Sunday, November 18, 2007

Stare Decisis*

Well I dodged the metaphorical bullet. When I called in to find out "whether the court still requires your services as a juror" I was told by a recorded voice that I did not need to appear. I hung up and called back. Same story. And I didn't even have to show up at the courthouse wearing my Birkenstock sandals, "Nuke A Gay Baby Whale For Jesus" Tee-Shirt, and the logo jacket from the wacko-leftwing alternative public radio station at which we volunteer.

This would have been my second time as a member of a jury. The first was an attempted murder case - and it was "attempted" only because the part of the victim's brain into which the bullet was fired was not a death-inducing area.

The crime actually happened in my hometown, less than two miles from my house, on one of our normal work commuting routes. The victim was a local insurance executive and the defendant was an eighteen-year old black man. Apparently it was "in all the papers" or at least in our local town weekly and daily Hartford Courant.

Still, as I sat in the group voir dire listening to the judge explain the crime and asking any of us if we were too familiar with the victim, the defendant, the lawyers or the crime to render a "fair and impartial verdict", I honestly could not recall being aware of any of the details that we were being told. Nor were there any other reasons that I could come up during my individual questioning to make me eligible for disqualification.

There was one other town resident in the pool who claimed he remembered the crime perfectly. In spite of his protestations that he also knew most of the police and EMTs involved he was still picked - so short of being the injured party's wife, such knowledge seemed not to make a difference to the presiding magistrate.

Most of the evidence presented was forensic - the boots and pants of the defendant contained the victim's blood and his gun was shown to have fired the bullets found at the crime scene. There was also the testimony of a pawnbroker who identified the accused as being one of two men who tried to hock the victim's laptop, with his business card still attached.

The victim testified and although he could not definitively identify the face of his assailant he did describe the hooded jacket, pants, and boots that were found with the defendant.

Oh, and the accused confessed that he was present during the crime but contended that he had nothing to do with it.

Our jury deliberation took less than two hours. There were eleven different charges of varying degrees of severity - attempted murder being the most serious. First we voted (secretly) on that and we all said "guilty". Then we went through the remaining charges one-by-one and came to the same decision on each of them. Because it went so quickly we wanted to sleep on our decisions. So we gave ourselves the rest of the afternoon off, took a quick check for any second thoughts the next morning, and then told the bailiff that we were ready.

All of which is to say that it was an easy verdict. Good thing!

For one, going into the trial, I have probably felt convinced "beyond a reasonable doubt" about only one thing in my entire life - and that had more than a slight romantic component to it. I'm not incredibly skeptical, but on the other hand I have a really hard time being a true believer in anything. So I wasn't certain, in the absence of amorous attraction, that my mind could get itself to the level of certainty required to decide a criminal case. And if it did, whether I would recognize that I had achieved that level of certitude.

Secondly, when I watch police dramas on television I'm always hoping that underdog, frequently the poor black kid, didn't do it - you know, bleeding heart liberal and all that. This was never an issue because of...

...three. I've also seen enough trial movies and TV programs to be familiar with the "threatened juror" plot. This accused spent most of his time either gazing down at the floor or looking fixedly and coldly at the jury box, like a boxer staring down his opponent before a fight. I decided early on not to look away whenever I noticed him doing this. After awhile he would go back to checking out his feet.

Finally, again probably due to too many movies, I didn't want to have pull off a Henry Fonda "Twelve Angry Men" performance. I suppose that one of the many points of that fine film was that in certain circumstances even the most ordinary man can rise to extraordinary heights. But still...

After the foreman announced our verdicts the Public Defender asked that the jury be polled. Three of us had individually stood up and said "guilty" when the defendant indicated that he wanted the process to be stopped. Then he went back to looking at the floor.

Later in the Jury Room the judge told us "In case any of you had even the slightest doubt - don't. You did absolutely the right thing." This defendant had already been convicted of a kidnapping; robbery, and murder that took place in a neighboring town four days prior to this crime. For those actions he was sentenced to life imprisonment without possibility of parole. (Now he would get an additional one hundred plus years added on.). We jurors congratulated each other on a good job and went off on our separate ways. Probably because the deliberations were so cut-and-dried we never really reached the farewell hug or even handshake level of groupiness.

For two weeks I had said nothing to Mars about the case. I even altered our work commute so as not to drive by the crime scene. On the first weekend I saw the victim at my health club - he turned out to be a member. I carefully avoided him and told the judge who, with the concurrence of the two attorneys, let me stay on the case.

Now that it was over I could finally talk. I got as far as "It was an attempted murder case and it actually happened in Wethersfield..." She interrupted "oh the one with the insurance agent..." Later her mother also had the same response. I wondered if I had been the only person in the whole statewide jury pool who didn't know anything about it.

All in all that first trial turned out to be a very good experience. The case was important - not "interview the jury on '60 Minutes' important" but “permanently affecting the rest of someone's life” important. The evidence was straightforward, clear, and logically presented. Something that appealed to the Information Technology professional part of my psyche. And my fellow jurors were neither contentious, nor grand-standish, nor half=hearted.

This time I probably would have been selected in spite of the unfit outfit I was wearing. I have a proven track record as a jurist and my preconceived knowledge of local criminal activity is still acceptably abysmal - due in part to the radio source for my news. I'm not disappointed however. I don't mean to say, "been there done that" - but it'd be really hard to live up to that first one. But then again, who am I to judge?

* stare decisis - the legal principle of determining points in litigation according to precedent.

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