Two days of jury duty inspired me to publish my exploits in the following piece:
Growing up we’re told that serving on a jury is our civic duty. It’s explained to us that our ability to be heard by a jury of our peers when charged with a criminal offense is foundational to our freedom. Though a weighty responsibility we’re told that answering our call to the bench is noble, necessary, and just downright American. Now, all of that may be true, but the older and more involved your life becomes, the more jury duty begins to mean different things.
As an adult jury duty means:
- A wrench in your schedule: Being selected means being pulled away from your work and family obligations. Need to pick your kids up by six? Make other plans. Have an important meeting at the office? Reschedule.
- Minimal pay: If you’re a salary employee who can get paid regardless of whether or not you’re present for a few days jury duty isn’t so bad. In my county the court pays $15 plus gas mileage for selection, and $40 plus mileage, per day if selected. However, if you work for commission or get paid by the hour you’re likely to lose money while you’re away from work.
- An indefinite end: If selected the judicial process can take time. The longest criminal trial in American history took 3 years to complete. And, while that’s the exception and not the rule, it’s not unheard of for jury duty to take anywhere from one to two weeks.
- No cell phones: If you’re dependent on technology like so many people in the modern day the courthouse’s ‘No phones in the building’ policy can be painful. It doesn’t take long before you go from feeling completely connected to everyone around you, to feeling lost, uninformed, and unglued.
When I was summoned to court this week I reported to the designated jurors’ section of my local courthouse. After signing in I noticed that there were 16 chairs in the hallway and several more in the juror’s room. Those 16 in the hallway were the executioner’s block (figuratively speaking). If you were assigned to one of those seats it meant that you would be first in the juror’s box, which increased the likelihood that you would be chosen to stay for the trial.
Fortunately the number next to my name was 23. I thought that meant that I was in the clear. I sat down in the juror’s room, made myself a Styrofoam cup of government coffee (instant coffee), and awaited further instruction.
When the bailiff entered the juror’s section she realized that several of the people assigned to seats 1-16 had not shown up. As such she began to randomly call on numbers from my section. With the sound of each number someone stood quietly with their head down as though they were being sentenced. I couldn’t help but feel like tributes in the Hunger Games. Suddenly my number was called.
It’s amazing how such a rag tag group of individuals can be roped together in a setting like jury selection. Aside from me, a libertarian/anarchist radio employee and former US Congressional candidate turned podcaster (all of which were things I thought I would be disqualified for), the following cast of characters would also appear:
- Indiana Stalin: A retired professor of archaeology who now lives in Mexico where he is helping the government to excavate artifacts from beneath their highways. Thus far in his effort he has unearthed items ranging from 500 B.C. to 1500 A.D. I call him Indiana Stalin because:
- When I met him he was seated quietly reading a book that I thought was in Russian. It was actually in German. I asked if he was fluent and he explained that his archeological profession has required him to be fluent in German, French, and Spanish.
- When one of the attorneys asked him, “Sir, do you think you will be able to collaborate with your peers and work together to come to a unanimous decision?” He volunteered his political beliefs stating, “As a socialist, I look forward to it.” I sat in the corner at this time thinking, “Socialist? Nobody asked you.”
- Grey’s Anatomy 2.0: A 23 year old ER worker and former equestrian who was finishing up her final year of studies. She lived only with her dog and a somewhat disgruntled disposition. She mumbled judgmental comments about our peers under her breath several times, always finishing her sentences with “I guess I just hold people to a higher standard.” “Ironic,” I thought.
- Cop Killa’ Construction Worker: This guy had NO interest in participating from the get go. Not only did he show up for selection in the kind of tight, grease-stained, denim pants meant to exaggerate the outline of his penis while simultaneously making the statement that he was a hard worker (no pun intended), but he then went out of his way during questioning to paint his self as a liability to the process. At one point he told the attorneys, “I’ve had a few run-ins with local police and I think they’re full of shit. I mean, I’m not saying that I wouldn’t be fair during the trial but if it involves a cop I’m likely going to put my vote on the opposite side. I pretty much just think cops should die.” Note: This is not an exaggeration.
- PTSD Mom: From the moment she entered the courtroom she began to cry. This woman, a very large woman, fully equipped with enlarged bi-focal lenses, a time traveling perm from the 1980’s and an oversized North Carolina Tar Heels t-shirt, shook nervously in the juror’s box. When confronted by one of the attorneys her words could barely break through her sobs. She then went on to explain how a relative of hers had been on trial and sentenced to prison in that very room. Being there again she was overwhelmed with all of the emotions of that trial. The attorneys questioned her objectivity immediately.
- Forearm Belly Dancer: He was a young auto mechanic from Elkhart County and the only smoker in the group. This gruff red head had a unique tattoo of a Japanese belly dancer positioned across his right forearm. It must have served him as a coping skill because at several points when the questioning had gone on too long I could see him staring at it, flexing his forearm muscle, and watching her hips sway.
- Truck Driver: Every group has a comedian and the kind of person who people seem to gravitate towards. That was this guy. As a semi driver he was supposed to be on his way down to Tennessee to deliver a shipment for his company, but jury selection had held him back in the Hoosier State. He hoped to be dismissed before the trial so he could make his next run to South Carolina. I suspect that, like many of us, he just wanted to get away from the cold. While we were waiting to be let into the courtroom he told us that he hated making runs to New Jersey and New York because one time, as he was turning a corner to drop off a shipment in New Jersey, a small Fiat was illegally parked and was blocking his progression. A nearby police officer saw what was happening and stopped by to give him further instruction. “Well, you can either back up and miss your drop off, or you can push through him. It’d be his fault for parking like an idiot.” The cop said. Unwilling to miss his drop off he kept driving. As his trailer turned the corner he could hear it shredding the side of the car, and in his mirrors he could see a frantic man screaming at him as he ran out to his car. “Having to damage a nice little car like that made me hate working in that area.” The truck driver said.
- Ethan Hawke Doppelganger: If you were take Ethan Hawke in Boyhood and refuse to give him any lines you’d have juror number seven. He was almost identical to the actor in his physical appearance, but was almost completely silent up until deliberation.
- Real Housewife of South Bend: You’ve heard the term trophy wife. Well, she wasn’t one. But she tried. This blond, 40 year old Mrs. Robinson entered the juror’s room dressed in all Coach everything. Her apricot cardigan just subtly off set the tone of her fake spray tan. 20 minutes after she’d described her husband in great detail we were let into the courtroom where we discovered that the case included a local police officer. She was quick to point out her bias as several of the men in her family had been uniformed officers. After verbally sparring with Cop Killa’ Construction Worker over his comments for several minutes the judge and both attorneys exchanged whispers and decided to dismiss them both.
- Sleepless in St. Joseph: Every dwarf tribe has its Sleepy. This woman definitely fit the bill. When I met her she was swigging coffee, complaining after each sip that she hadn’t added enough creamer. But the caffeine wasn’t enough. Throughout the selection process she warmed herself with her arms tucked inside of her hoodie and dozed off as though she hadn’t slept in days.
- Maintenance Emergency Man: Irritated and not excited about his required court appearance this gentleman explained to the court that he was the maintenance director at a senior living facility. The state was expected in the next couple of days for an audit and he was in the process of making sure everything was ship shape for inspection. Being on a jury would prevent him from doing his job and he wasn’t happy about it. After airing his grievances to the attorneys he was promptly dismissed.
- Disabled Veteran Guy: He rode into the juror’s room on an electric wheelchair. He sat in it a majority of the time but used a cane when needed to get around otherwise. Originally from Minnesota, this once military police officer was barely mobile and extremely overweight. He was friendly though. He claimed to be a Democrat but rattled on and on about jury nullification in the event that the law was deemed unfair by the jury. I was familiar with the concept and was happy that I didn’t have to be the one to bring it up.
- Conspiracy Theory Grandma: Imagine an elderly lady wearing a now vintage pair of JNCO jeans and rambling on about conspiracy theories. If you were the defendant in a criminal court case would you want her determining your fate? Me neither. Yet, she was one of the chosen. Before selection I heard her discuss everything from crop circles near Stonehenge to a real life Stargate portal (yes, like the film franchise). It apparently exists in or near Iran. According to Conspiracy Theory Grandma, this is why the U.S. has so many conflicts in that region. We all want control of the portal and access to the other dimensions that it allows us to teleport to. For a time she ranted about stockpiled jet fuel beneath the Denver International Airport and also told us a story about how she spent the night in Roswell, New Mexico when she was 19. Use your imagination. And then she saw my Freemason ring. To clarify she asked me, “Is that a Mason ring?” “Yes it is.” I replied. After that she became very quiet. For a majority of the hearing thereafter she stayed tightlipped, rocking back and forth in her chair during deliberation, and rubbing a blue handkerchief across her forehead whenever someone addressed her as though being vocal was suddenly hard work. I felt bad for her. Apparently the Freemason conspiracies had gone to her head and I don’t like to perpetuate those kinds of things. But I don’t think anything I could have said would have changed her mind since she seemed so invested in those kinds of things.
- Indifferent Annie: I call her this because it’s fitting. Her name was Annie, but that’s all we learned about her. She didn’t speak. She didn’t care. She didn’t have an opinion. She was absolutely indifferent to everything.
Juror’s 14 through 16 were fairly normal and there isn’t much to note about them. So naturally they were dismissed and didn’t have to serve. The final jurors selected for the trial were myself, Grey’s Anatomy 2.0, Forearm Belly Dancer, the Ethan Hawke Doppelganger, Disabled Veteran Guy, Conspiracy Theory Grandma, and Indifferent Annie.
When the case finally opened we learned that the defendant was being charged with intimidation on two counts as she had allegedly threatened a police officer both while being escorted to his police vehicle, and also once inside the vehicle while being transported to the station.
The judge made it clear on multiple occasions that those of us serving were to maintain a presumption of innocence on the defendant’s behalf, and that only if the State proved certain essential elements beyond a reasonable doubt were we to make the decision, during deliberation, to convict the defendant, after all evidence had been examined. I was glad he made such a point to repeat this over and over. If I were being charged with any sort of criminal accusation I would want the same courtesy extended my way.
The Prosecuting Attorney (The State)
The attorney who represented the state was a 46 year old man-boy draped in an oversized Brooks Brothers suit with thick, long hair, better suited for a Pantene commercial than the courtroom. I say man-boy because he looked a trial lawyer who was fresh out of his bar exams but claimed to have been born in 1969. Nevertheless, it was easy to see why he had the job. He was a silver-tongued craftsman of words who made even the weakest of arguments seem plausible. His spin was second to none and his vigor was unquestionable.
His responsibility throughout the case was to prove:
- The defendant (who I won’t name)
- Did communicate a threat to the officer (who I also won’t name)
- The threat was communicated to the officer because of an act taken by him within the scope of his profession.
- The officer was a law enforcement officer.
To prove #1 all he had to do was show that the defendant was present and establish that she was the person in question. To prove #4 all he had to do was ask the law enforcement officer his rank, employer, and establish that he was the arresting officer on the night of the incident. Those were easy enough, so the focus of the prosecution was really to prove numbers 2 and 3.
According to our instructions, “If the State failed to prove any one of these elements beyond a reasonable doubt, you must find the defendant not guilty of Intimidation, a Level 6 Felony.”
The Public Defender
Let’s be honest. It’s common knowledge that if you’re going to be an attorney, the money is not in public defense. Public defenders are the guys (and gals) that represent those who can’t afford representation. And this guy looked the part.
Actually, the best description I could give is that he looked like Harold Ramis (RIP). That crossed my mind several times throughout the trial. He looked AND sounded like him, which at times made it feel like I was watching a movie.
The defendant was an older, African-American woman who was probably in her early 50s. At 6”4 inches tall it was easy to speculate how she could physically be perceived as intimidating. However, she had a very kind demeanor about her which helped to offset any pre-conceived notions that our natural instincts may have wanted to lend.
The Crime Scene
The prosecutor opened evidence with pictures of the crime scene on the night in question. The incident happened on Christmas Eve around 10pm. He showed the front door of an apartment building with droplets of what appeared to be blood covering the porch. He then showed a picture of the entry way to the defendant’s apartment inside where droplets of blood also covered the floor. More of the apartment saw blood on the walls, as well as her bedroom window. Her home lacked had in the way of decorating, with items thrown all over the floor in a very disheveled manner, and one poster on the wall which maintained a scripture from the Holy Bible.
“For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” – Mark, 8:36
There was also a picture of the woman’s hand and a half inch cut across her pinky finger, which seemed to be the source of the bleeding.
Besides the photographs, the State opened evidence with a witness. He was the arresting officer and the defendant’s accuser, a Caucasian, male in his early 30s. After swearing in he began to describe the events of that night. But he was somewhat vague. All he (and the prosecutor) would say is that he approached the woman’s apartment, saw blood leading in from the doorstep to the entry way, and went in to check the scene.
Afterwards he placed her in handcuffs and began to walk her out to his car. In a drunken stupor, he alleged that she spun around; hands cuffed behind her back and shouted, “I will fuck you up.” She also allegedly stated, “I know people you don’t know.” At that point the officer informed her that he would be filing a charge of Intimidation for her threat. He then stated that, while they were driving to the police station she made another threat while seated in the back of his patrol car.
We were then shown a tape from the dashboard camera in the officer’s vehicle to support his claim of a second threat. This was a mess. White noise like the purr of his engine seemed to be prevalent over anything else that we could hear. Each time he turned the sound faded in and out. Also, when an announcement would come over the police radio everything else seemed to fade. The defendant’s voice could be heard mumbling something about missing Christmas and wanting to open presents with her family. The threat that was alleged was almost entirely inaudible. Each of us on the jury seemed to hear different things leaving the tape almost inadmissible as helpful evidence. If anything it proved to me that the dash cams in police cruisers suck, and whether they’re a tool used to protect the officer, or the civilian, or both, they did not help any party in this case.
After the tape the prosecution rested their case and the defense introduced the defendant to the stand. This was an interesting move because the burden of proof rested entirely on the State. By that I mean, because the defendant had the presumption of innocence they weren’t responsible for presenting any evidence or witnesses. They could have just sat back and told the prosecution, “If we’re guilty, then prove it.”
The defendant had already plead “not guilty,” after all.
But I’m happy they chose to let her speak because she painted a more full picture of what had happened during the course of her day. According to her testimony, the events unfolded as such:
- Her boyfriend showed up with a carton of cigarettes and a bottle of vodka presenting it as an early Christmas gift. The two spent the next few hours drinking and smoking.
- Her ex-boyfriend from an on again, off again relationship with a history of abuse showed up and saw that she had another man in the apartment. He began to bang on the windows and walls outside, and attempted to break down the door.
- The new boyfriend called the cops while he held the door closed. The police showed up and the ex-boyfriend left before they could question him.
- Later she left to get more cigarettes and her new boyfriend remained in her apartment. The ex-boyfriend came back and called 911 citing an emergency at her apartment (trolling). Her new boyfriend, ignorant to the 2nd police call decided to leave. She returned from the store to find an ambulance, firemen, and police cars. She assumed it was for her upstairs neighbor who was a cancer patient who often had an ambulance show up to her apartment. When she discovered that the police were there for her she dismissed them claiming that she did not know why they were called.
- She left again only to return to find her apartment had been torn apart. Her window had been pushed out. Her TV was shattered. Items had been thrown all over her apartment (as shown in the pictures). She assumed her ex-boyfriend had come back while she was away, pulled out her window, climbed in, trashed her apartment, and left.
- When she attempted to put her window back in she cut her pinky and began to bleed all over the apartment. Still drunk she was having a hard time getting around the house. She used the walls to guide herself to the kitchen where she called the cops to file a police report.
- When she saw the police arrive she walked out of the apartment, still dripping blood all over, and let the officers in.
- At that time the officer (and her accuser) walked in asking, “Where’s the knife?” When she asked him what he was talking about he allegedly shouted at her, “If you don’t tell me where the knife is at I’m taking you in for intimidation.”
- She asked to get toilet paper for her finger from the bathroom and he would not allow her. He made her grab a rag that was seated on the table in front of her (which seemed fair). He then walked back to her bedroom with another officer and talked on the phone to his superior.
- According to the defendant, it was after the call that he walked back into the living room and informed her that she was under arrest. He handcuffed her, read her Miranda rights, and escorted her out to the police car.
- She stated that at no point did she threaten the officer, but said she was frustrated that she had called him for help and that he was suddenly arresting her on Christmas Eve.
Apparently her ex-boyfriend was at the hospital with the accusing officer’s superior claiming that he had been in fight with the defendant and that she cut him with a knife. That’s why the superior officer supposedly asked him to make the arrest. However, because no evidence suggested that the altercation actually took place they could only charge her with intimidation.
She suspected that the cut was actually from ripping up her apartment and breaking her TV.
So what did we have for evidence? We had the officer’s testimony saying, “she threatened me.” We had the defendant’s testimony stating, “At no point did I threaten him.” We had photographs of a crime scene which couldn’t prove the threat that was allegedly communicated, and we had a tape from the officer’s dash cam which indecipherable.
The prosecutor then stated in confidence that he had proven the threat and asked us to make the conviction. He said, “You earlier swore in stating that if I could prove these essential elements you would make the conviction. I’m now asking you to do just that.”
The defense said a few words and thanked us for our time.
It was easy to come up with a unanimous decision. The only way that the prosecution could have proven beyond a reasonable doubt that she had indeed made the threat would have been:
- She pleaded guilty.
- There were other witnesses to the threat.
- They actually got the threat on tape.
She may have made the threat, and in all actuality she probably did. But without any of those things to prove it all we had were two testimonies, both under oath, both giving different accounts of the incident. And so we declared, “Not guilty.”
Personal Speculation in the Aftermath
Was she the most clean cut, wholesome, seemingly trustworthy person we’d ever encountered? Absolutely not. However, I speculate that the cops probably got tired of being called out to her house on Christmas Eve, and since the ex-boyfriend was making a claim of assault, even though it lacked proof, they used it as an excuse to bring her in. At the very least it meant they wouldn’t spend the rest of their holiday going back and forth. And they could justify the arrest on paper citing probable cause.
And when I say she probably made the threat, what I’m saying is this:
If you called the cops for help (on Christmas Eve of all days), when you had been drinking in your own home (which isn’t against the law), and they proceeded to arrest you (compromising your family plans the next morning), wouldn’t you say something?
I’m not saying a threat is ever justifiable, but under those circumstances I think any typical drunk, wrongfully accused, and angry person would probably do something similar.
Not only that, but the officer admittedly had two firearms, a Taser, and pocket knife, and other officers within shouting distance. Meanwhile, she had her hands cuffed behind her back and was so drunk that she could barely walk. How intimidated could he have really been?