Monday, April 18, 2011

We Find the Defendant …

Cricket McRae


In high school I once skipped classes to go to a trial. I didn’t know anyone involved in the case. It wasn’t scandalous or even all that interesting. Fraud, if memory serves.

I went because I found out most trials are open to the public. I loved Perry Mason, thought it would be cool to see a real case being tried, and had a friend who as much of a geek as I was who was also willing to skip school that day.

Since then I’ve gone to three other trials just to observe. All were civil cases, and all did involve someone I knew peripherally at least. I sat in the back and took lots of notes in case I’d ever need them for a story. Twice lawyers approached me and asked why I was there.

Because I could be.

Then a couple months back I got my very first jury summons. I could have postponed, but this was as good a time as any to do it. Plus, they’d never actually select me, right? After all, I make up stories about crime. So I entered the courthouse with mixed feelings last week. I wanted to be selected, and at the same time I didn’t.

Arguments! Objections! Witnesses! Experts! What fun!

An actual crime, perhaps someone hurt or worse, and it’s partially up to me to decide what happens to the accused? Not so much fun.

There were thirty people in the jury room. We watched a film designed to deflect resentment about being there at all. I could tell it didn’t really work for most people. Twelve people were selected from that pool. I was one. Six were eliminated after a ton of questioning from the assistant district attorney and the defense attorney. I was one of the six who remained, mostly because I don’t have children, have never been through a nasty divorce, and was not abused as a child.

See, this was a case of negligent child abuse. It was hard to watch the two young girls who tearfully and unwillingly testified against their mother. Photo exhibits, maps, and reports from the police and social services were all introduced. What had looked like a one-day trial spilled into the next day.

I didn’t sleep very well that night.

After closing statements, we were given our instructions and sent off to deliberate. The six of us began earnestly going through the details of what we had to determine in order to find the defendant guilty. After some general discussion one brilliant soul pointed out we would save some time if we went at it from the other direction: Was there or was there not reasonable doubt?

We voted on slips of paper. Not guilty six times over. And not a single one of us liked it. Something had happened that day a year ago. It didn’t appear that an injury had occurred, but it was a volatile household going through a very ugly divorce, with each of the parents and the children playing off each other. Toxic. Unhealthy.

But details were murky at best and contradictory at worst. Reasonable doubt did exist, and just because we didn’t like it didn’t mean we could ignore that.

Have you ever served on a jury? What was the case about? Do you consider jury duty an honor in a free society, a duty, a pain in the patootie, or none of the above?


Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

I watched that film too! It reminded me of a health class film from elementary school.

I was called for jury duty a couple of years ago and was very interested in what was going on. They had a little questionnaire for us to fill out. I put my occupation as mystery writer. The lawyers never picked me for their juries. Sorry you weren't excused--sounds like they had a very specific need for that jury pool.

Jess Lourey said...

Wow, Cricket! What a story, and what a stressful (but fascinating experience). I'm really stuck on the fact that you skipped school to go to a trial, though. Talk about giving you street cred as a crime writer. The only time I skipped, it was to go to the Dairy Queen.

Beth Groundwater said...

What a tough case, Cricket! I don't think I would have slept well that night either.

G.M. Malliet said...

I've been on the jury list but never called. Not sure how I feel about that. Huge responsibility, and what if I got it wrong.

Keith Raffel said...

Wow, Cricket. Sounds like you were playing the Henry Fonda role in 12 Angry Men. I was empaneled for the voir dire in a case where the ex-husband allegedly beat up his ex-wife's transgender partner. (Got that?) The judge asked if we would follow his instructions. The other 11 in the box said yes. I said if I agreed with them. The prosecution excused me.

Kathleen Ernst said...

I served on a jury once, years ago. I didn't want to only because I didn't want the responsibility--as Gin said, what if I got it wrong? The night before I hardly slept. The case involved drunk driving and a high-speed case, and as it turned out, I was entirely comfortable voting guilty.

Darrell James said...

I actually like jury duty. Served on a whiplash case once. The man sueing for damages and his wife could have settled out of court for $250,000. We, the jury, awarded him $67. We were a tough jury to crack.

Cricket McRae said...

Ha! It was like a health class film, Elizabeth.

Jess, I skipped to go to Dairy Queen, too. ;) And this morning my dad asked who I skipped with. I don't think he ever knew I did that.

Beth, I'm just glad the case wasn't worse. I had a friend serve on the jury for a rape case and it was pretty awful.

Exactly how I felt, Gin. What if I got it wrong?

Wow -- that's quite a case, Keith! I should have thought of saying what you did. The judge did ask whether I'd follow his instruction despite whatever I may have learned about the justice system when researching mysteries.

Good for you, Kathleen. And it sounds like your fellow jurors agreed.

$67? Nice, Darrell!

Alan Orloff said...

That's some story, Cricket! I've lived in the same house for twenty years and I've never been called for jury duty. I feel sort of shunned--I mean, it is my civic duty and I'd like to serve, at least once.

Misha said...

Wow that must be incredibly hard to do. We don't have jury duty in South Africa, but sometimes I wonder if there shouldn't be...

G.M. Malliet said...

I know how Alan feels about feeling shunned. But really, we shouldn't complain. Some cases can go on for ages, and if they're financial/fraud cases, the boredom level is excruciating (so I've been told).

Alice Loweecey said...

Many years ago, I worked for a legal printer. We made multiple copies of appeals for the state courts. I've printed and bound some horrific photos and testimony.

I haven't served on a jury yet.

Cricket McRae said...

Watch what you wish for, Alan!

Misha, I became curious and looked up juries in South Africa -- apparently they were abolished in 1969? I wonder why?

Gin, I'm just glad I didn't land in some horribly long boring case.

Alice, I never realized there are legal printers, but that makes sense. I took a criminal law course from the U. of Washington years ago and had to buy three HUGE volumes of transcripts from a murder case to use as textbooks. I can only imagine some of the things you saw.

Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

As a paralegal, I understand the value of a solid, informed jury that is a cross-section of society. As a citizen, I understand that it's my duty to serve when called and I never make up crap to get out of it. As an individual, I find it a pain in the butt. I've been chosen for 2 juries, only served on 1. The other settled right before the trial started. Often I'm discarded during jury selection because I work in law.