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Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Reflections of an alternate juror

Before the moment escapes me, here is the bullet point summary of my two weeks as an alternate juror in a criminal trial.

First, the cast:

- Three defendants accused of conspiracy, aggravated assault, illegal possession of a firearm, and carrying a firearm without a license.
- One complainant with gunshot to foot and head (graze wound). Ex lover of one defendant.
- Three defense attorneys who were way more entertaining than they were effective.
- One organized prosecutor with a stick up her ass.
- One judge who did not control the courtroom well and looks like local news man Terry Ruggles.

The alleged incident:

The victim had a sexual relationship with Defendant 1, a female. He had a history of abuse towards her. She was no longer interested. They had words that day. She left a phone message for him that night. He goes down the block to her house. Her new lover, Defendant 2, shots victim in the foot. Her nephew, Defendant 3, shoots victim in the head. They do these things at her instruction and in her presence.

The evidence:

- Testimony of victim, who at the time of incident was high on crack cocaine and drunk on vodka (twice the legal limit to drive).
- Testimony of victims mother who was awoken by a "pop" and one defendant yelling at her son.
- Testimony of victims sister who was awoken by shouting in the street but who heard no gunshots. Her brother came to the home bloody and she called police.
- Medical records/testimonies that prove victim was indeed shot.
- Gun found in trunk of Defendant 2's car that matches description given by victim.

The verdict:

All three defendants guilty of every charge.

My thoughts:

In a sentence - Probably true that defendants were guilty, but prosecutor did not prove her case.

Jurors forgot that defendants are innocent until proven guilty. As alternate juror I could not participate in deliberations. Just spent the evening going over the case with them at a bar. (Wonderful group of people, by the way.) Much of their reasoning centered around the lack of alibis, poor defense witnesses, and the fact that all they have is the testimonies of the victim and his families.

I sat through the trial waiting for evidence proving the defendants guilty. I set my default position as if these people were my own best friends, thus requiring a lot of evidence to prove their guilt.

The prosecutor proved that Defendant 2 had an unlicensed gun in the trunk of a car he owned making him guilty of illegal possession of a firearm in PA. She also proved that the victim was indeed shot.

The prosecutor did not prove that the defendants were on the block that evening. She did not prove that they fired a weapon at the victim. She did not prove that the gun in Defendant 2's trunk was the gun that injured the victim. She did not prove they conspired to shoot the victim. She painted with broad strokes and made a compelling argument about what probably happened. Good story. Probably true. Not proven.

How I would have voted/argued were I not an alternate:

Defendant 2 guilty of illegal possession of a firearm. All other charges not guilty.

Bigger picture/Takeaways:

If you're on trial, try hard not to look like a criminal. Shave your beard, ditch the scowl, wear nice clothes, don't smirk.

You don't have to be smart to practice law.

There are no bleeding hearts. Not the black mother. Not the educated nonprofit leader. Not the teacher. Not the Haitian immigrant. Not the witch (literally, it's her religion). Not the teacher. Not the electrician. I was shocked to find myself the only one who thought they should all go free. Alas, I had no vote.

Innocent until proven guilty is better in theory than in practice. Several jurors took the opposite approach, putting the burden of proof to the defense.

Jury duty is a good experience. Grasping justice is like holding water in your hands, but I'm glad to live in a country that makes the effort.


Anonymous said...

"... I thought they should all go free" you write, despite noting that you believe the prosecutor--though you didn't personally approve of her behavior and mocked her demeanor/appearance...

Justice is not a game. Thank God you were an alternate, not an actual juror. Pretending they were your best friends makes no sense. If the scenario worked, then go with the prosecutor's deal and get these people off the streets. Jeez.


personal notes:
totally oppose capital punishment, most drug laws, and voted for Obama. OTOH, I've been mugged more times than I would like, and the idea of jurors who view the courtroom as a game or popularity contest worries me no end.

Ryan K. said...

It wasn't a game, but there was no physical evidence that actually ties the defendants to the crime. How does one decide to convict three people solely on the testimony of a crack addict who was high and drunk at the time of the incident?

It is very plausible that the defendants were innocent and that this was all a lover's quarrel.

It does make sense to pretend they are your best friends because you wouldn't put your best friends in jail unless their guilt was proven beyond a reasonable doubt. You have to start with the presumption of innocence and the burden is upon the prosecution to prove the defendants guilty. The burden is not on the defendants to prove themselves innocent. That is the starting point.

Your views on capital punishment, drug laws, and Obama have nothing to do with this. The question on the table is simply did the prosecution prove that these three people shot the victim? The answer is no regardless of your political opinions. It's a question of fact not politics.

Mr. Messano said...

I just found out today I am the alt juror in a case that lasted 4 days.

Treating them like your best friend is a good idea. the judge and defense attorney keep saying that the DA must prove beyond a reasonable doubt the quilt. If you have any doubt in your mind they must be found not guilty. It would take a lot for me to say my best friend is guilty.

Had you been a "real" juror you would have done the right thing.