Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Only the Good Die Young

I expected the usual freak-show, something akin to the department of motor vehicles when I walked into the shabby lobby of the courthouse building, but the people were strangely personable. The waiting room was filled with my fellow prospective jurors, some sitting around a long meeting table, others on chairs that lined the four walls. Overhead was a drop-ceiling, and the walls were wood paneled. Thankfully I wore a tee under my long-sleeved dress shirt, and more importantly, that I had brought John Irving's Widow for a Year to keep me company. I would turn out to be a long morning.

When we had filled out some basic information and had settled into the routine of being alone in a crowd, a dapper gentleman presented himself as the one of two judges, and thanked us for being there. There were seven cases being considered, and our presence, he told us, was just the threat needed to force settlements out of court. He was probably no older than me, slightly graying hair that seemed to lay just right for him. His manner was gentle, but his station implied a fierceness of character that was at odds with his appearance.

We sat in that room from eight thirty to eleven before we were summoned to the courtroom. Court officers stopped by to give us periodic updates, imparting amusing anecdotes with the casual practiced ease of comedians. They had trapped us in a little white box, but at least we were made to feel appreciated.

I knew that my chances of getting picked were pretty good when the clerk had first handed me a little white card featuring a bold number one on it. I had filled out an information sheet, which I perfunctorily scanned checking no, no and no, until I read the part about swearing that everything I had written was true and nothing was knowingly omitted, punishable by blah-blah in prison and blah-blah Perjury blah-blah. So I fessed-up to my one arrest, how I stuffed a beer glass into the inside pocket of my jean jacket at a college bar, how I tried to run and ended up face-down as the bottom rung of a pyramid of steroid-enhanced bouncers. When I heard that the case involved a drunken driving charge, I was sure I was going home. The defense surely wouldn't have a problem with me, but the Commonwealth certainly should have. No such luck.

From my initial vantage point as I sat at the back of the courtroom, I couldn't help but be a tad envious of the lawyers. This always happens to me when I meet someone who has succeeded in life, whether he or she is a commercial real estate tycoon, a heart surgeon, or a basement tinkerer who stayed true to a childhood dream that lead to the special effects studios at Skywalker ranch. These lawyers were regal in their sharp suits and short tidy hair; they were Chad and Biff, Greeks from rival fraternities, presidents of their respective houses. The defense lawyer—what the hell, we'll call him Biff—had a Colgate smile that projected confidence and not a small bit of that necessary evil that my fellow jurists all recognized.

Not until they opened their mouths was the spell broken. The prosecutor, Chad, laced his fingers together and steepled his thumbs as he paced before the jury box. He explained in excruciating detail how alcohol impairs our judgment like a teacher might address a group of special-needs students. His delivery was stilted and altogether unimpressive. Maybe I've watched too many court dramas, but this was a real let down.

Biff was another story. He had every bit of the confidence he had projected, but as he opened his mouth at such a close distance, I could almost imagine the smell of his breath. My face, quite expressive if I'm not careful to guard it, must have compressed into a protective grimace. Two sentences into Biff's address, and I had him pegged as a scum-ball lawyer, and as much as I hated to admit it, he was already winning.

The first witness was the officer who brought the charges against the defendant. Standing at the raised podium, the officer was still shorter than me, and he had a nervous habit of twitching his head like a bird after every statement. He was obviously nervous. Aside from his shaved head, he hardly resembled any rendition of a prototypical cop. He looked more like the awkward kid at school that even the geeks picked on.

He pulled over the defendant at 1:30 in the morning and asked the accused if he had been drinking. Yes, three or four beers. Do you have any disabilities that would prevent you from passing a road-side sobriety test? Yes, I have bad knees. So the officer proceeded to have him walk a straight line. The defendant walked straight, turned around, walked back and stumbled when nearly complete. Why? Bad knee; it gives sometimes.

A full hour later, the accused is at the police station blowing .03 above the legal limit. Case closed? Not quite. The defense offered that studies have shown that alcohol is absorbed into the bloodstream at different rates depending on the person. At 1:30 AM, who can say what the defendant's blood-alcohol-content was? The prosecution didn't even address this point. The jury concluded that the dexterity test was inconclusive, and that since it was on the Commonwealth to prove the defendant guilty, and since the Commonwealth did nothing to address the defense's assertion concerning BAC, we found for the defendant. To the last person, we all agreed that the defendant was lying about everything. Of course he stumbled because he was drunk, and of course his BAC was the same or worse at 1:30 than it was at 2:30. But we all agreed that reasonable doubt was presented and not refuted by the prosecution.

The judge took us into chambers afterwards to thank us, and we told him what happened. It turns out that the BAC reading is considered by law to be the same within three hours from the time of consumption of alcohol, and that the only question to the jury is whether or not the breath-test is admissible. Why didn't the prosecution tell us that? "He would have been stepping on my toes," the judge said. He looked thoughtful for a moment. "I suppose he could have asked the officer 'Are you aware of the law that states…', and of course the defense would have objected, but I would have allowed it." The judge had been impressed with the defense lawyer. This was the first time in the courts history that a lawyer had used that defense. "I'm going to tell the defendant that he should kiss his lawyers feet."

But he also told us that we brought up some real concerns that he will address with his superiors. His hands were tied too. There is a script that he reads from such that it prohibited him from telling us those aspects of law that would certainly have convicted the defendant. It would have saved us the better part of day in useless deliberation.

There was one woman on the jury who stood against all of us, saying that she had no doubt about the defendant's guilt. We countered that we didn't have any either. The issue was about reasonable doubt, and whether or not the prosecution had proven the defendant's guilt. She held us up for a morning and half an afternoon, and nobody blamed her. What we were doing was taking the system literally, using the facts presented and not inferring from personal opinion, which she clearly was. In the end, she signed her name to the verdict, but she was not happy.

As we were preparing to deliver the verdict, she called us all a bunch of liberals.

"Excuse me? Did you just call me a liberal?" I said.

"Yes I did."

"I'm not a liberal."

"Yes you are."

"I'm a liberal because I can make an objective decision setting aside the bias of my personal opinion?"

Her lips tightened. She wasn't convinced.

"I voted for George Bush," I continued. "What kind of self-respecting liberal would do that?"

That did the trick.


Kathleen said...

You mentioned one of the biggest problems in this country today - that the word "liberal" is considered to be an insult. And you're right, no self-respecting Liberal would ever admit to voting for George W. Bush. ;-)

Kathleen said...

Okay, I meant "biggest problem" in that it's dividing this country so completely down party lines. It's so "liberal vs. conservative" that there is no meaningful dialogue anymore. It's all insults.

magnetbabe said...

I was thinking the same thing as Kathleen- I've never considered "liberal" to be an insult, though unfortunately it has evolved as such.

ANYWAY, you did the only thing you could do. Personal opinion doesn't matter, you protected our Constitution and the sanctity of reasonable doubt.

Bernita said...

Very interesting.
What I do find odd is the assertion that the judge may not inform the jury about the law the defendant is tried under.

Scott said...

Kat - I think conservative has come to mean religious-right-nutcase. That pendulum swings both ways. I find it interesting that people I should connect with idealogically are so close-minded.

Natalie - Liberal and conservative are both used perjoratively anymore.

Bernita - I found that interesting too. Isn't he supposed to instruct on all areas of the law that pertain to the case? That's our whacked-out legal system.

Beth said...

I'm with Bernita. That's quite frightening, actually.

The Zombieslayer said...

So I fessed-up to my one arrest, how I stuffed a beer glass into the inside pocket of my jean jacket at a college bar, how I tried to run and ended up face-down as the bottom rung of a pyramid of steroid-enhanced bouncers.

You got arrested for this? I thought this was a right of passage for college students. Whoops.

By the way, wonderful close. I got a chuckle out of that.

Ultra Toast Mosha God said...


Yeah, I bet that shut her up.

This was a good story Scott. A firend of mine is doing Jury duty over here at the moment and the system seems to be not too dissimilar.

Kathleen said...

Personally I'm damn proud to be a Liberal. I just smile when people call me a damn commie pinko.

mr. schprock said...

Nice description of your day in court, although I think you should be spanked liberally for voting for George Bush.

I think the police officer framed him. It was a bag job pure and simple.

onipar said...

Good story. It was interesting. I have to admit, it bothered me a little, how the system works, but it was a great story.

Tee said...

LOL - The liberal conversation was very entertaining.

Your description of the judge - I loved it.

I also feel the same envy when I meet someone who has "succeeded" in life.

Great post.

kathie said...

Hey Scott, terrific post. I'm with the zombieslayer--since when is taking glassware from bars in college stealing? Or at least the kind that can bite you in the butt years later. I live with (am married to) a "republican" who is as liberal as me--a registered independent who is very close to re-registering democrat. The labels are tired and useless. Unfortunately, they still work to lull the public into doing things without actually thinking them through. But, great post.

Jada's Gigi said...

Great story! Unfortunately it sounds typical of our weird screwed up justice system..I think we've hamstrung ourselves with some of our laws...ahhh well..at least you've got your politics right...lol
I often feel the same as you with "people who have succeeded in life"...until I get a closer look.

Toni Anderson said...

I've never done jury duty. probably never in one place long enough.

An interesting time, even if not too inspiring. The law is a strange creature.

Ben O. said...

It usually does.

Ben O.

briliantdonkey said...

Exceptionally well written account of you day. I think we all have that 'envy' at times. Just remember, there is someone out there probably looking at you the same way. I am not sure WHY they would be looking at me in my job that way, but there must be at least one.