Friday, August 27, 2010

puh-puh-puh-pokerface

typically, i don't have one.  you can usually tell what i'm thinking or feeling just by looking at me.  i'm terrible at hiding my emotions.

the last two weeks in jury duty have taught me that i actually do have some pokerface skillz available to pull out for use when it's really necessary.  and now that it's finally over, i can talk about the most difficult, heartbreaking, educational experiences i've had in a long time.  i got to spend eight full days of my life here:


i built up quite a nice collection of these:


toted snacks and my iPad in this (which made countless security guards grin as it rolled through the x-ray machine):


and spent a few mornings standing in the direct, hot ass sun here:


obviously, since it was a courthouse, that's pretty much the extent of the visual aids i have to offer.  you'll have to settle for my narrative sans photos, if you give a shit about my story.

it's really, really not as easy as a lot of people think to be excused - folks tried to claim hardship, doctor's appointments, spouses in law enforcement and/or the legal system, even having judges in the same courthouse as family friends.  and yet, those folks still ended up on the panel.  so out of the sixty-some folks sitting in the courtroom during the selection process, i had the luck of being juror number 7 for a murder trial.  specifically, we had to listen to testimony from a witness who had been granted immunity, the major source of evidence that the district attorney had to prove that the defendant was a co-conspirator in the murder that took place.  and furthermore, i had even more luck in that i was sitting in the front row of the jury box, right next to the glass partition separating us from the audience.  the audience which included family members of both the defendant and the victim in the case. 

sound bad?  yeah, it was.  but even worse was this:  the drive-by shooting resulted in the murder of an unintended victim - a five-year-old girl sleeping peacefully in her bedroom.

on my second day of service, after i was already sitting in the jury box and was 100% certain i would be on the panel, the d.a. questioned the remaining candidates as they chose alternate jurors.  she happened to mention something that i hadn't thought far enough ahead about - that the evidence presented would include photographs.

pictures.  of a drive-by shooting in which a sweet baby girl was killed.  i got extreme goosebumps, my mind whizzed in a million different directions, and then i started to cry.  luckily, right then, the judge broke us for a short recess.  as i walked with my head down past that little girl's still-grieving parents (the crime took place in december 2004 - four days before christmas), the crying turned to sobbing, and although i thought i was doing a decent job of hiding it, one of my fellow jurors took me aside to comfort me.  she was an older lady, about my mom's age, and i was grateful for her concern as she let me cry it out.  i was a mess.

and when we got back to the courtroom, it got worse:  the parents were called one by one to give their testimonies.  we had to listen to them retell the story of that night, hear the 911 phone call (which was infuriating - i wanted to throw things at that amazingly incompetent operator), see pictures of their bullet-ridden home.  it was awful.

we broke again for lunch, and since we had an hour and a half before we were to return, i gunned the shit outta the pri-YES and went home.  the teen was being dropped off after a week at her dad's, and all i wanted, what i really needed, was to hug my children and feel their strong, healthy bodies in my arms.

as luck would have it, as i went to turn onto our street, they were in MIL's car, presumably on their way to grab lunch.  they saw me, made a u-turn, and followed me back to the house.  i got out, the teen came around to me (she probably knew i wanted to see her after her absence), and as i wept all over again in her arms, she took on the role of comfort...uh, er.  you know what i mean.

poor thing.  she had no idea what was going on, and all i was allowed to tell her between sobs was "this court case is so hard, it's just SO hard."  she walked over to the car with me so i could give the bean a big hug and a kiss, and MIL (who's been on a jury before as well) offered to go and grab lunch and bring it back so that the teen could stay home and we could have a little alone time together.

the rest of the trial was a little easier.  well, emotionally, at least.  i was sitting in such a position that i had a bird's eye view of the podium at which the attorneys stood as they spoke, and when i caught a glimpse of a photograph of the little girl's autopsy, my head literally spun, my heart began to pound wildly, and i feared i would faint.  but i didn't, and because i knew she was going to present it, i averted my gaze as the picture appeared on the screen.  the d.a. was extremely sensitive, though, and didn't leave it up any longer than necessary.  she'd obviously warned the parents, as they stayed out of the courtroom and yanked it from the projector when she saw them coming through the door.

i have to say, the d.a. did a phenomenal job of preparing and presenting her case.  she spoke to us in clear, easy-to-understand terms, but didn't talk down to us.  and it was a welcome distraction for me to walk in every morning to check out what she was wearing that particular day.  she mostly wore her hair down and often pulled severely back with a headband.  she was usually clad in somber, dark suits - sometimes pants, sometimes skirts - and a different pair of shoes every day.  at first, they were "i'm not playing around," professional pumps.  then there was a cute pair of mary jane platforms.  one day, later in the trial, it was an awesome pair of black & white peeptoes.  and when we were on day two of deliberations, she was clearly more relaxed - the hair was looser, the makeup was lighter, the suit was beige, and she was more...human.  the lady who had comforted me that first day said it was her "optimistic suit."  haha!

when the deliberations went into one more day, and we'd requested yet another read-back of some testimony that we wanted to be certain of, it was obvious that she was not pleased.  she'd returned to a dark gray suit and what i called her "angry shoes" - solid black, closed-toe pumps with a heel that said "i will crush you without a second thought."  she looked down at the empty table, picked off lint from her pants, and sat quietly with her mouth in a thin, hard line.

at the end of that first full day of deliberations, i was so. fucking. frustrated.  we had to return a unanimous vote, and we had 11 out of 12 jurors voting "guilty."  that last juror was a major holdout, who held us up on several counts, and although i liked the man on a personal level (i actually liked every one of those eleven strangers that i spent so much time with over two weeks), i wanted to shake him.  between me and a few other similarly vocal folks, we'd laid out the evidence and demonstrated to him how everything fit the conditions that were given.  and yet even after he agreed that we'd met the conditions, he was still undecided.

we were armed with a packet of instructions that were clear.  they were black and white.  there was no gray area.  our task was definite, and it was utterly specific.  we had to set aside our own thoughts and opinions, go solely by the evidence, and follow the law.  a lot of it, we agreed, was supremely unfair and sucked donkey balls.  but we had to stick to it, and finally, by 4:00 on day three of deliberations, we had unanimous votes of "guilty" on five counts:  murder in the first degree, two counts of shooting at an inhabited dwelling (the actual shooter had thrown a tire iron into a window to wake the family up, shot at the house, drove around the block and back to the house, and shot again), conspiracy to commit murder, and attempted murder.  we'd tackled the conspiracy count first, since that was the one we had to prove before we could move on to the others. 

walking out into the courtroom one last time was terrifying.  i put that pokerface on, not wanting to give anything away, and noted both families in full force sitting in the audience.  there were no less than three deputies in the room (we were apprehensive about the reaction after the verdicts were read), and the little girl's mother was openly weeping in anticipation.  my heart pounded so hard, i thought it would come right out of my chest.  my stomach was in knots, and i was shaking so much that i had to clench my hands together in my lap.  i kept my eyes right on the judge and the clerk tasked with reading the verdicts aloud, and as she got through the text, i could hear quiet crying coming from both families.

the judge excused us back into the jury room right away, and the mood was somber.  despite the fact that we knew we'd come to the right conclusion, it had been an intensely emotional ten or so minutes.  and then all of my emotions of the whole experience came to the surface again, and (yup, you guessed it) i started crying again.  not the bawling and sobbing, but one of the guys (who looked teary himself) got up, grabbed some paper towels from the restroom and handed them to me.  everyone looked drained and exhausted, and i knew what we were all thinking:  that sucked ass.  there were no winners in that room.  both families had lost loved ones, and their lives would never be the same.

there was a knock, the door opened, and the judge walked in.  he had removed his robe, and greeted us warmly with a smile.  i really, really liked this man - even from the start.  he just seemed like a nice person, and he thanked us for our service and offered to answer any questions.  he said "as a judge, it's always a good feeling to walk into this room after a verdict has been read and see that everyone is quiet, emotional, even tearful.  it's clear from these reactions how much your service has touched you, and you've gotten an idea of what it's like to be a judge."

we asked him a bunch of questions about holes in the testimonies and evidence, and his answers provided an incredible amount of clarity.  everything he told us was what we had all suspected, and really helped to comfort us somewhat in knowing that we'd made the right decisions.  he then explained that we would be escorted downstairs and into the parking lot by several deputies, which was reassuring to all of us.  and as he stood at the door while we all filed out, i was tempted to hug him...but don't worry, i didn't.

i can't say that i didn't hug our deputy/bailiff, though.  he was just fantastic.  from the very first day, when we went to sit on the benches outside our courtroom and i joked "hey, department S!  i sure hope that's S as in "see ya later!" (i know, i know), and he just grinned and bantered right back, i knew he was going to be a cool dude.  he reminded me a lot of isaac from "the love boat."  heh.  he'd said to me early on, with a serious, straight face "i spoke to the judge, and he told me that i needed to take your iPad away, so hand it over, please."  and i'm so gullible, i reached into my bag to take it out and give it to him as he started cracking up and said "i'm just kidding!"  good times.

and as we stopped to chat a little with him in the parking lot, i went for it.  "can i give you a hug, isaac?" and he said "sure!" and the others who were still standing with us followed suit.  he told us something we didn't know:  during our service, we're considered employees of the state of california - complete with medical coverage while we're working.  i thought that was interesting.  and then i taught him something he didn't know:  they pay us $.34 per mile, but only one way.  they don't give a shit how we get home, as long as we get to the courthouse.

we mentioned to him how impressed we'd been with our d.a., and he promised to relay our sentiments to her.  apparently, she'd been really worried that she hadn't done her job well enough (we'd requested more read-backs of testimony than any other jury she'd ever worked with, and we later learned that she's been in the d.a.'s office for ten years), and he thought she would've really appreciated hearing our praise.  he even called the courtroom to see if he could catch her, but it was after 5 and no one answered.

but then luck was on our side again, as he spied her crossing the street with bags in hand, heading to her car.  we were all incredulous to learn that the deputies and d.a. have to park in the same public parking lot as the jurors and other folks.  as she approached, she was grinning, and laughed when i said "hey!  you smile!" 

like with the judge and the bailiff, it was really cool to see her out of the courtroom and able to just be a regular person.  she didn't hesitate to chat with us and share her feelings and more facts about the case we'd just tried, and she was just a really nice person.  i had the feeling that she's probably around the same age as i am, and as i often do with professional folks, i pictured her going out to grab a drink with friends or just kicking back in her sweats.  yes, i do this all the time.

so yes, i completely fangirled all over this awesome chick, and we told her how much we dug her shoes and suits during the trial.  we all really admired her for the job she'd done, and we told her so.  i ended up asking her for her e-mail address and i'm totally going to send a note to her boss to tell him or her exactly how fantastic she was, and i'm gonna copy her on it.  um, and i might have given her a big ass hug, too.  yup.

we even saw isaac emerge from the courthouse again, clad in a fun printed button-down, and he rolled by us in his c-class.  "see ya in a year and a half!" he waved.  oy.

another off-duty deputy drove by to warn us that it wasn't necessarily a great idea to stand in the parking lot, and after bidding the d.a. farewell, a couple of us headed to chili's to unwind and chat some more.

the whole jury process is amazing to me.  you take a large group of folks, ask them personal questions in open court, and whittle them down to a panel of twelve (plus three alternates).  they spend days together in court, listening intently to the judge and lawyers and witnesses and defendants, congregating in the jury room for breaks (because the families and witnesses were often milling about in the hallways, it was super awkward and uncomfortable to sit there rocking our juror badges on our shirts).  it was really weird to sit there when we were all present, not able to talk about the one thing that tied us all together.  we were instructed not to discuss the case with anyone or amongst each other until it was time to deliberate, and the room was always just...weird. 

and then it's time to deliberate, and as soon as that door closes, twelve people's thoughts and questions and ideas come spilling out like champagne bubbles.  twelve strangers, who knew nothing of each other prior to now, from all different backgrounds with different lives and careers and personal situations, come together to determine one person's fate.  those twelve strangers have to discuss and debate and define and discuss some more, and all come up with the same conclusion to be read in front of a courtroom full of people who will be affected in some way by that verdict.

we had an incredibly awesome group, we really did.  everyone was articulate and thoughtful and kind and intelligent.  each member of the panel brought in ideas and suggestions and different angles to consider, and we worked damn hard to tackle the giant responsibility that we'd been given.  we discussed every possible alternative, looked at the evidence over and over, read the instructions to confirm the conditions to be met for each count, and picked that case apart until there was nothing left to ponder.  and we all got along really well - there was a lot of laughter and joking around in there, and even isaac said that a group like ours was rare.

while i was grumpy and bitched and moaned about having to go, and then about actually being selected, i can admit it now:  i'm glad i did it.  yeah, it took time out of my normal, day-to-day life.  it was super inconvenient, and i felt awful about having to miss work for two weeks (save two days that the courtroom was dark).  i worked longer days than i normally do, and didn't get to spend as much time with my family as i'm used to.  and i likely spent much more on lunches and starbucks runs every day than the measly $15 that the state pays jurors.  i dealt with heartbreak and anger and frustration and anguish and hopelessness, was nervous and frightened every time i felt witnesses' or family members' or the defendant's eyes on me, and i'll feel the pain in my next two paychecks.

but i learned a hell of a lot about the court system, the specific nature of our laws, the jury selection process.  i got to see an actual criminal trial firsthand, and was treated with respect by everyone involved.  i met and got to know an entire group of people (okay, granted, i'll most likely never see them again save one or two), and proved to myself that i could be of value to something as important as a jury - despite my lack of formal education.  that was something i was really concerned about - that a lot of it would go over my head and i wouldn't have much to contribute during deliberations.

in fact, i surprised myself with how well i caught on to it and was able to take charge of the conversation and steer people in the right direction.  i'm not saying i was all that, not by a long shot.  but if i'm being honest, i did a damn good job of helping to convince the last holdout juror that the law clearly pointed the evidence in the direction of our ultimate verdicts.

but no worries.  i'm too old to even consider law school, and besides, i couldn't handle it.  i have even greater respect and admiration now for those who deal with the whole legal system on a daily basis - but there's no way in hell i'd ever be one of 'em.  besides, i doubt it would be fantastic to have a lawyer, or even a court reporter or clerk that sat there and cried during every case.

and we all know that would be me.  you know this, man.

edited to add for the monkey and taterthe powerpoint presentation that the d.a. used to illustrate her points during the closing argument partly included the hated COMIC SANS.  if not for the seriousness of the situation, i would've busted out laughing at the sight of it.

edited again to add something important:  the defendant's son had crashed a party at the little girl's family home.  when asked to move, he refused.  a fight broke out, and he ended up SEVERELY beaten up.  somehow he ended up lying in the street, and then someone ran him over.  there was a tire mark on the side of his face.  ended up hospitalized, comatose for several days, and stayed for about 2-3 months.  police was unable to find the person(s) responsible for the beating - even the son's friends refused to speak up.  the conspiracy was apparently a result of the defendant's frustration over no one being held accountable.  makes it even more awful, doesn't it?

20 comments:

  1. Great narrative! Felt like I was with you the whole time.
    I'd probably welcome the next jury duty call after reading all about your experience.

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  2. Thank you so much for taking the time to write about this. I am always curious about what jurors are thinking about the process and what really happens in the deliberations room. You guys had a tough job, but it sounds like you approached the task as ideally as any prosecutor or defense attorney could ask for.

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  3. Definitely an emotional experience all around, but I loved hearing about the way you (the jury) handled the case behind closed doors

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  4. wow..thank you for writing this. i have never heard anyones experience with jury duty. honestly, if i would have to serve on a jury with a case like this, there is no way i could. i would've been crying the whole time. i was practically bawling reading this. :(

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  5. thank you for writing this and sharing the experience with us. i would have cried too... confession, i cried while reading it! but, you also made me laugh too. i'm sure that the lives of the 12 jurors will never be the same either - that's gotta change a person, hopefully for the better. hugs! :)

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  6. p.s. logic, common sense and heart are not the result of a "formal" education. (if that were the case, there would be a lot less idiots.) you are smart and always have something valuable to contribute - whether by humor, great ideas, or actions - usually all of the above! it's always a better time when you are around! :)

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  7. You are my nightmare.

    xoxo,
    Attorney for the Defense

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  8. And now I am dying at the addition of COMIC SANS for me. I didn't see that in my Reader.

    A+

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  9. I'm a lurker coming out of hiding. I'm an attorney, and although I don't get to go to trial much, I really enjoyed hearing about your experience. It is so interesting that you went on about what the D.A.'s outfits, because it confirmed what we learned in law school: when jurors are interviewed after trials, jurors often take note of female attorneys' outfits! You can't help but think that in some cases, those outfits can impact the outcomes, no matter how persuasive the arguments may be. I'm happy to hear that in this case the D.A. did a great job regardless of what she wore :)

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  10. That sounds like such a difficult experience...even more than I'd have anticipated. And you just made me go hug my sons. :)

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  11. Wow. Incredible. Thank you so much for sharing.

    I've always wanted to be on a jury but I've only been called once, and my name was never picked once we got in the room. :(

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  12. I am really impressed with how articulate you are in describing your whole experience! The case sounded just tragic. If I were you, I would have cried everyday in court.

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  13. Great post, Wan. Thank you for sharing your story.

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  14. Agh, blah and thank god I have not had to serve on a jury yet. Don't think I could do it.

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  15. wow, what an awesome post! i loved reading your experience! so tragic! i loved how you described the closeness of those you served with. wowo!

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  16. really good post although i still don't really want to serve on a jury.

    and yes, A+ for the addition of the comic sans! so professional. ;)

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  17. w.o.w - sounds like a crazy two weeks! I literally gasped when I read a 5 y.o. died, especially the way she did. so so sad. ;(

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  18. Dude, this post had me in tears. I would have been a complete mess.

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  19. Ugh, what an awful case. :( I would have been a mess, too.

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