Jury Duty

Inside the San Diego County courthouse

His face was glum and passive throughout the trial. The defendant never testified. He never spoke. And when the clerk read our guilty verdict his face looked like pain itself. It was the face of a convicted child molester but it was a human face. You couldn’t look at it without imagining yourself in that dark pit he had fallen into. He looked like he might as well be dead.  

This was his second conviction. Eighteen years before, he was convicted of sexually abusing his five-year-old stepdaughter by rubbing his penis against her and making her perform oral sex. The charges for this trial sounded Victorian… touching a child with lewd or lascivious intent.

He got an eighteen year sentence for the first one. I don’t know what he’ll get this time. I wonder if he’ll die in prison. I guess he made his choice. So did we.

Jury service in San Diego means sitting in the jury lounge at the courthouse while you hear the names of people in the pool called over the intercom. You half hope your name isn’t called and half hope it will be called to provide some relief from the boredom. The path from the lounge to the courtroom goes up escalators and down a long hall with tile floors and water-stained acousti-tile ceilings. The deputies wear guns and the lawyers wear suits.

The hard wooden benches that line the hallway are filled with people who face turning points in their lives. They look frightened and vulnerable. A lot of them look poor because the poor are usually the victims and the committers of crime. The criminal justice system soaks them up like a sponge.

I served on a jury with a black guy who worked for UPS and a Mexican guy who worked for the post office. There was a white guy who used to live in Philadelphia. He worked for Qualcomm and once met Joe Frazier in a restaurant. Two older gals on the jury talked a lot and chummed around. One of them had been a forewoman on an earlier trial.

The reality of trials is so different from the myth of TV dramas. I’ve never seen a real trial that presents a clear or easy answer. The way to the truth can be found in court but it’s a jagged path that’s riddled with holes which are filled by your instincts, hunches and common sense. Do they have to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt? In fact, they just have to make you believe it’s true.

As I walked past the defendant and the lawyers into the jury box, I didn’t meet their eyes. When you’re a juror you don’t want a relationship with a lawyer. I knew the defense attorney hoped I was on his side. After the trial he told me he knew my name from a radio show I used to host. He thought that because I worked in public radio I would be liberal and, therefore, a friend to the defendant.

He was right, in a sense. Though I reached guilty verdicts I held out on one of the four counts. I demanded we hear to the testimony of the victim read back again. Lawyers pick jurors based on stereotypes because that’s all they’ve got.

A couple of guys on that jury would have reached a guilty verdict no matter what the evidence was. I’m sure of that. Some others in the jury pool were saved the trouble when they said, during voir dire, that they were already convinced the guy did it. Maybe they believed that or they just wanted to get out of jury service.

I give my regards to others who’ve done their patriotic duty. We’ll meet again in the jury lounge someday.

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One Comment on “Jury Duty”

  1. james stouder Says:

    Being a member of a jury makes one realize why we have juries and not judges in most cases. After all, judges are experts. They have listened to dozens of trials, perhaps hundreds, with at least twice that many attorneys and volumes of testimony. If they are unbiased, surely they would be fairer than a group of amateurs with all their prejudices, intellectual failures and lack of legal knowledge.
    But no. The jury also beings in their personal histories, and a real sense of what is true and what is not, based on their understanding of how things really happen in real life and not just in legal texts. A good jury represents a true cross section of the real world and questions each piece of evidence against that common experience. I think experts tend to be a bit too close in their thinking with too many with the same experiences in their middle class lives. While individual jurrors can be stupid, biased and insenstiving to facts, a single juror, paying close attention and comparing testimony to their own life experience, can change the minds of others, sometimes swinging an entire jury from conviction to acquittal. Just see the clasic movie ( first a TV drama) “Twelve Angry Men”. It’s really true. I’ve seen it happen. I’d trust a good jury over a good judge in almost every ordinary criminal trial.
    The Sage of Balboa park


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