September 23, 2004

The Trials of Juror Number Ten

GREETING! We must apologize for the lack of posting as of late – those of you who have mentioned this, you know who you are – but we can assure readers that we have a perfectly good excuse. Namely, we were in court.

We can assure readers we were not in court due to any real or alleged actions of our own, but rather because the Government ordered us to appear for jury duty. As such, we dutifully trudged down to the county courthouse last Monday to do so. Much to our surprise and amazement, we were then selected at random to serve on a jury judging a criminal matter. At first, we were merely a backup for the people whom Fate had decreed would serve, but peremptory challenges soon caused us to become Juror Number Ten. In all, fourteen jurors were chosen for this particular case, but out of those, only twelve would decide the outcome. Two would become alternates via the same method we were all first chosen: a lottery.

We became Juror Number Ten at about 12:30 p.m. last Monday, some five hours after we arrived at the court. The orientation session and jury selection processes were about as dull as one might expect, because even the most obvious legal points must be spelled out to prospective jurors. We must say we thought these sessions could be Made More Fun in several ways. For instance, it would be a lot more fun if swimsuit models were allowed to read the voir dire questionnaire. Also, instead of having kindly court personnel simply read out the rules of conduct, we think a multimedia presentation along with the lectures might help hammer those points home. There are two options we can see for this.

The first would be a short film, like the announcements one sees in the movie theatres prior to the featured films. The rules could be made perfectly clear through humorous skits. For example, a juror whose mobile phone went off in court could be dragged off in handcuffs, followed with hearty laughter from all in the chamber. But even if that wasn’t feasible, something with PowerPoint might prove useful:


It used to be $30 per diem, one of the bailiffs told us, but it got cut back in the early Nineties. Such is the legacy of great Pericles.

The Wheels of Justice

THE TRIAL started three days later, and despite our joking above, we can assure readers that matters of law are no joke. One indication of this: in that courthouse, jurors had guards every step of the way.

Hence, while we jurors all had access to restrooms and vending machines, and were provided all the free coffee and water we could drink, we could only leave the jurors’ area of the courthouse if we were under guard. At every step of the way, court officers would hand us off to their colleagues, and we would proceed from station to station under the watchful eye of these personnel.

That had to be done, of course, to keep the jury pool free from taint; and we all found humor in it. For instance, a break outside for a cigarette or fresh air was known as a “1099,” which we all found quite funny. That’s the number of the tax form used to report miscellaneous income, such as pay for jury duty. But although the officers and our fellow jurors were great and friendly people, and we kidded each other about this or that, on that first day we felt a bit of relief when our assigned officer finally radioed, “Jurors going home.”

As it happened, we did not go immediately home that night. Instead, we followed our normal Thursday night routine: stop at bookstore, pick up The Economist, go out for cheap but fulfilling dinner. At the bookstore, we picked up some books and a movie as a special treat for when the trial had finished. We picked up a novel and a history book and an expensive movie; this last being an old foreign film which was reincarnated on DVD with Plenty of Unneeded Extras and Bonus Materials. Among them: an English-dubbed soundtrack. Anyone who has seen this particular movie knows that is treason to cinema. But we digress.

When we did get home, we knew we couldn’t think about the case – after all, more would be presented in the morning. How we hated the prohibitions against asking questions and taking notes! We recognize the legal principles which stand behind those, of course, but God! it was just aggravating to work against instinct like that. As we had to be back at court pretty early, and knew well how our mind works, we realized there was but one thing we could do: go to bed, and early. Well, that and watch some mindless prime-time entertainment. The case could wait.

The Case in Question

The trial was held over three days, and it was really rather strange. Perhaps the best way to describe it is to recall the words of Dickens' old foil, Thomas Gradgrind: “Now, what I want is Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else.” The trouble was that there were damn few Facts with which to work, and we jurors had to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Anyway, here’s the summary. The defendant – whom we shall not name here – was charged with burglary, as well as a lesser and included charge of theft. The defendant was alleged to have broken into the apartment where his then-wife and three step-children lived, and stolen goods from inside. Seems simple, right?

How wrong you would be to think so.

For one thing, there was the relationship between the defendant and his now ex-wife, who was one of the complaining witnesses in the case.

Attorneys on both sides spent much time showing these two would not soon be named Citizen of the Year. It was not merely that the defendant and his ex-wife were in the waning days of their marriage when the incident happened. It was not merely that the defendant and all the complaining witnesses had no love for each other. That would still, well, be expected.

It was rather unexpected when the defendant’s ex-wife said, under oath and apropos of nothing, that a key reason she married the defendant was because he had health insurance. If we recall correctly, she did not use the word love even once. She could not even remember the date of their wedding. Now, we know readers will likely be shocked and appalled at such an account, but we assure you it is the truth.

We can also assure you it gets worse.

For the defendant’s former wife was also previously his aunt through a prior marriage. This, therefore, meant the defendant’s step-children were also his cousins. At this point, we were half-expecting to learn Polonius got run through with a sword on the honeymoon.

Now, we bring all of this unfortunate stuff up not because we wish to shock our readers, but because we hope you are thinking the question we thought during the trial. Namely, what the hell does all this have to do with it?

Pretty much nothing, when you boil it all down.

We had to do a lot of such boiling down with this case. God! Eight hours listening to arguments in court, and at best half of those hours were actually meaningful. What we wanted were Facts, and when we got Facts, we focused on them.

Now, there were a few Facts which were common to both the defendant’s and complaining witnesses’ stories:

* There was no denying that on one day last summer, the defendant arrived at a certain city apartment about 7:30 a.m., this being (or once being) his home, where his then-wife and his step-children also lived.

* The defendant had been at work since 7 p.m. the prior night. On the prior night, his then-wife had dropped him off at work. The defendant arrived at the apartment after he was finished with work. Upon arriving, he banged on the front door repeatedly. After a short while of this, the defendant left. He then returned at a later time and removed items from the apartment, as well as a secondary storage closet accessible from outside it.

The prosecution, via its complaining witnesses and others involved in the matter, set forth the following account of the day’s events. We present it to the best of our memory, and believe it to be an accurate depiction of the prosecution’s case, although we caution that we may have left some of the innumerable details out:

* As the defendant and his then-wife were in the waning days of their marriage, the defendant agreed to move out for good some three days before the incident. The complaining witnesses, those being his then-wife and two of her children, testified the defendant had taken most of his stuff from the apartment before the incident happened. They testified that only a few boxes with his stuff in them remained. On the night prior to the incident, his then-wife took the defendant to work.

On the day of the incident, the defendant arrived at the apartment around 7:30 a.m., banging about the door and causing great consternation among those inside the residence. They, seeking to avoid unpleasantness, did not open the door to him. Later in the morning, the defendant’s then-wife and some of her children, including the then-wife’s grand-daughter, left to visit family in Maine.

In the early afternoon, the defendant’s step-daughter was at home asleep due to tiredness. She awoke to hear an awful din from immediately outside her room, as if someone was breaking into the secondary storage unit. She then heard similar violence being used against the front door of the apartment.

The step-daughter, by this time, had hidden in the closet of her bedroom. She heard two men talking in the apartment, and testified that one of the voices was that of the defendant. The two men were in and out of the residence for roughly an hour and a half, removing goods from it, and then left. She had also heard other voices from outside.

A short while later, the step-daughter emerged to find that much had been taken from the apartment, including her brother’s computer. She testified she had heard the defendant instruct the other man to remove a computer. Also taken was a small television set, a video-game set-up, and other items, which had been in her brother’s bedroom. Her brother corroborated this account. As the step-daughter had no way to contact the authorities, she waited at home until her family returned to the apartment. Some time later, the family called the authorities.

The officer who responded to the scene testified he saw evidence of tampering with the front door, that is to say, it had been severely damaged about its hinges, and the damage could have been done either from the outside in or the inside out. However, had it been done from the inside out, a very strong person would have had to have done it.

The police detective who followed up on the case testified he found items not at issue in the case, such as a lawn mover that had been in the storage closet, at the residence of the defendant’s mother. None of the items the detective saw were among the stolen goods. The detective also testified that he received from the defendant a key to the apartment, and when he went to test the key, the front door of the apartment opened up.

The defendant set forth the following account of his actions, with the appropriate witness testimony to back it up. We present it to the best of our memory, and believe it to be an accurate depiction of the defense, although we caution we may have left some of the innumerable details out:

* Upon ending his shift at a local factory, the defendant waited for his wife to pick him up. She had not arrived at 7 a.m. as scheduled, so he called her to see why. She told him she would not pick him up, because he had failed to apologize to her children about something said in an argument. He then enlisted the aid of a coworker, who dropped him off at the residence about 7:30 a.m.

The defendant returned home to find no response from inside it. Being worried about this, he tried to raise an alarm to ensure everything was all right inside. He did not enter the home, he said, as he did not wish to get involved in a confrontation with his wife. He then phoned his mother, a resident of this city, and asked her to pick him up.

As the defendant had belongings (known in court parlance as "musical items") worth a considerable sum in the apartment, the defendant’s mother advised her son to remove those belongings that day. The defendant called the city police to ask for a civil standby, that is, an officer who would ensure he could remove his goods without trouble. The police informed him his wife would return from Maine at a later date, and he could recover his goods then. However, he arrived at the apartment alone in the morning, entering with a key, and started packing his things. There were many boxes, perhaps as many as 20, plus the musical items.

A friend who owned a trucking firm testified he sent two of his employees to drop off pads and other things to help with the move. The friend arrived a short while later, and these two employees did not enter the apartment. Once the truck was loaded, the defendant and his friend left, dropping the things off at the defendant’s mother’s house. The defendant testified he locked the front door with a key, and denied taking the stolen items. He also pointed out he had a computer of his own.

The businessman testified that he had not removed, nor seen removed or packed, any of the stolen goods. The defendant’s mother testified that she witnessed the unpacking of most of the boxes, which were placed in her living room for weeks prior to their unpacking. She did not see any of the stolen goods, in those boxes or outside of them. The defense also presented the testimony of a downstairs neighbor, who reported seeing three people – but not the defendant – move goods from the apartment. The neighbor did not see the entire move, but attested to the fact the musical items were removed from the apartment. The neighbor also did not see any of the stolen goods removed from the apartment.

Follow everything?

We are glad we had our eleven fellow jurors to help us remember all this during deliberations.

High Drama in the Court

There were a few moments of High Drama throughout the trial, for instance, when the defense attorney cross-examined the defendant’s stepson.

The defendant’s ex-wife was not following the line of inquiry which the counselor was taking. Therefore, she saw fit to loudly ask what it had to do with the matter at hand. She was summarily escorted out of the court, but according to other jurors with a better view of the matter, she made a point of glaring through the court’s door-windows at the proceedings.

But the key instance of High Drama was when the defendant, ah, may have exaggerated his resume on the witness stand. Then testimony was later presented which suggested that. Obviously, there can be mistakes in records, but God.

The defendant had told the jury he had received training in electrical engineering through a local university’s computer-engineering program. He also told the jury he had received a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering from this school. A records-keeper from the school was summoned, and testified the defendant had only completed three semesters there, and had not in fact graduated from the institution.

We would submit only that this was not a confidence-builder when it came to the defendant’s account of how things transpired.

Immediately afterwards, closing arguments were made. Because of a delay in the case, Juror Number Eleven had been excused. Juror Number Seven found himself the alternate-designate. We the jury then retired.

Benjamin Kepple, Jury Foreman – and a Verdict

Now you should know the first order of business, after we the jury retired, was to take a break. The second was to order an adequate and nutritious lunch, which the court provided to us free. Then we all went about the business of picking a foreman.

There were no volunteers, so we offered to do it. It is actually a surprisingly easy job, we found. Basically, one makes sure the deliberating jurors follow the judge’s instructions, and makes sure order is kept, and what not. Also, we got to announce the verdict in court.

We deliberated for a total of an hour: twenty minutes on the burglary charge, and forty minutes on the theft charge. In both cases, we the jury individually and collectively found the defendant Not Guilty on the charges.

Here’s why.

To prove a burglary charge, the prosecution must show the defendant’s actions met several criteria. That includes the following: that the defendant was not licensed or privileged to be in a building or occupied structure – occupied here simply meaning “lived in.”

We the jury found the prosecution did not meet this burden. Not only were there no legal restrictions preventing the defendant from being in the residence, the defendant’s then-wife dropped him off at work the night before the incident. The first point shows he could still legally abide at his marital abode; the second strongly suggests he was still resident at the apartment on the day of the incident.

Therefore, we the jury found a man cannot burglarize his own home. So you see that business about the key and the door was irrelevant after all, as was whether he ordered a civil standby, and what have you.

And what about the theft, you ask?

We the jury found there was no proof that the defendant had stolen the goods. No witness in the case reported seeing the defendant with the stolen goods, and without any sort of recovery, deciding on a not guilty verdict was the only option. It was as simple as that.

So What Really Happened?

What really happened is what we the jury decided happened.

Now, that seems an odd thing to say, perhaps even a bit Orwellian. We obviously don’t know what happened, and we will never know, unless we get a working crystal ball in the mail. Did we have a lot of unanswered questions, even after hours listening to both sides? Yes. Did we wish both sides had explored more avenues? Absolutely. But to reach a fair and impartial decision, a jury can’t engage in idle speculation. All we can do is sift through the Facts at hand, decide those that are relevant and those that are not. Based on those Facts, we found the defendant Not Guilty – and so he is.

An awesome power, really, when one thinks about it – to determine the truth like that.

And so, after delivering the verdict, we ate our lunch and departed the courthouse, leaving behind our jury badge and all of the rest of the paraphenelia which we received over the course of our service. We got in our car and drove home, and opened up that DVD we had bought back on Thursday. We were very much looking forward to watching "Rashomon."

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at September 23, 2004 11:33 PM | TrackBack