Saturday, July 18, 2009

jury duty: One spin through the system part 4

Thursday:

I hadn't slept very well the night before. I was positively sick anticipating the outcome of the day. On my drive to the court building I considered what moral and ethical obligations I had and what actions I could take.

I could send a note out asking for the judge to re-clarify those things that we were to consider during deliberations with the hint that someone among us was bringing baggage into the jury room. I could do nothing and allow the process to just happen. I figured that when we re-convened that the judge would ask us if we were absolutely sure that we could not come to a unanimous decision. That could be an opportunity for me to express my desire for more deliberations.

I knew certain wheels were turning and I didn't have much time to change the course of this if it was going to get done. I still had the power of the foreman title, but I also had a room full of disheartened jurors who were tired from the long week, disappointed in the outcome, and ready to leave. I had a judge and set of attorneys that believed we were already hung and were no doubt taking the appropriate next steps.

When we all got situated in the jury room together Rachel Ray was again cooking on the television. iI turned her off. We continued our non-case related conversations for a while, but an awkward kind of tension was clearly hanging in the room. I was getting frustrated, so I asked the group "You guys want to keep deliberating this thing?" Everyone seemed relieved and positive answers came from all corners, save the holdout. I buzzed the bailiff and asked him if we could keep deliberating. He said he'd tell the judge, and we shut the door.

"OK, so is everyone still pretty much where they were last night?"
Nods all around, including the holdout.
The lawyer/juror spoke up.
"How about instead of listing the problems with the case we look at the things that are credible?"
I loved that.
"Alright, cool. What do we think is pretty much solid truth in this thing?"

I started collecting a large array of answers. Her ability to describe his penis in great detail. The consistency of her story from a year ago to this week. The fact that her body got excited (no one would make that up). The willingness of the family to act quickly on her behalf. Despite his sloppiness, the quick and firm decision of the cop meant that he was sure convinced. I argued that her inability to identify her stepfather was another one of those things that you would never make up. The man in the room was unquestionably her stepfather, and a coached or premeditated liar would do the opposite of misidentifying the man. A liar would point and say "that's him."

After a while I suggested a show of hands. Someone else wanted to do another secret ballot. I acquiesced, because I figured it would be easier for our holdout to change his position in secret than in public despite the fact that doing so with either method would be public regardless.

I had improved my paper tearing skills. I took four sheets of paper, folded them into thirds and tore them at the folds. We passed them around, wrote our votes and compiled them in front of me. I opened and read them privately as I had done before.

12 guiltys.

"Well, it looks like we're unanimous."

A sigh of relieve escaped the room, and all eyes went to the holdout.

"What changed your mind?"
"Well, I spend some time with my bible last night. I prayed and I talked to God."

Hey man, whatever works. I got the charge and filled it out while someone else pushed the button for the bailiff. All of the sudden we were all laughing and joking. It felt good to get it right, and we were all kind of basking in it. When the judge reconvened and we were lined up outside of the juror's entry I'm positive that we were laughing and joking loudly enough to be heard in the courtroom. The bailiff opened the door, said "all rise" and the twelve of us worked quickly to straighten out our faces and look somber as we walked into the room to deliver what was a heavy verdict.

Judge Adams asked me to stand. He asked if we'd come to a unanimous decision. I answered "We have."

The judge read the verdict and the charge from the paperwork that we had filled out. He advised us that we were going into the punishment phase, and the prosecution resubmitted its case and rested. The defendant slowed down a bit, and whispered to his lawyer. The lawyer whispered back. The defendant pulled his headphones down. He sighed, leaned back in his seat and looked at the ceiling. He closed his eyes. He re-composed himself, put his headphones back on, and resumed the stoic stance he'd maintained all week.

His lawyer called the girl's mother to the stand as a character witness. She was clearly intimidated by the setting, and did little to sway us.

Oliphant gave a still emotional but more logical closing. She noted that if we issued one year for each time he molested her he'd have surpassed the twenty year maximum before the girl had turned fifteen. She called him a monster. She reiterated his selfishness. She explicitly asked for the max and asked us to rule out probation.

The defendant's lawyer was more collected and reasoned as well. He noted that in voir dire we agreed that we could issue probation even if we convicted this man of that crime. He pointed out that this man was a model citizen outside of his transgressions with his daughters. No other convictions in his past. Great work history. He suggested that the defendant would never again be in a position of power that would allow him to abuse his other stepdaughter, and would pose no threat to anyone else. He then explicitly asked for the minimum sentence of probation. He noted that probation was no cake walk and that if the defendant screwed it up he'd go straight to prison.

We retired to deliberate sentencing.

Our options were a prison sentence of 2-20 years and a fine up to $10,000. If we sentenced less than ten years, we could recommend probation in lieu of immediate incarceration. We were hungry and decided to break for lunch before getting into heavy deliberations.

I did my usual routine of eating and then sitting and resting my brain while looking out over downtown from the seventh floor window. The building was beginning to grow on me.

Back in the jury room we took a blind poll to see approximately where we were at from a sentencing standpoint. It was pointed out that this man has already served a year and a half, and that would be counted against his sentence. He could also cut any sentence we hand down in half with good behavior. I passed out slips of paper and asked for three things: a number of years, a fine amount, and a yes or no on probation.

I wrote 8 years, $10k and no probation on my slip, then collected the rest. I cleaned the white board and started tallying the results on it.

Years
-----
20 x 2 votes
18 x 1 vote
15 x 1 vote
10 x 2 votes
9 x 1 vote
8 x 1 vote
5 x 2 votes
2 x 2 votes

Fine
-----
$10k x 2 votes
$0 x 10 votes

Probation?
----------
yes x 1 vote
no x 11 votes


We were all over the map and we had to come up with a unanimous decision on this as well.

The biggest hurdle was clearly going to be the amount of years. I wasn't dug in on a fine, and I figured the probation issue would resolve itself as well. I told the group where I was at and why.

"I put down eight years and ten K with no probation. My thought is that he always wanted her to cooperate. He never just grabbed her and violently raped her. If he had done that I think we'd come up with an easy twenty, but he did allow her to turn over and reject him. I figure that the max is reserved for the most violent version of this crime, and I thought a combination of years and the heavy fine would be the appropriate thing."

"But he would never be able to pay the fine. That family is poor, and good luck continuing to work at a liquor store with a felony conviction on your record. I mean, what's he going to do? What's his family going to do?" One of the Hispanic ladies.

The discussion had begun, and we took quite a while hashing it out. I gave in quickly on the issue of a fine given that we could increase the amount of years that we send him away for. I also pointed out that we needed to err on the high side because he could reduce a sentence that is too high with good behavior, but if we let him off too lightly we were just out of luck. I also pointed out that he was pretty likely to conduct himself in a way that would actually lead to a reduction in his sentence. It was cool hearing our holdout re-engage in the debate and make solid points about how and why we should come up with a number.

We had a scare at one point in the deliberations when it was pointed out that when he went to prison as a convicted child molester he was going to be toast. One of the ladies became very upset about this and started to dig her feet in about recommending probation because she didn't want to send him off to his death in prison. She was one of those who had initially recommended two years because she barely came down on the guilty side anyway, an wanted to err on the low side on sentencing. The room immediately became very conciliatory and it was stressed that this was an exaggeration. He'd be fine. We promised.

I started trying to broker a deal.

"OK, raise your hand if you'd be ok sentencing him to eight years."

Ten hands went up.

"Alright, what about twelve years?"

Ten different hands. Great. We continued debating. We were sure to leave out considerations about what would happen to the family. We talked about how this number was really a representation of what we, as members of the city of Dallas, felt that a crime like this was worth.

Eventually we settled on eleven years, no fine, no probation which happened to line up almost exactly with the averages of our initial gut feelings. We buzzed the bailiff, filled out the paperwork, and reconvened.

The verdict was read into the record, we were thanked for our service, and we again retired to the jury room. We were told that the lawyers were going to come back and talk with us a bit about how we felt the case was litigated, what mattered, and how we came to our decisions. I thought that was a little odd, but I welcomed the opportunity to express my perspective to all sides.

Back in the room all three lawyers arrived at once, and conducted themselves as friends. A few of the jurors had already left to catch up at work. I expressed my level of respect for the defense lawyer. I thought he generally did a great job punching holes in the prosecution's witnesses, and I offered my critique of his closing statements. He explained that the judge was moving things along very quickly, and he didn't have as much time to prepare as he had hoped. I told the prosecution that the cop nearly hung us. I said that the girl's ability to describe her stepfather's actions and his organ in such minute and consistent detail was what sealed the case for us. I said the emotional stuff during closing did nothing for me.

We asked them about the jury selection process, because we were curious about the makeup of the jury. One lawyer, one person who's sister had been molested, and a relatively diverse group. They explained that the people who expressed that they couldn't follow the law were struck first. The prosecution immediately struck all of the people who ranked rehab as the number one reason for imprisonment on their initial questionnaire. They all figured (correctly) that the lawyer/juror had worked both sides of the bench, as most lawyers do. They expressed surprise that he was not elected fore. He explained that he wanted to keep his professional life as far away from the actual jury deliberations as possible.

At the end of it, I came away very happy with the process. The girl reached out. The stepfather was arrested. A trial took place, and he got a very solid defense. He obviously did it, and we shipped him away. It was all very satisfying. The process dodged several bullets during the proceedings, and probably countless more in the months leading up to it, but with all of us pulling on the same rope as reasonable and intelligent individuals we made it work.

As I was walking out one of the prosecutors told me about the girl's reaction when she heard the news. She said she was so happy that someone believed her.

1 comment:

Dickerson said...

This has been a genuinely fascinating read, not least because it reminds me of a jury I sat on five years ago.

One of these days I'm going to sit down and detail it for you because the insights you had mirror the experience I had in many ways, though the case and its proceedings were very different.

Great job, though.