2007-11-07 Jury Duty

This was the first time I actually got all the way through voire dire and got to see a trial through to completion. It was fascinating, I'm glad to have had the experience, and it made me optimistic about my society, culture, and the justice system.

Some of this is copied from my entry over at Flutterby.

Jury Assembly Room

We file in early on, after the nominal delay the lady in charge stands up to give her spiel:

  • In complaining about the inadequacy of the designed in ventilation: "I don't know who designed this building..." ("this building" being, of course, the Frank Lloyd Wright designed Marin Civic Center).
  • In explaining the location of the pay phone, "if you're one of the 12 people in Marin who does not yet have a cell phone..."
    • The speech for getting you to cache your potential weapons goes something like "No Swiss Army knives, nail clippers, and so forth are allowed on the court room floor, so if you have any put them in an envelope, and write your phone number on the envelope so it can be returned to you when you forget it. If you don't pick them up by Christmas, I'm going to donate all of your sharp pointy things to Toys for Tots."

    And then there's a thud. Someone in the back of the room has collapsed, apparently of a heart attack. So while the staff tries to maintain some sense of normalcy, there's the sound of rescue workers trying to revive a guy in the back. Apparently they did, two of my fellow jurors worked as nurses in a local hospital and heard he was in the ICU.

    Finally around eleven we're called to the courtroom.

    The courtroom

    The case revolves around 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." clause.

    Man gets DUI arrest on November 27, 2006. Man has license revoked December 27, 2006. Man goes to court and pleads guilty July 2, 2007, is told that if he signs up for a class and gets insurance, he can drive again. Man signs up for class and gets insurance. July 3, 2007, man goes to class, is driving in Marin, gets pulled over for a busted windshield, hands officer his California ID, not his drivers license, and is cited for driving without a license.

    Man is also legal El Salvador immigrant with minimal English.

    Two witnesses, the officer who pulled over the defendant, completely credible, reports that the defendant told him he didn't have his drivers license because it was revoked, and the defendant, who answers via an interpreter.

    Prosecuting attorney and defense attorney both seem very new at the game, neither is good at setting up a thesis and a set of facts which lead to a conclusion. Defense attorney is visibly surprised by some of the answers the defendant gives her. Clearly neither thought this would actually get to trial, because the prep work both have done is minimal, and it almost seems like the prosecuting attorney is unwilling to risk cross-examining the defendant.


    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.

    Category: Dan Lyke life