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Preliminary jury experience notes

2007-11-07 04:47:06.769156+00 by Dan Lyke 8 comments

I'm going to write something longer up on my recent experience of jury duty. This was the first time I actually got through voire dire and got seated on the jury, and thence followed the case all the way through to verdict, but the particulars were deciding on a possible violation of California Vehicle Code section 14601.2:

Driving When Privilege Suspended or Revoked for Driving Under the Influence, With Excessive Blood Alcohol, or When Addicted

14601.2. (a) No person shall drive a motor vehicle at any time when that person's driving privilege is suspended or revoked for a conviction of a violation of Section 23152 or 23153 if the person so driving has knowledge of the suspension or revocation.

(b) Except in full compliance with the restriction, no person shall drive a motor vehicle at any time when that person's driving privilege is restricted, if the person so driving has knowledge of the restriction.

Note that "...if the person so driving has knowledge of the restriction." We acquitted the defendant, based on that clause and things that that may or may not have occurred in the Contra Costa court system. I'm not sure how to rewrite that, but I want to ask my state legislator to lessen the mitigating strength of intent in that passage.

[ related topics: Dan's Life Law California Culture ]

comments in ascending chronological order (reverse):

#Comment Re: made: 2007-11-07 15:55:08.98566+00 by: ziffle

You let Paris off Again?

#Comment Re: made: 2007-11-07 16:52:45.286993+00 by: Dan Lyke [edit history]

Giggle. Nope. Willful ignorance doesn't count in my book.

No, it was a guy who didn't speak much English, who'd had his license suspended for the requisite time, had been to court where he'd been told that if he signed up for a rehab class he could drive again, and had gone to the first class and gone through the hoops necessary to get his vehicle insured again.

I'm fairly sure that had she been doing anything other than phoning it in, the prosecutor could have proved her case with a careful cross examination, but she based her entire case on a verb tense issue between the intervening officer and the defendant in a conversation that happened back in July, between an officer who spoke no Spanish and the defendant whose English is shaky at best. All she had to do was ask a few pointed questions of the defendant during cross examination and she could have blown his story apart, but, of course, she also risked reinforcing his story by doing that.

The attorneys on both sides clearly never expected this to go to trial, were doing the "throw it against the wall and see what sticks" approach, and were both apparently fairly new at lawyering because they just didn't put together a coherent argument either way. In the end the defense won because the presumption was innocence, the law said "knowledge of the restriction", and the defense tossed enough out there that indicated that the defendant was just confused between the courts and the DMV (completely credible to us) that the prosecution could have easily tried to poke holes in, but didn't, that we had reasonable doubt.

#Comment Re: made: 2007-11-07 17:21:15.223616+00 by: ziffle

What was the experience in the jury room?

Why can't we get cases like drugs or income tax something that we can slip in under the radar and bring up 'fully informed jury' and cause the deliberations to go on for days while we challenge the law and the facts? And thoroughly anger the judge and prosecution?

They updated the movie its now called "12 angry people: 5 men, two women, 3 gays, four blacks, two hispanics, one disabled and seven liberals" It adds up wrong because we have overlap. :)

#Comment Re: made: 2007-11-07 17:50:31.485514+00 by: spc476

Before you anger the judge, you should be prepared to do the time (and that was just for showing up late!)

#Comment Re: made: 2007-11-07 19:09:17.972853+00 by: Dan Lyke [edit history]

We all walked in, the luck of the "musical chairs" had me sitting at the end. The bailiff gave us each a copy of the judge's instructions and set the verdict forms on the table. One woman reached for the forms, saw what they were, pulled back, I couldn't see 'em from my angle so I reached for them and picked them up, and someone said "you're the jury foreman". So I'm the guy whose signature ended up on all of the stuff.

The conversation was very civil and very reasoned. The prosecutor, defense attorney and judge all broke down the process into two parts:

  1. Did he do it.
  2. Did he intend to do it.

Everyone, including the defense attorney, agreed he did it, so the entire discussion was around his intent. The police officer who testified was a credible witness, but everyone agreed that his testimony didn't really tell anything because the prosecutor was leaning on his testimony to say that the defendant knew that his license was still suspended when he handed his California state ID card to the police officer rather than a license, and we all agreed that even in English the phrase "my license was suspended" was ambiguous as to my impression of its current state.

There had been a Spanish speaking officer called for backup, but we didn't hear from him or any reports of any conversations he may have had with the defendant.

There was a remarkable amount of agreement, and the people I'd picked to be the holdouts based on body language or facial expression during the trial weren't. There was really only one holdout, and although we were still wondering about the details of the case on the way out of the courtroom after delivering the verdict the fairly quick consensus was that the defense had raised legitimate questions about intent, the prosecution had completely failed to answer them, that the excuses weren't much above "my dog ate my homework" (actual words of one juror describing the excuses), but since the prosecutor didn't try to drill down into that excuse during the cross examination, when the defense attorney made an absolute hash of her questions during the examination (uhh... hello, he's your witness, do you think you could have made sure there were no surprises on his answers before-hand?) that we simply couldn't convict.

Basically it was: We know he did it, however the law allows for intent, he's a legal El Salvador immigrant who's just struggling to get by with at best a 6th grade (in El Salvador terms) education (and that was probably during the strife of the Reagan years), driving hours a day to work for people like us. Between the DMV and the judicial system he got confused, but he actually got his insurance set up again. We have no evidence that he wasn't just confused by the court system and, hell, we're having trouble figuring out what all is going on and we're educated, speak English, and are assisting the court, not being judged by it, and the arguments made on both sides were like watching a high school social studies exercise and that left a lot of reasonable doubt.

There was a lot of nuance within that discussion, but in the end the prosecutor hadn't left us more than that to nuance with. We started to call for a transcript of the defendant's (translated) testimony, but by the time the bailiff got there we had all agreed that trying to look for niggling details in the testimony was absurd, given that the defense attorney had dragged the testimony into all sorts of confusing use of pronouns, and the prosecutor had done nothing to try to untangle that mess.

And that insurance thing was a biggie, I'll bet everyone in there was thinking about the moment of "oh, crap, are all my papers in order?" moment we have during a traffic stop when we lean over to the glove box, and he'd taken the time to get that right. I think that combined with the language issue was what clinched it for us. Had he spoken English, we'd have been very skeptical, had he not had insurance, we'd have convicted.

On the "fully informed jury" issue, for me to sit on my hands during voire dire it'd have to be a charge I both really truly believed that the law was absolutely dead wrong on (and as this shows, I don't agree with the law here but I don't know how to rewrite it to minimize the impact of intent in such a way that you couldn't allow for some really nasty abuse by the DMV, so we're talking completely wrong), and that there were no other associated charges. In the one case I've been called to jury duty on where that would have been an issue, there were associated weapons charges along with the marijuana possession (among other issues, like me probably having prior knowledge of the defendant), so I was just as happy to be excused.

In the end of this experience I was really glad that 11 almost random (we had amazingly few people kicked out of the pool) fellow citizens were as thoughtful and as smart as they all were. It's easy to look at a group of people and say "half of those people are below average", in this case I thought all of my fellow jurors were smart, thoughtful, and precise and nuanced when they needed to be.

It gave me a lot of faith in my neighbors, and made me feel that the justice system can quite often err on the side of innocence when it errs. We'll never know if we made the right decision, but we know we didn't make the wrong one.

#Comment Re: made: 2007-11-07 20:54:52.64923+00 by: Dan Lyke

Oh, and the jury deliberations are rightfully secret, but I think that everyone should get a chance to do this at a fairly young age, where the consequences are real and everyone takes it seriously. It'd give a lot of people more sense of civic community and more understanding of why some things happen the way they do.

#Comment Re: made: 2007-11-08 03:10:48.008999+00 by: ziffle

Well done!

#Comment Re: made: 2007-11-08 15:37:34.015727+00 by: markd

I did a four-day trial around here (insurance payment for injury, trucking company did something really dumb, and a guy got pretty wiped out in an accident, but didn't do the physical therapy he should have, and so lost the use of an arm), and our group of jurors was smart and thoughtful too.

I was surprised that the women were the bloodthirsty ones (no money for that lazy bum! burn!) and the males were for a balance between what the prosecution and defense wanted. Both attorneys cringed when we stated our verdict, so I figured we got the right balance at the end.