Beyond a Reasonable Doubt

On August 24th, 2007, I wrote a post that ended with: “and I’m free from jury duty for three years.”

How little did I know.

I reported for jury duty at Superior Court in DC on Tuesday, September 7th at 10:30am. I had spoken to one of the regulars at the Bookstore the previous week, and she’d been called for jury duty every two years on the dot. “The later you’re told to report, the less chance you have of being picked for a jury,” she said.

Yeah, well, hello summer over and a holiday weekend: judges are back from vacation and there are lots of trials needing juries. Long story short, by 2pm, I was one of fourteen jurors picked for a trial that was expected to last three days (including deliberations). The defendant was charged with possession of an unregistered, non permitted handgun by a convicted felon. The trial began immediately, and we sat through opening statements, and the testimony of the first witness, one of the two arresting officers. This was the thrust of the prosecution’s case:

The trial continued on Wednesday, a day which was a treat — due to hearings the judge had to listen to, we didn’t report until 11. And then we all waited for an extra twenty minutes because one of the fourteen jurors was late arriving. But the trial continued with two further prosecution witnesses, the first a fingerprint expert, and the second a member of MPD’s firearm registration unit. The defense rested, and the prosecution put on two witnesses — the first was the second of the two police officers who’d made the stop, the second was a woman who was in the apartment.

More on the apartment in a moment.

The defense rested after their second witness, and we the members of the jury had to sit through what seemed to be hours and hours of instructions from the judge. When that was over, the two alternates were excused (two seats had been designated as alternates prior to the jury being selected), and the rest of us went into the jury room (directly behind the courtroom) to begin deliberations. Sadly, due to budget constraints, all businesses has to be concluded by 4:45, so we only had about half an hour before breaking for the day. It gave us roughly enough time to pick a foreman (a brain surgeon, if you’re curious) and to begin discussing the case.

Here are the elements of the case: two police officers were southbound in a police cruiser in Northeast when they observed a group of men. One of them, in a black hat with a white knit cap, was holding what appeared to be a bottle of alcohol. The police officers stopped the car, and the man with the bottle ran. Officer #1, in the passenger seat, exited the vehicle and gave chase. The men had been standing in front of one apartment building, fronted by a brick wall, and the suspect ran from that building to the adjoining one. As the running man entered the second building, Officer #1 observed him throw something which he identified as a semi-automatic handgun into a grassy area to the right of the door. The runner fled up a flight of stairs, and entered an apartment to the right of the stairs. The door was locked by the time Officer #1 reached it, so he kicked it in, encountered three individuals: the suspect was in the foyer area, there was a woman in the kitchen, and another in one of the bedrooms. Officer #2, who had been driving the police car, had not observed where the suspect or Officer #1 had run. He ran around the building before going into the apartment. Leaving the apartment, having seen that the suspect was in custody and Officer #2 was safe, Officer #1 exited the building, where he saw the weapon and safeguarded it until the arrival of crime scene officers.

When we came back Thursday morning, I honestly thought I’d be back to my office job Friday morning. Hahahahaha. Yeah, so that didn’t happen. It didn’t help that deliberations were kind of contentious: half of the jury didn’t believe the suspect arrested was the same one who’d run. The other half thought it probably was, but of those, some of us weren’t sure the gun was his.

There were some discrepancies involving the color of the suspect’s clothes, his height and weight, and the distances involved. Much of this didn’t sway me much: Officer #2, when he called in the “lookout”, described the subject as wearing black pants and a gray hat. The suspect they arrested was actually wearing blue jeans and a white hat. However, given the fact that it was night out, I was willing to overlook some of the discrepancies given that street lighting, in my own humble opinion, doesn’t adequately reveal color. Given the speed of what occurred, I also didn’t put as much weight in the differences between the police officers’ calls on height and weight and the defendant’s actual height and weight as some people did — again, given the lighting, and the fact that Officer #1 only lost visual contact with the defendant for a few seconds at the outset (as he exited the vehicle), I was certain he’d arrested the guy who’d run.

And then there was the gun. Officer #1 testified that he saw the suspect clutch his waistband, which is, for police, an indicator that a person is carrying a weapon. However, no one was able to account for where the actual bottle was located. Now, admitted into evidence, were several photos of the scene where the gun was found. Many of the photos showed a black plastic bag near the gun, and one of the photos showed the bag opened, with a bottle of Svedka. One of the jurors, who’d brought lunch in a bag, retrieved it from the trash, wrapped it around a bottle, and said, “If I’m holding a bottle, and I grab it by the neck, while it’s in a bag, wouldn’t it look like a gun?”

Written out, you’re probably wondering why we couldn’t come to a unanimous judgement on Thursday. As I said, things got kind of contentious on Thursday. This stemmed from a comment the foreman made early that morning, where he said he didn’t believe some people were coming onto the jury with an open mind. He directed this at Juror #7 (more on him in a moment), but another juror, an older woman, took offense and reamed him out. Apologies made, we continued.

Juror #7, on Wednesday, when we began deliberations, had said: “I want to make these two points, and then I’ll be quiet for probably the rest of it.” This is what the foreman had referenced, but halfway through Thursday, #7, possibly trying to get us to come to a verdict, said, “I don’t know if this would make anyone’s decision easier, but I had an encounter with Officer #2 several months ago and I thought he was a real arrogant bastard.”

At this point, all of us were staring at him with expressions ranging from “Are you fucking kidding me?” to “I wanna rip your heart out and throw it off the building.” At this point, the foreman wrote a note for the judge explaining that one juror had stated he’d had an unrevealed encounter with one of the witnesses that was coloring his judgement. You wouldn’t think this would be a big deal — but the court was busy, the judge was picking another jury.

Picking a jury is not quick. It takes two to two and a half hours. And they’d just started. So we wound up waiting until nearly 3:30 before we were able to go back in the courtroom. Once we did, Juror #7 was dismissed (“With thanks of the court”, SERIOUSLY?), and we were all called to the bench one by one to answer if we thought we could remain impartial. We all said yes. One of the alternates was called, but by the time he arrived, it was about quitting time.

So much for Bagel Friday at work. Delicious bagel.

As much as we were all angry with Juror #7, when we reconvened Friday, things seemed a lot nicer. We went through the points one by one, and by 11 we’d reached a verdict: we informed the court, were called in, and the foreman answered “Not Guilty” to four charges pertaining to carrying an illegal handgun. The members of the jury were polled individually, and we were dismissed.

The prosecutor wanted to meet with us, as a group, and we answered some questions about our decision making process. Following that, we went upstairs to turn in our juror badges. We bumped into the defense attorney on our way out of the building: he told us this was the third trial for these charges, the previous two ending in mistrials.

We joked among ourselves that we’d all find ourselves reunited in two years on a jury, then half of us went over to a nearby sports bar for beers. Do juries usually go out for beers afterward? It was nice. And while I thought I knew what to expect from jury duty, I was surprised by how stressed out the whole thing made me. Hooray, stress eating. (No, not hooray).

And there’s still a nagging doubt in my mind: what if we made the wrong decision? And how will I feel if I see the defendant’s name in the news and he’s hurt someone?

On the bright side: at least this wasn’t a murder trial. I hope I never have to sit on the jury for one of those.

11 thoughts on “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt

  1. Is it three years now? I thought it was two. It seemed like I was called every two years.

    The first time was grand jury duty — five weeks straight; work was none too happy. And it was striking how many people on the grand jury were federal workers, retired or in between jobs. I began to suspect that I was stupid for responding to the summons. There were other summons for petit jury, every two years in my 13 years in DC.

    But last time I was called for petit jury, about two years ago, it was hitting me at a very, very bad time personal and work-wise.

    When I was being interviewed by the judge about my ability to serve on this case I told him I had done enough for now and couldn’t serve. It just came out. He wasn’t happy and the prosecutor or defense lawyers gave me a dirty look, but I held my ground. But what ended it for me was an inadvertent answer to a judge’s question, something to the effect, “can you be unbias in this case?” And I said, with frank but unthoughtful honesty, “I don’t know — I don’t even know what the case is about.” The prosecutor rolled his eyes; the judge frowned with a combination “selfish” and “democracy is tanked” look.

    I haven’t been called back since, and hope I’ve been put on some secret “don’t call this idiot” jury list. That would be wonderful.

  2. former juror —

    I just moved to DC a little over two years ago, my previous jury duty experience was in Baltimore County. I need to find this “don’t call this idiot” jury list :)

  3. I blogged about my one jury experience which was years ago. It was pretty open and shut but we still had one hold out.

    In HoCo, I’ve only been called for jury duty once. I said that I knew the son of one of the police officer witnesses. They asked if I could still be unbiased and I said yes, but they didn’t select me. The trial was a guy who had attacked his ex-girlfriend with a machete. He got convicted.

  4. You know, I kind of felt cheated when I was called for jury duty in February and I didn’t get picked for anything. But reading this, well…I think I may have lucked out.

    Definitely a lot less exciting than TV would have you believe.

  5. yellojkt – I’m impressed by how much you remember from 20 years ago.

    Vittoria – So wish I’d gone to Screen on the Green for that.

    Liebchen – True story: first thing I did when I got home on Friday was to watch the Jury Duty episode of Veronica Mars. (I would’ve watched 12 Angry Men, but it wasn’t available for streaming on Netflix. Alas!)

  6. LiLu – yeah, the actual process was kind of fun – but it’s not fun sitting in judgment on someone knowing that if you get it wrong, you’ll either set a guilty person free, or send an innocent person to jail.

  7. Wait… I’m confused. Was juror #7 holding out to convict? Or was he just screwing up the process with general dickitude?

    I mean… It sounds like you guys acquitted him of everything, right? Or am I missing something?

  8. Alan – #7 was, from the beginning, in the defendant’s corner. I think he was trying to push us into finding him not guilty (which we eventually did).

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