Saturday, April 05, 2008

The Check Arrived Today

...from the Superior Courts of California, the lofty sum of $23.50, of which a goodly sum was for mileage--and that should tell you something about distances in our great state. However, I didn't announce this so that you could feel cheered for me, having that extra money in my pocket, but because I now feel absolutely free to tell you exactly what I think of jury duty.

Don't, under any circumstances, commit a crime, because the last thing you want is for your fate to be in the hands of a "jury of your peers." I realized this the first time I sat on a jury. It was a relatively simple case: a homeless man was thrown out of McDonald's by Downtown L.A.'s Security Forces, known to all as "The Pink Police," so-named for the color of their uniform shirts. The homeless man, let's call him Mr. X, was an older fellow with an abundance of white hair and a cane. That last is important, because--clue coming--it figures in the case. Mr. X objected to being routed from his warm seat at the back of McDonald's where he was simply resting his eyes, and when the Pink Police suggested he had to leave, with some physical maneuvering on their part, Mr. X may have reached for his cane. To rise...or to strike, that is the question upon which The People vs. Mr. X rested. This case, which required the services of both an Assistant D.A. and a Public Defender (both being paid for by The People), lasted a good two or three days. Mostly it was taken up with the Assistant D.A. being taken to task by the Judge (also an employee of The People) for a multitude of mistakes, all of which were due to the fact that this was the very first case he had ever tried. That this was just a bogus charge, without merit, blah blah blah, was obvious to anyone who had a brain. I knew that and figured, we the People, would take care of the bullshit is short order. I was wrong. My fellow jury members willingly sat for another three days--oh, and did I mention that this took place the week before Christmas?--arguing about when a cane was a weapon or a prop for a handicapped man and who said what when why or not. There certainly was a lot of blah blah blah, as this one and then that one on the jury wanted to be heard, to be agreed with, to be right. As you might imagine, I had little patience with this, and I wasn't the light of the deliberation room. But no matter--eventually, we agreed to disagree (it was December 23rd by now) and the jury was officially hung. Mr. X presumably went free, which maybe wasn't the best thing for him over the Christmas holiday.

I will not go into the same detail about the second case I was on the jury, except to say it was a civil case involving a van carrying about seven people, several of whom were pregnant, none of whom had seatbelts. Said van went over a metal sheet in the road and so jarred the passengers that they suffered all manner of whiplash, not to mention prepartum depression and scabies. Thus, they were suing the large construction company who had placed the metal in the road to cover a trench they were digging, all of which was, as you might imagine, well-marked but missed by the driver of the van. Again, the jury was a mess of warring egos, but this time, I was the Foreperson and I wrestled them to the ground. We found for the construction company, even the most bleeding-heart, anti-Capitalist of us.

And this case, the one for which I was paid that princely sum, this was a real horror involving some Really Bad Stuff. Such that one of their questions during voir dire was to ask of if we knew of this case from Oprah or America's Most Wanted. Of course, none of the fortyeight of us in the panel watched either program. Ever. We were untainted. We were also all perfectly comfortable with talk of vaginas and such. All of us. Including the man who twitched every time the judge said the word. I could see that this case would push the buttons of the good people who were eventually chosen and they would, some of them, turn into seething masses of neurotic needs, which would be unleashed in the jury room. Think Snakepit. I didn't want to be there.

As you know, I was saved by the numbers. One other man and I walked away of the original forty-eight. But if I had been called into the box, I felt sure that my answers to a couple of the voir dire questions would have gotten me thanked and dismissed:

"What's your attitude toward the presumption of innocence?" I think it's great as a concept but it doesn't work so well in real life these days. In fact, it barely works at all. We're so juiced up on who's right and who's not, who's good and who's bad that we make up our minds before the case has even gotten to court.
Do you have any special knowledge of child molestation? Yes, courses on child abuse were a part of the curriculum during my MA degree in psychology. And in my work with children as a marriage and family therapist intern, I was a mandated reporter. I had to know both the law and the implications of evidence.
Can you base your decisions entirely on the evidence and the law? No. To ignore what I know from my experience and my education about child molestation would immoral.
Do you believe a false accusation is possible? Likely? Are you kidding? It happens all the time; just read the newspapers.

I once met a big time defense attorney from New York and he told me I would be the last person he would sit on a jury because I'm smart and I have a strong sense of right and wrong. And that, folks, is our justice system. It stinks.

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So--whaddaya think?