15 May 2014

Last October I received a jury summons; the only moaning I did about it was the timing, because the report date was for mid-November and that time of year is not a good one when you’re night blind. I could get to the court house in Vallejo—40 miles away—but coming home would be a pain in the asterisk.

The nice thing about CA is that you can pop online and tell them you want to postpone and for how long (up to 6 months) and they allow it, no questions asked. So I did that, postponed until May, and my new summons came a few weeks ago. There was still the chance that I would check in the night before I was supposed to report and be told I was not needed, but there was an equal chance I would be told I was still required to show up.

No big deal; I would have preferred to get the court house closer to home, but the dice rolled for Vallejo again so on Tuesday morning I dragged my sorry self out of bed after little sleep at 6 a.m., was out the door by 7, and there before the report time of 8. Along with a bunch of other people I waited outside the locked jury assembly room, trying not to yawn too much, and engaged in some idle chat with a few.

One woman said she’d "been there done that with this whole thing 6 or 7 times" and served on several juries; she really didn’t want to be tapped for another one. She seemed a little amused when I said I kind of wanted to be picked; this was something new, and as long as it wasn’t gross or months-long, I wanted to be there for the duration.

I’m not one of those people looking to get out of jury service; I wanted to be there, though I would have been happier if things started at noon instead of OhFark O’clock. And it looked like a majority of the 150 or so other people there when the jury assembly room was finally unlocked felt the same thing.

We were all there for a single case; half of us would be the first into the court room, the other half would wait around to see if they were needed. The first 18 names called would line up and be seated in the jury box, and the rest of that half would sit in the audience chairs and listen to all the questions being asked of those in the jury box, because at any point they could find themselves there.

Our seats were a lot more comfy than these, I think...
My name was the 6th called. I wound up in the court room, in the juror box, in the 6th seat.

Juror number six.

Since I wasn’t looking to wiggle out of it, I was pretty sure the only thing that would keep me off the jury was having Diabetes Insipidus. We were asked if there were any hardships, medical issues, etc, that would be relevant, and if any issue was private or embarrassing, we could speak to the judge and attorneys privately…but I’m not shy about it and didn’t care if 80 other people knew I have a condition that frequently causes excessive thirst and urination as often as every 20 minutes.

I refrained from saying I pee like a freaking maniac and opted to use my big-girl words.

The judge was cool with that; I was allowed to bring as much water in with me as needed, and if I had to get up to use the restroom, I only needed to tell the bailiff.

So I was a shoe-in for this jury.

I knew I was. And I was counting on it, because I’d never done this and was curious about the whole thing, and while the case itself didn’t seem all that interesting, the process did.

A few people were dismissed right off the bat: some had childcare issues, some needed deferments because they had work things that couldn’t be missed but they would serve later, and a couple of people were dismissed because they had vacations planned and flights to catch before the predicted end of the trial.

Then the questioning began in earnest.

One of the first, from the judge…do you have any particular bias, either in favor or against, police officers, and how will that affect your perception of their testimony?

I answered it honestly; I do have a bit of a bias. If push comes to shove, I’m going to believe a cop over someone else. There was some back and forth with the judge as he wanted to understand exactly what I meant, and he seemed cool with it, and said what I opined was fair.

There are no right or wrong answers, he reminded everyone.

And the questions kept coming, for everyone. There were some who were either so jaded and hurt by the entire judicial process that simply being there was painful, or they were using anger as a way out. Some didn’t understand the questions asked, but tried to give the right answers anyway, even though they were reminded often that there was no right or wrong.

Then the lawyers began asking questions: from the defense, what did we think about the fact that the defendant was not present? Would we hold it against him for not testifying in his own behalf?

No one seemed to care, but we were asked individually. I mused that everyone has the right to not incriminate themselves, and not everyone has the eloquence to give well-thought-out testimony even with the exactly correct questions being asked of them. We all have the right to face our accuser, but I thought that also meant we are not required to; I would not hold it against the defendant at all, and presumed it was his right to not be there.

Others answered basically the same thing, in varying degrees of confidence; there was quite a bit of Ummm and Uhhh as they searched for words, but everyone made their point. It was fine if the defendant was absent from his own trial.

I thought I was done; what else could they ask me?

But the defense attorney came back to me.

Why did I think a police officer’s testimony should be given more weight than someone else’s? As a jury, we are supposed to follow the rule of equal consideration in testimony. What makes an officer more truthful to me?

*See footnote
We all have varying degrees of perception bias, I said. Right or wrong, we all have an inclination towards one thing or another or to feel more for something than another thing; to my mind, the cop on the stand testifying is just doing his job and has nothing to gain from presenting anything less than truthful. A witness who is friends with the defendant, on the other hand, could be more likely to sway his testimony to benefit his friend, whether he did so intentionally or not. It would come down to conflicting testimony, not general testimony, but if an officer stated one thing categorically and the witness contraindicated that, my gut is to believe the officer.

Does someone being a police officer automatically make them more truthful than someone else?

No. Again, it would be down to conflicting testimony. And I would do my best to give equal weight to all testimony.

It went on for a bit; this was obviously a sticking point. But she moved on to other people…until she came back to me, with a completely different questions.

You are married to someone who works in the medical field. What does he do? Does he ever deal with mental illness? Do you ever discuss cases?

I explained that he’s a registered nurse anesthetist; his job doesn’t deal directly with mental health patients on a daily basis but I assumed he occasionally has a patient with issues. And yes, we frequently talk about some of the things he does. Sometimes he tells me about cases, but he does not give me identifying details about the patients.

Then came the prosecutor…right back to me. Can you be fair?

Yes. I think I’m generally a fair person and will do everything I can to maintain that fairness. I would not intentionally abscond from a position of fairness.

I realized, as he moved on to someone else, I’d been fighting for my position on that jury, and I thought I’d garnered it.

We took a break, the third for the day, and it was only 2:10. I headed for the restroom, and then the assembly room, to wait to be called back in, still unsure what the rest of the day would be.

The woman I’d been talking to earlier sat down near me. You need to dumb it down if you really want to be on this jury. Half of what you’re saying is going over the heads of most of the people in the room. If they think you’re as smart as they are, you’re going home.

Apparently I needed to hem and haw a little more. And I was unsure if there was any truth to what she was telling me, although I’ve heard it before.

Ten minutes later we were back in the juror’s box; before anything else, the judge turned to me and asked point blank: can you set aside your inclination to believe a police officer over another witness?

I would do my best.

Can you say for sure? Yes, no, or not sure. There is no wrong answer.

I honestly do not know.

And I didn’t; I didn’t have any facts other than the charges against the absent defendant, I knew nothing about him, or the people scheduled to testify. I believed I could be as fair as is humanly possible, but I could not state 100% for sure that my personal belief that when there is conflicting testimony, I would give at least a small measure of weight to the cop.

I am dismissing you, Mrs. Thompson. This is not the trial for you.

And that’s all she wrote. By 2:40 I was in my car, texting the Spouse Thingy that I was on my way home.

I had a feeling early on, a small whisper in the back of my brain, that if I wavered and said I could give absolutely equal weight to testimony under the hypotheticals as described, I would have been on that jury. Afterward, I was fairly sure it was the defense that didn't want me. But I also knew I couldn’t be anything but honest about it.

My brother in law is a cop; I don’t believe for one minute he would get on the stand and say anything less than the truth just to convict someone. I don’t think there’s anything much to be gained from any officer under those circumstances.

So I’m done for the year; I won’t be summoned again until this time next year at the earliest. Hopefully next time it will be at the closer court house, and a case where perhaps my issue will not be an issue. And hopefully wherever I am summoned to, the vending machines will be full and fully functional, because when 2 out of 3 won’t take your dollar bills, and the one that does is out of bottled water, it’s a problem.

* Just before things got underway, when all 150+ people were in the assembly room, one of the prospective jurors was busted for having stolen a gavel. Seriously. They had his picture from the close circuit TV...he'd gotten into a court room and shoved it into the pocket of his way too big shorts.


Victoria Henderson said...

Judges get tetchy when you jack their gavel. Don't ask. I only borrowed it to crack some walnuts!

Susan Saavedra said...

I was interested to read about your experience! I was kicked off a jury for saying, when asked, that I would believe a policeman over a non-policeman. The other people in the jury box laughed at what they saw as my naivete. If I had been asked why (and I wasn't) I would have said that I would always believe a TRAINED observer over a UNTRAINED observer. Witness testimony can be very unreliable, in the best of circumstances.

Derby, Ducky said...

Sorry, not dumbing myself down to sit on a jury. Matter of fact, since I moved to a new county 12 years ago, I haven't even been called for jury duty. That is OK by me!