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Fulfilling the Office of Citizen

I recently completed my civic duty and served on a jury. Whenever I hear the words "jury duty" I immediately think of the moment in the move The Grinch where the title character is stuffing the mailboxes at the Whoville Post Office. I was excited to do it. I've been summoned twice before: once just before returning to college for my second year (which was enough to get me out of serving), and once where I showed up, waited all day to be selected, and was eventually sent home. Not everyone says this but: I wanted to be on a jury! I wanted to see how the process works. I wanted to test my memory from my civics classes. I wanted to test the accuracy of said classes (hint: they were *this* close). I wanted to know if courts played the now-iconic scene-changing sound on Law & Order. (They do not.)

Atticus Finch, I am not. (By Universal Pictures (eBay) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

In the end I was chosen. Juror #3, just like in my 7th grade adaptation of 12 Angry Men. The case in question involved a woman charged with assault with a dangerous weapon, and carrying a deadly weapon in the city. In the end, we found her not-guilty on both counts. If you would like to read the details of the case, continue below. For now, I'm going straight to my observations and reflections.

I’ve lived in a few countries whose judicial systems could be generously described as farcical. The whole thing obviously does not function perfectly. It certainly does not run smoothly. Exciting as this process was, I have seen glaciers move more quickly. Regardless, the jury was thoughtfully selected, we were presented a case - and defense - logically argued, and we rendered judgment, to the best of our ability, based on the merits of what was put before us.

After witnessing this process, and considering America's current political turmoil, I take great comfort knowing this part of our government functions the way it does. This feeling is reinforced every time courts check the president's power, especially with the wannabe dictator currently occupying the oval office. When he is stunted by courts, throws a tantrum, and falsely accuses judges of being corrupt, it's a sure sign the founders knew what they were doing when they firewalled the various branches of government, and we should be eternally grateful to them for having done so. This is why government matters. And for all the whining of each side, it demands that we respect and appreciate institutions of republicanism.

Justice cannot, and should not, be administered rashly. It cannot be rushed. It must be intentional. Decisions made by popular passions is no way to run a railroad. This is how we create and maintain some semblance of a society where everyone is subject to the same rules. Though as of late, that semblance is eroding as those with influence and means are held to different standards than the rest. I believe that is part of society's restiveness.

And I look at the recent string of acquittals for police officers charged with fatally shooting unarmed citizens. As much as I disagree with the final verdicts, I understand more clearly how the decision came about: it's difficult to prove the officers were not in fact in fear for their lives. Again - and I cannot state this enough - it does not make it right or just. It just shows how the burden of proof is always 100% on the prosecution. They have the most difficult hill to climb. The defense just has to sit there and, if it so chooses, introduce anything that muddies the water.

Lastly, and if you are one of those who dreads jury duty, think about how many people around the world are dying to have our system of justice - flawed as it might be. Think about what is happening in Turkey right now regarding continued human rights abuses, the squashing of the free press, and how easily their ascendant dictator is able to accomplish this. What recourse is there? Little-to-none.

This experience took 3 ½ days and I'm currently behind in my work. But I am up-to-date fulfilling the office of citizen. It was a long and repetitive process. Not everyone likes sitting in a room of strangers trying to pass judgment on somebody they don’t now. But we have a responsibility to our country - and many around the world - to take it seriously. It's a gift.

The Case The incident involved a parent visiting her child's school to speak with an administrator about how her child was reportedly treated. The parent's sister accompanied her. I believe it was reported to us that the mother was there to speak to the dean of the school about her child having been physically handled the previous day. It was not clear, but it was also irrelevant. At some point during the waiting and perceived run-around by school staff, the defendant moved aggressively (my interpretation) toward one of the staff while that staff's back was turned to her. Someone intercepted the parent, and a large struggle comprising the mother, her sister, and about six or seven other staff and teachers ensued. The school staff is trained to get any assailant or violent person out of the school, so the scuffle proceeded own a hallway and out a side exit. I know this because of the testimony of witnesses called by the prosecutor, and from the security camera footage we were shown.

During the struggle in the hallway, a knife fell to the floor, but no one was able to agree to whom the knife belonged, and that became a significant point of the case and our deliberation. The video footage shows the mother raising her arm as if to strike the aforementioned staff member, but it is not clear enough to depict whether or not she had something in her hand, specifically a knife. Further, it was difficult to determine whose knife it was. Regardless, a staff member involved in the moving struggle removed the knife from the scene out of concern for any children who might be in the hallway after the altercation. According to his testimony he would later give this knife to the head of security photographed it and make sure it made it to the police as part of their investigation. The knife was shown in the court room and made available to us during deliberation. It was a double-edged kitchen paring knife.

One of our challenges as a jury was that the only witness who testified to seeing the defendant holding a knife, also testified before a grand jury. Her two testimonies had some discrepancies. Further inaccuracies diminished the power of her testimony, and the defense seized on it when it had the chance. For example, at one point during a 911 recording, we heard the witness describe the event to the operators, including what the defendant was wearing at the time. However, the camera footage shows the defendant wearing something entirely different. The witness had described the defendant's sister instead. Further the witness recalled seeing about an inch-and-a-half of the knife blade, but it was a 3-to-4 inch blade, meaning the defendant would have been holding the blade in her hand (as well as the handle) during the attack, and this simply made no sense to us.

I don't know if the prosecution was allowed to ask, but to me it seemed an important question she overlooked while examining witness was, "Were you carrying a knife on your person that day?" This strategy would have (in my mind) eliminated everyone except the defendant and her sister as potential carriers of the knife (assuming each witness answered, "no.")

For the defense's part, they just needed to sit there as the prosecutor tried to prove her case. During cross-examination the defense poked holes in the prosecution's case with elements like the inaccuracies of witness accounts like those above, but did not seem to be trying too hard. Either he didn't care or he felt the prosecutor was not able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant was guilty. At one point the defense tried to argue that a kitchen worker, who emerged from a side door well after the moving scrum had made its way out of the building, had something shiny in her hand and that it could have been the knife in question. He tried this five or six times, but it was clear the bright object in the video was the kitchen worker's smart phone. We laughed at this a lot during deliberation.

As a jury we deliberated for a total of a few hours. That deliberation spanned two days because we did not actually start until 3:30p on the third day of the process. We voted, simply based on gut feelings, on whether or not we thought she was guilty of at least possessing the knife. Just about every hand went up. When asked about guilt on both charges, given the prosectuion's case, it was more evenly divided with regard to possession, and skewed heavily toward not-guilty regarding the assault. But we had to be unanimous.

It was incredibly interesting to hear the various perspectives of the jurors and the factors behind their decisions. One woman, an Asian immigrant, used to walk to school with a knife for protection, because attackers were common where she grew up. Another woman admitted to carrying items for self defense here in the city. Despite the arguments and evidence of the prosecutor and defense, it was amazing to me how much personal experience influenced some of the jurors in the room.

At one point we were stuck, unable to assess our judgments regarding "a reasonable doubt." So I drew a horizontal line on a white board. The left end represented "not guilty," and the right end represented the other extreme. I asked each juror to write their juror number on the continuum with regard to the defendant's guilt. The gap between "guilty" and the first cluster of numbers was about four inches on a 24-inch line. We all agreed that if we each felt the gap between "guilty" and the numbers was enough to constitute "reasonable doubt," we had to vote not guilty. This became our method for both charges. It certainly was not scientific, but it was about as close as we were going to get given the degree to which (in my judgement) people were letting their personal experiences and biases interfere with strict analysis of the facts and arguments presented.

Somewhat begrudgingly, and with a debatable level of comfort, we delivered "not guilty" verdicts in both charges. None of the evidence, testimony, or footage sufficiently proved the defendant had a knife in her hand during the scuffle. We decided the one witness testimony stating she did have a knife during the assault was not credible because of its discrepancies.

Simply having the knife on her person was also unclear. Yes, there was a knife. yes ti came from somewhere. Yes, it appeared during a scrum with the defendant. But there were so many people involved, and the prosecutor did not effectively whittle them down, that we had to acquit the defendant according to the directions given to us by the judge. I For my part, I believe the defendant had the knife, but that she did not use it during the assault. However, I do not believe the prosecutor did a sufficient job proving guilt on either count.


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