Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Dispatches from the jury assembly room

I've lived in Los Angeles county for twenty-one years now and I have never served on a jury. I've been summoned for jury duty probably a dozen times, but I've never actually been on a jury. In fact, until about two years ago I never even made it to the courthouse. I was always in the middle of some new startup or other that let me get excused from duty. They've cracked down on that kind of thing now and made it much harder to be excused. On the plus side, they've instituted a new system where if you don't actually get on a jury on your first day then you're done. They also have a new (and well hidden) way of going through the juror orientation on-line, which allows you to show up at the courthouse at 9:30 instead of 7:30. And the juror assembly room has free wireless. So all in all, while it's now nearly impossible to avoid, jury duty is not nearly the onerous chore that it once was.

Which is not to say that it's not annoying. I still have to sit here all day knowing full well that I will never be empaneled on a jury. I know this because of what happened to me the last time I went through this, about two years ago. I sat around all day, and just before quittin' time I and about thirty of my fellow unfortunate prospective jurors had our names called. We all filed out and went to where we'd been instructed (a process that took about half an hour because one of the elevators was broken and the staircases are inaccessible except in emergencies "for security reasons"). There was just enough time to give us yet another pep talk about how wonderful it was to serve on a jury and participate in this unique American institution, and that we had to show up again the next day for the actual start of voir dire.

The next day, after several hours of sitting around waiting for some delay whose nature was never revealed, they started questioning us. That went on for several hours. A few jurors got dismissed by peremptory challenge but I was still there at the end of the day. So on day three I shlep myself to downtown LA yet again, wait around for a few more hours for more mysterious delays, before finally being summoned back into the courtroom. The very first thing that happens then is that the prosecution attorney dismisses me by peremptory challenge. That's it. I'm done. Great, but couldn't you have figured that out yesterday and saved me this trip?

Since I had already set the day aside anyway I decided to stick around and watch our justice system at work. I met a family attending the trial of a man accused of killing a family member. It struck me how different this reality was from the way it's portrayed on TV. The drama and pain are the same, but real life moves at a glacial pace by comparison to television, and even if the killer is convicted, the victim is still dead. And this time it's a real flesh-and-blood person, not a thinly drawn character who evaporates with the closing credits.

During one of the breaks I asked the prosecutor why she'd gotten rid of me, though I was pretty sure I already knew. She confirmed my suspicions: One of the voir dire questions was, "Would you have a problem convicting someone if the only evidence against them was eyewitness testimony?" I had to answer that yes, I would, because I had done a lot of reading about the unreliability of eyewitness testimony.

I'm not sure which I find more annoying, that I was barred from serving for being too well informed, or that I now have to spend a day going through this whole process over again with no reason to believe that the outcome will be any different this time around. I'm no less informed now than I was then. The evidence for the unreliability of eyewitness testimony has, if anything, only grown stronger. I've also been the victim of a violent crime, which I'm told makes me tainted goods for defense attorneys as well. I should be able to get some kind of permanent undesirable-juror designation.

There are two ironies in this situation that really drive me bonkers. First, unlike most of my colleagues in the juror assembly room who view being placed on a jury as drawing the short straw, I actually wouldn't mind serving on a jury. I'm not sure I'd go so far as to say I want to do it, but I'm certainly willing to do it. I do believe in the system, flawed as it is, and I believe in making the time to do my civic duty. I just wish it didn't have to be so damned inefficient. (I am also starting to have my doubts about whether or not, economically speaking, we can continue to afford to indulge ourselves in jury trials. There are an awful lot of people sitting around me being not terribly productive at the moment. And that damn video they just started showing with the sound cranked up to full volume isn't going to help end the recession any sooner either.)

The second irony: I'm pretty sure I'll never serve on a jury because both the prosecution and the defense think I'm prejudiced against them. Trick is, at least one of them must be wrong.

I wonder what would happen if they found out I believe in jury nullification.


Just happened to stumble across this gem from Philip "Greenspun's tenth law" Greenspun:

"Today we have a legal system with many safeguards for defendants' rights. However, in our heart of hearts, we don't really believe that we could convict enough defendants if we actually gave all of them all of their rights. Consequently, we set nominal penalties for crimes at absurdly high levels, e.g., 'life plus 100 years.' The actual penalty received by 95% of the people who commit such crimes is in fact 12-15 years. This is what they get if they agree to a plea bargain. However, if they choose to exercise their right to trial, they face the nominal penalty of life plus 100.

Obviously having these really high penalties is more subtle than physical torture, but the basic idea is the same and probably a fair number of sensible people are pleading guilty to crimes they didn't commit."

UPDATE 2 (the following day):

Dismissed without ever making it into the jury box. A day and a half down the drain for nothing. There has to be a better way.

1 comment:

rabagley said...

Also an LA resident, called to jury duty last year, interviewed in the first group of random selections, am interested in the process but needed to get back to my own entrepreneurial business.


Judge: "Do any of you have any preconceptions that might interfere with deciding this issue based solely on the facts?"

(my hand goes up here).

Judge: "What preconceptions?"

Me: "I believe that the War on Drugs is a spectacularly bad idea, and even if I believed the defendant committed the acts he is accused of, I would have mercy and not convict because I do not believe selling drugs constitutes any possible crime."

Response: "Defense? State? Thank you for your time. You're dismissed."