Friday, December 21, 2007

My Time on Jury Duty

I’ve been on jury duty several times, but I’ve only been seated as a member of a jury once. All of the other times, I’ve been excused early in the jury selection process, although, I’m not sure why that is.

The wrangling that goes on to select a jury is a very intricate ritual where prosecutors and defenders each try to get a jury they believe will be most advantageous to their case. The idea behind this is that the competition between the two sides should produce a fair outcome. Some notable cases point out the fact that it doesn’t always work out that way.

It was several years ago that I was surprised to find myself seated as a member of a jury. We were a somewhat diverse group. Within 15 minutes of the beginning of the case, however, it was obvious that the defendant was guilty beyond any reasonable doubt. But the whole affair seemed to me to be the sorriest mess I had ever seen. It seemed like a total waste of taxpayer time and money.

The Case
What it boiled down to was that one druggy dirtbag had ripped off $600 from another druggy dirtbag. The thief was literate, while the victim was illiterate. The victim owned a home. He wanted to refinance his mortgage, but he knew it would be difficult because his credit was bad. The thief was temporarily crashing with his girlfriend at the victim’s home.

The thief brought the victim an ad from the back of a seedy magazine that offered people with bad credit an opportunity to refinance their mortgage. But they first had to wire $600 to this company in Canada in order to find out if they qualify. Everyone on the jury quickly figured out that this was just a scam, but the prosecutor told us that whatever suspicion we might have about it was not important to the case.

At any rate, the literate thief offered to help the illiterate victim to wire the funds. They went to a grocery store that did that kind of thing, filled out the paperwork, put down the cash, got a receipt, and left. About an hour later, the thief returned, said he had changed his mind, and wanted his money back. He presented falsified ID. They gave him the money, and he left. All of that was captured on the store’s video surveillance system. While the victim was at work, the thief and his girlfriend stole some stuff from the house and moved out.

It took the illiterate victim a few days to figure out what had happened. He contacted the mortgage scammers, who responded that they had never received the wire transfer. He went to the grocery store, which showed that the money had been refunded before it was sent. The victim apparently had an ongoing relationship with the police, so he filed a police report.

In the meantime, the thief and his girlfriend were crashing in a garden shed in someone’s backyard. The police stumbled onto the guy when they were investigating another crime. In court, the prosecution not only produced the surveillance tape, but also produced the clerk that took the wire transfer order and refunded the money. The defendant sat in court with clean-cut hair and a turtleneck long-sleeve shirt. On the tape he had very long, stringy hair, a tank top, and lots of tattoos. The clerk said that he couldn’t positively say that he was the same man without seeing his tattoos.

The judge had the clerk go into his quarters (along with the attorneys) and describe exactly what kind of tattoos he expected to see at what location on the defendant. He then had the defendant show his tattoos in the privacy of the judge’s quarters. The judge then reported to the jury that the defendant had several “distinctive” tattoos that involved certain “words” and certain “icons” that made them rather unique, and that the clerk had described the tattoos with preciseness. (Note to bad guys: cover up your ‘distinctive’ tattoos before you let someone see you committing a crime.)

This whole process seemed completely inane. Could anyone possibly doubt that the dirtbag was guilty? But the real problem was that, since the offence involved ID fraud and wire fraud, it was a felony; although, it involved only $600.

After many hours of court, the jury was finally sequestered with a list of specific instructions. We elected a foreman, who turned out to be a very good choice. The guy had done volunteer work with illiterate people. He also had a seemingly innate sense of fairness, as well as a calm, level-headed approach to matters. Even with his deliberateness, it only took us a short time to return the guilty verdict. There was really no other choice.

The Meat of the Matter
Then the judge revealed to us the whole purpose for which we had been convened. The defense only had the slightest hope of getting their client cleared of the charges. They had pretty much assumed that he would be found guilty. But this was his third felony, which meant that he would receive a mandatory long-term sentence.

We were next charged with determining whether the defendant had in fact been convicted of two prior felonies. Both of the felonies had occurred in California. When the court officer in California had sent the certified version of the prior convictions, she had left off the final page of one conviction that included the actual judge’s signature and court stamp. She had subsequently faxed a copy of it, but it was not included in the certified package. If we were to say that we couldn’t tell whether the defendant had two prior felonies, the prosecution would only have brought it back to court when they received a certified copy.

It took us longer to come to a consensus on this matter than it did on the original conviction, ostensibly because it was now clear what was at stake. This guy was going up the river for a long time for bilking another dirtbag out of $600. One woman, in particular, really struggled with doing this. She wondered whether justice was being served. But when the foreman finally got it through her head that it was only a matter of time before the harsh sentence was handed down — it would either be our jury or a later jury that would find that this was this man’s third felony — she finally agreed that it was futile to hold out. She still didn’t like the way it made her feel, but she agreed that we had properly followed the law.

It was late in the day by the time I left the courthouse. I was somewhat perturbed that we had wasted the time of many people and spent a lot of taxpayer dollars trying a case that was so bluntly obvious. But on the other hand, we do guarantee the right to a fair trial by a jury of peers. We had made sure that happened. It’s just that the whole affair was a sorry, pitiful mess. As far as I could tell from the thief’s other two convictions, this guy was not a violent offender. He lived a life that I would consider hell on earth. I’m not sure how prison could be much worse. And it seemed from this guy’s other non-felony legal problems that he was not going to break out of his pattern of crime any time soon.

Many argue that our prisons are filled with so many non-violent offenders that we can’t keep the violent offenders and the really dangerous people in prison long enough. But what do you do with a person that is dead set on continuing a life of petty crime? You can’t just leave them loose either.


y-intercept said...

The way to get out of jury duty is to bring a logic book to read while you wait for jury duty.

The case shows why mandatory sentencing really isn't a wonderful thing.

It also reinforces what I always thought. Building a fence between California and the rest of the country would do more to protect us than building a fence between Mexico and the United States.

Scott Hinrichs said...