Judgement Day

I just finished my jury duty service for the year. For most people, this is something that they hope to avoid as much as possible, and I am no different. If you Google “jury duty Los Angeles” you’ll find as many pages on how to get out of serving as you will on the particulars of serving.

Somehow I’ve managed to get a summons only once or twice and have never actually served on a jury. This time was the closest I’ve come, and it was an interesting glimpse into the complicated workings of our overburdened judicial system. In this case I was called to serve in the Criminal Court, which processes three million jurors per year – that’s one-third of the entire population of Los Angeles county. To quote from the Los Angeles Superior quote jury website:

Los Angeles Superior Court has a “One Trial” term of service. This means that you are placed on call for no more than five days and can be asked to report for jury service on one of those days. If you are asked to report, and are not assigned to a courtroom for jury selection by the end of that day, your service is completed. However, if you are assigned to a courtroom for jury selection, you will be required to serve until you are excused by the Court or selected as a juror and the case you are selected on is completed.

Many people called for jury duty in L.A. end up spending most of their time at the courthouse waiting in the jury pool. From a potential juror’s point of view, the unspoken name of the game is to avoid actually getting on a jury.

I found the entire process quite stressful, actually, but as bad as it was for me, I’m sure it was much worse for the defendant. In this case, the charge was domestic violence. The defendant was a young African American man who allegedly had beaten up his girlfriend, the mother of his child. I found it interesting that the judge and the two attorneys were all women. The public defender was intelligent and well-spoken but young and probably inexperienced. The prosecuting attorney was older and obviously quite competetive. It struck me as strange that the defendant was present during the entirety of of jury selection. When we first filed into the courtroom, the defendant was sitting alongside his public defender with his back to us. At one point early on, the charges were read and the defendant stood up and faced us, giving us all an attempt at a friendly smile. My instant thought was “innocent”; the bleeding-heart liberal me saw him as a victim of racial profiling, and that he was going to be another statistic in the percentage of young black males in jail. (I realized later that if he was convicted, he probably would have to perform community service or attend anger management counseling, but that end of things was never discussed).

Lady Justice

Since we hadn’t been called to this case until late in the afternoon, we were instructed to return the next morning by 10 a.m. The next morning we waited in the hall for an extra 45 minutes because one of the potential jurors was late. The people-watching was fascinating; all manner of public defenders, criminal prosecutors, families with children, and law enforcement milled about. At one point a young hispanic man was led out of an adjacent courtroom in handcuffs.

While we were sitting there, a cute young African American woman came in with two very small children in tow. It slowly dawned on me that she was the girlfriend of the defendant, the plaintiff. She seemed to be in a fine mood, easily chatting with the police officer who happened to sit down next to her on the bench. Apparently she was pregnant with twins (also by the defendant, I gathered) and she was hoping for boys, since her other three were girls (the third girl was old enough to be in school). They were extremely adoreable, and I was riveted, watching this young woman interact with her kids and observing her calm and loving demeanor. They were endearing, and a couple times the mother and I smiled at each other in reaction to her kids’ playing and being generally cute. At one point the defendant walked past her, and he smiled at the girls. Their mother called their attention to him, saying, “Who’s that? Is that your daddy?” She was smiling but not directly at him. A minute later she said to the officer nonchalantly, “He beat me up, and I’m tired of it.” Their conversation continued for the rest of the time that we sat there, although about other things.

Eventually we were called into the courtroom and the jury selection began. This trial was going to last five days, according to the judge, who, by the way, was no-nonesense and brooked no excuses in her courtroom about why people were unable to serve. There was constant discussion and emphasis on the importance of impartiality. We were reminded time and again by the judge that it was our job as jurors to consider only the facts in the case, and not insert our personal feelings. It was interesting, of course, that while she was saying that, there were several things going on inside and outside of the courtroom that challenged that idea.

Because of the nature of the charges, unsurprisingly, the judge wanted to know if any among us had experienced any form of violence during our lifetime, domestic or otherwise. Quite a few of us raised our hands, and we proceeded to tell our stories, one by one. Most approached the bench for privacy and explained how we had been wronged. One woman, juror #2 – the first to answer – spoke publicly about abuse at the hands of her parents. No detail, but you could hear in her voice that it was a very difficult subject for her. I gathered that similar stories were being told from the tone of voice and body language of the rest of the potential jurors who spoke to the judge in private. This cold, impersonal, anonymous courtroom was starting to feel oddly like group therapy.

From there a discussion ensued about whether or not we, as jurors, had the ability to put our personal experiences and feelings aside and listen purely to the facts. Some said yes; others couldn’t commit 100% (me included). Juror #2 answered quite honestly that she would try but couldn’t really see herself putting her feelings aside. The judge pressed her further, (to the point of bullying, I thought) and she ended up agreeing, hesitatingly, that she would do her best to put her feelings aside. Despite my really not wanting to be there, I found myself becoming quite interested in the discussions.

Granted, since many people put all their energy into figuring out how to avoid jury duty, it naturally follows that they will exploit any opportunity to do so. I began to wonder how many were embellishing their stories, and how many people were making them up competely. I didn’t get the feeling that anybody was lying. However it seemed that several people were dredging up things that they hadn’t really thought about in years, or that really didn’t affect them in the ways that they were saying to the judge. I mean, everyone has baggage. Mine isn’t something I think about very often, and while I’m sure it affects me in ways that I don’t realize, in all honesty I probably overemphasized its effect on me during this questioning.

I eventually was not chosen to be a juror in this case; nor was Juror #2. Two of the potential jurors did not understand English well enough to be chosen; I left the room as soon as I was dismissed, and so did not learn who the rest of the jury would be. As I walked out into the hall, the plaintiff was still there. “Are they letting you go now?” she asked me as I walked past. “Yes”, I replied, “good luck – I would’ve been on your side.”


13 responses to “Judgement Day”

  1. Dave says:

    This was such an interesting glimpse into the ambiguous, messy, human factors that constitute the justice system, which many of us prefer to pretend is an impersonal decision-machine.

  2. ScottyGee says:

    Riveting post, Jman. I had a similar experience in a jury pool: the defendant was there, and seemed like he never would’ve pulled that knife, like the mean DA said he did. The big difference in my experience was that the judge was ready to let anyone out of the case for any reason. Maybe this has something to do with Long Beach’s demographic being a little older than LA’s, and that senior citizens are less likely to lie in order to get out of service — at least the blue bloods that live around here.

    Just an FYI: in criminal cases, the “plaintiff” is the state, city, or country, not the individual who may or may not have been injured.

  3. Tim says:

    The creepiest bit for me is when the mother/victim talks to her kids in what can only be assumed to be a sweet, sing-songy voice about their father/perp. Wow. That about says it all about the twisted and complex dynamics of domestic violence.

  4. Dave says:

    Actually, in criminal law there is no plaintiff; there is a prosecution.

    It does seem really weird to have the defendant there for voir dire. Is that just a California thing? I’ve only been in jury pools for civil cases, and the voir dires were just the attorneys and sometimes the judge. (My most recent voir dire, in Brooklyn, was just the opposing attorneys and a court clerk, no judge. That was also odd.)

  5. J-man says:

    Dave and Scotty: The defense attorney did actually begin to explain the difference between Civil and Criminal cases with regard to plaintiffs, but the prosecuting attorney objected, so we didn’t get the whole story. Do you know why there is no plaintiff in a criminal case? There was an allusion made to the fact that in domestic violence cases in particular, the woman will often decide not to press charges, but of course that doesn’t follow necessarily for other types of criminal cases.

  6. ScottyGee says:

    #5: The assumption is that in a criminal case, the entire public is harmed (or potentially so). This is why the state (representing the public) prosecutes most criminal cases. Also, according to Social Contract Theory, upon which our society is based, we give up a degree of freedom (in legal cases, to take the law into our own hands) in exchange for the protection of the government.

    Yes Dave, I am aware; this is why I wrapped plaintiff in quotes.

  7. Dave says:

    You are too smart for me, ScottyGee.

  8. ScottyGee says:

    EFF you, Dave B.

  9. Dave says:

    Electronic Frontier Foundation?

  10. Marleyfan says:

    Fantastic post! We have a constant complaint about the plea negotiations (sausage making) that occurs between the prosecutor and defense attorneys within the courtroom before and after court.

  11. swells says:

    I don’t know why this is such news to me, but I find it absolutely shocking that both parties were present for jury selection. Isn’t there loads of room for corrupting/seducing the jurors, poisoning the well, etc? How can this make for a “pure” process (as if there is such a thing when dealing with human subjects anyway)? I guess I’ve just never gotten this far in the selection process despite annual pilgrimages to the courthouse with a long novel to settle in for the day. Really interesting post!

  12. J-man says:

    Tim pointed out that the prosecution probably planted the mom and kids there, and the courts are so busy and chaotic that no one noticed or had time to do anything about it. I don’t know what they’re thinking on the other side, having the defendant there. Possibly to add a human face to an otherwise totally anonymous wife-beater.

  13. Marleyfan says:

    Wonder if the defendant had his wife-beater shirt undershirt on?