither a frequent criminal nor a frequent victim of crime. I know how cops usually behave when they curb you in a traffic stop, but I have only a vague idea what they do if you start making trouble…because I don’t do that.
Consequently, there are areas where I have holes in my knowledge of matters that could be important in a criminal trial. Some of these holes are easy to see, but I’m sure there are things I don’t know that I don’t know. That’s an easy way to make mistakes.
One of the things that bothered me about this case right from the opening statements is that somebody was lying. There was no way for this to be a case of differing interpretations of the same event.
I expect people to see what they want to see, make mistakes, and shade the truth for their benefit, but I’m always a bit surprised to discover that someone has blatantly lied to my face. I’m naive that way.
On the second day, when I walked out of court after Tuesday’s testimony, I tended to believed Jose’s story. So did a lot of the other jurors. He struck us as a pretty good witness who seemed credible. Maybe not completely, but enough to find reasonable doubt about who to believe…and all ties go to the defendant, don’t they? I was actually looking forward to giving this worried young man some good news the next day.
It didn’t happen that way. Maybe his story sounded good because it was the last one I heard. As I thought about it that night and the next morning, however, I began to have doubts. I kept finding problems. When we gathered the next day for deliberations, the other jurors pointed out more problems that I hadn’t seen. This pretty much sunk his testimony.
When I signed my name on the verdict form, and again when the clerk called us by name as she polled the jury, I was a little nervous. It’s a hell of a thing to call someone a liar and a criminal. But I figure if you’re going to do that, you’d better be willing to put your name to it.
The truth is, we kind of liked Jose. He didn’t seem like a bad guy, like a career criminal. He was just a hot-headed young man who did something stupid. We were pretty sure this was his first serious brush with the law.
This was not just a guess, but an inference from testimony. Officer Reyes ran the plates when he stopped the truck and then approached it with no heightened expectation of trouble. Therefore, we concluded that he saw no indication of trouble in the defendant’s record.
After the verdict, the judge visited us in the jury room and told us we were one of the most lively juries he’d ever had. Then he told us a few things about the case.
As we surmised, Jose had a clean record. The judge told us he hadn’t taken him into custody because this just seemed to him like a young man who made a mistake. I told him we had that impression too.
(The judge also told us that when he worked in traffic court some of the defendants would start yelling and swearing when he ruled against them. Here in felony court, however, he’s sentenced murderers, and they’re usually pretty polite about it.)
He also told us there was a chance Jose would get probation, and none of us objected. (I remember thinking that Jose’s false accusations against Officer Reyes should have gotten him in some trouble, but maybe that’s not how the system works. The judge, a former prosecutor, never mentioned it.)
I mentioned to the judge that I couldn’t help but think that if the cop had been a little more experienced, he might have stopped the defendant without a fight, and none of this would have been necessary. The judge responded with a story of a cop who managed to intimidate a dangerous gang member into surrendering peacefully.
It’s kind of a strange situation. If Officer Reyes had simply smacked Jose down with his club, or cap-stunned him with pepper spray, or even Tasered him, Jose wouldn’t have known it, but he would have been much better off. Instead, Reyes ended up grabbing his wrists and struggling with him and getting injured in the process. I’m not blaming Reyes for this, but I think a more experienced cop could have stayed in control and made this work out better for everybody. No fight, no injury, no trial, no felony conviction.
As we walked out of court, we passed Jose and his lawyer sitting in the vestibule. I looked away. Then I thought about what would happen if he called me on it, if he said “Hey, you can’t even look me in the face.”
I realized that I could stop and turn to him and say, “Yes I can. What is it you want to know?” I was pretty sure that I could defend our decision.
I’m not saying I have no doubts. I do worry that maybe we convicted an innocent man. Maybe we are complicit in an act of police brutality. Maybe we fell for a frame-up by the police. I worry about a lot of things, and so I find myself going over our decision yet again. And I reach the same conclusion we reached in the jury room: The defendant lied and he’s guilty.
If there is an explanation that makes the defendent an innocent man, it would have to be convoluted and complex, and it would have to be something that didn’t make it into evidence or testimony, and something his lawyer didn’t even think to mention in his argument. I can imagine that there might be such an explanation, but I can’t imagine what it could be. So, I have doubts, but they’re not reasonable doubts.
(The world is perverse, and I can’t be sure with absolute certainty that tomorrow I won’t stumble across an article about the old cop trick of pulling the driver out the window, head-butting him, and calling for backup…but I don’t think that’s a reasonable doubt either.)
Convicting Jose has been on my mind a lot this past week. I don’t much enjoy sitting in judgement of people, and I get no sense of accomplishment from administering punishment.
(I suppose blogging is also sitting in judgement, but it’s not like anything I say here is really going to hurt anyone. Besides, I leave comments open, and they can give it right back to me.)
I can understand a victim’s desire to punish his tormentor, and I can also understand, I think, the prosecutor’s desire to punish those guilty of serious crimes. But when it comes to lesser crimes, I don’t feel it.
Don’t get me wrong. I absolutely agree that crimes should be punished, but it’s one of those areas where reason leads me somewhere my heart is reluctant to go. We need prosecutors, but I don’t really understand why they do what they do. I wouldn’t want that job.
(I feel the same way about dentists. What is it that makes some people decide to do that for the rest of their lives?)
Lawyers claim that juries get hung up on irrelevant facts. I suspect some of that is just griping by the losers, but I’m also sure there’s truth to it. Obviously, we explored some facts that were irrelevant, such as when the tickets were written or our musings about the defendant’s record.
I think that’s normal. We’re not legal or law enforcement professionals, so the only way to tell if we’re going down a blind alley is to follow it a while and see if it leads to something we can use.
For example, Officer Delgado’s employer, the town of Brixton, has at times been run by some very corrupt people. (Now you know why I’m not using its real name.) In the not-too-distant past it was filled with massage parlors and bars where girls turned tricks in the back rooms. It’s not a huge leap to assume that someone somewhere was taking mob money to ignore these things.
A few of us discussed this. Did the rules allow us to use this knowledge to reach our decision? And if so, would it matter in this case? The answers seemed to be maybe not and probably not, so we abandoned that and moved on. It took me longer to write about it here than it took us to discuss it. But still, we went there for a minute or two.
I’ve heard defense lawyers say that juries focus too much on whether the defense created reasonable doubt, and not enough on whether the prosecution met the burden of proof. I don’t think we made that mistake here. We had the direct testimony of the officer/victim, and we found it credible. I can’t believe that the burden of proof requires more than the testimony of a credible witness to every element of the crime.
Finally, based on my vast experience as a juror (one civil, one criminal), I’d like to offer some observations and suggestions. Some of these are unrealistic, but it would be a shame to deny you my wisdom over such a trivial objection.
First of all, none of this would have been necessary if the police department had installed video cameras in their cars.
Second, from what I’ve seen, there’s no point trying to guess what a jury is thinking from the questions they send out. Just because we ask about something doesn’t mean we’re going to give it a lot of weight. Even if only a couple jurors have a question, the foreman will probably send it out, but you can’t tell how many jurors really care about the answer.
In this case, our only question was about a police report the defense lawyer used to cross examine Officer Reyes. He asked why, if Jose was verbally abusive, Reyes never mentioned it in the report. Reyes explained that another officer wrote the report while he was at the hospital, and he just signed it.
We didn’t have this report and we wanted to know if we could see it. By the time the answer came back—we couldn’t see the report because it was never introduced into evidence—we no longer cared.
Third, I wish the instructions about the elements of the crime had come before the testimony. It would have given us a better framework to organize our understanding of the case. I guess that’s what opening arguments are for.
Fourth, along the same lines, I think trials would be easier to follow if the lawyers could talk to the jury more often. Perhaps after each person testifies, the lawyers could summarize what they thought the testimony established, and what they thought was important. I suppose this would have to be adversarial, with both sides saying something. This would risk corrupting the jury’s memory of the testimony, but I think it would be easier to judge the accuracy of each lawyer’s claims if we had recent testimony to compare it to, rather than waiting until the end of the trial.
Fifth, I think we-the-jury would have had a much harder time keeping track of a bigger case, although I suppose the lawyers would know this and would walk us through it more carefully.
Last but not least: Folks, if you get pulled over by a cop, try to remember that no matter why you think he did it, it’s only a ticket.
Update: I have posted a followup to this piece.