WARNING: Long Diary Below!
As an American citizen, one of the things I always wanted to do was sit on a jury. I know many people have different feelings and opinions about our system of justice, and I have always wanted to experience the inner workings of it from the inside. Well, at least from a citizen's side of the inside. I received my summons in December to start the call in process during the week of 1/13. Normally this would be a really bad time for me to serve, but thanks to the shenanigans of the Republican Party there wasn't going to be much I could at my job with IRS not accepting returns until 1/31. Still, I was conflicted as I didn't want to miss work but still wanted the opportunity of serving.
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I got the call to come in on Tuesday, 1/14 where things immediately went to hell. At approx. 11am, a bomb scare was called into the court where the potential jurors were kept. The court was shut down for about 45 minutes right before lunch. Most people figured they would let the prospective jurors go for the day, but no, they wanted everyone to come back at 2pm. No one could figure out why someone would call in a fake bomb threat to a small Supreme Court courthouse. (For those who don't know, the lowest level court in NY is the Supreme Court. Don't ask me why.) I later ran into a friend of mine, a lawyer, who said that day was foreclosure day. Desperate times call for desperate measures, I guess.
I arrived back to the courthouse just before two and was quickly called into a jury room. We were told to begin filling out a questionnaire and that we were going to be taken by bus to the county courthouse a couple of miles away. While on the way to the courthouse, I began filling out the questionnaire. I debated how to answer certain questions knowing I could potentially get dismissed. I decided to keep it short and simple with the only potentially controversial thing I put down was that I was a political blogger. I figured I would get a bunch of questions about that and have to reveal my pinko, tree-hugging, far left views. I figured one of the lawyers would come to believe I am a close-minded political junkie and not want me on the jury.
We got to the courthouse and were led by a court officer to one of the courtrooms where the litigants, judge and court workers were waiting. After being seated, the judge introduced himself as well as the two lawyers and the defendant. He then went over the case. The defendant was on trial for both DWI and aggravated DWI. DWI requires a blood alcohol content of .08 while aggravated DWI requires a blood alcohol content of .18. Prior to reading about the particulars of the case, the judge told us sitting in the back that if we had issues with anything he was going to talk about to raise our hands. Those people would then go up to the bench to discuss whatever issues they had with the judge and the two lawyers. The first thing was the length of the trial, originally thought to be a week. I though about raising my hand being that it was tax season, but I figured that wouldn’t be taken into consideration, so I kept it down. The judge then talked about who might testify including some police officers. The judge said as jurors, we could not have any bias for or against police officers. That is we could not see them as more or less truthful/believable than any other person just because they were police officers. A few people raised their hands during this section. The judge also instructed that if we could not be unbiased towards the defendant (for or against) to raise our hands. A couple of people did here. There were a few other instructions to which people could have raised their hands (some did). After that was done, those people went up individually to speak with the judge and the lawyers at the bench. When all of those people finished talking everyone again took their sears. The court clerk then put our names into a drum and randomly selected 8 people to be questioned. I was one of the people chosen.
After we were seated in our respective seats in the jury box, the lawyers began asking questions. Both lawyers focused on three or four people in particular. One lady had a number of cops in her family and stated countless times that she would unlikely be able to set her bias in favor of cops aside. Another gentleman was a former president of a local college who, along with the college, had been sued for discrimination and defamation. If I remember correctly, it was related to some minority students. Not too surprising given Long Island’s, especially Nassau County’s, long history of discrimination against minorities. According to his answers he only lost on one defamation count. A couple of other people were asked specific questions, but most, like me, were only being asked questions that were being asked of everyone.
The one time I got a specific question was when the defense attorney was going one by one through the jury box asking each person, on a scale of 10, how quick they are to come to conclusions (1 being very quick). I answered 7 because I do make a lot of snap judgments but am always open to changing my mind as new facts come to light. After he asked me that question, he remembered I listed that I was a political blogger. The one and only question he asked me about that was if I ever wrote about the Nassau County Crime Lab. The reason I was likely asked this question was due to the scandal that had engulfed the crime lab in 2010-2011. It was found out during an investigation by the state Inspector General that were virtually no controls governing forensic testing being done at the lab going as far back as 2005 (likely earlier). I had a passing memory of it at the time of being questioned but thought it was only related to DNA testing which is what I told the defense attorney and that I never wrote about it. After the trial I did some research and found out that it did extend into the drug testing and latent evidence side. However, it did not seem to involve the alcohol testing lab which was what the prosecutor told me when I spoke to him after the case concluded.
After both attorneys were finished questioning the 8 of us picked in the first group, we went outside the courtroom while the attorneys and judge discussed which of us, if any, were going to be picked to serve. While outside I figured due to the lack of questioning I received and the fact that I was the fifth person selected at random, I was likely going to be picked as a juror. After about 10 minutes we were called back into the courtroom. The clerk got up and read three names asking us to be seated in certain chairs. I was the second person called (two women were also called) and was asked to sit in the first chair of the second row. Lo and behold, I was picked to serve. Because the charges were misdemeanors, the jury is made up of 6 people with two alternates instead of 12 with 4 alternates. I was picked as the first alternate. Part of me was happy because I could sit through the whole trial and watch all the proceedings but wouldn’t have to suffer a guilty conscious if I came to the wrong verdict.
The trial started the following morning with the judge going over the order of proceedings. I don’t think I need to explain that. The judge also told us that the defense is not required to put on any defense nor is the defendant required to testify and should the defense attorney offer no witnesses, we were not allowed to let that affect our deliberations in reaching a verdict. The entire burden of proof was on the prosecutor. If the defense did call witnesses, the prosecutor would be allowed to call rebuttal witnesses. After witnesses and evidence had been entered into trial, both attorneys would be allowed to make a summation with the defense going first if they desired. However, they were not required to do so. The judge said after all the proceedings had occurred he would read the relevant law and give further instructions about deliberations including what reasonable doubt is.
I am not going into the actual trial itself because this diary is going be long enough as it is. I may come back to that in a later diary, but you can ask questions in the comments and I will be happy to answer any of them. What I want to talk about is what I found interesting about the proceedings. When we got to the court each day we would meet downstairs until one of the court officers came to bring us to the floor where the courtroom was. We then were escorted into one of the jury rooms until the judge was ready for us to come to the courtroom. Every time we were brought in everyone in the courtroom sans the judge was standing until we were seated. The judge would then let us know what was going to be happening during this particular day. In the courtroom where the trial was being held, the two lawyers’ desks were behind one another rather than side by side as you see on most TV shows. When it came to swearing people in (both us and the witnesses), the court officer would say “Do you hereby swear or affirm that you will tell the truth, the whole and nothing but the truth?” I was glad neither I nor anyone else had to invoke a spiritual being to guarantee our truth-telling. There were few people in attendance at the trial. Most people who did attend seemed to be other lawyers who were probably working with the defense attorney or the prosecutor. The defendant’s family members (mostly his wife) made a couple of appearances. The only day there was a crowd was the day the defendant took the stand. There were also an unusually large number of court officers at times. At one point there were 5 in the room at once. I was never really sure why there so many officers in room so often. This was a DWI trial involving a mid-fifties man who was a former lawyer and now owned a bail bonds business. Considering we jurors had to go through the metal detectors every day, unless one of the lawyers, the judge or the court employees were going to do something sinister it seemed like overkill.
At the end of each day and before we broke for lunch, the judge would always remind us not to talk to anyone, including each other, about the case and not to research any of the participants in the case. Also no talking to media or reading any articles about the case (I doubted this case was ever going to be covered). The judge also issued a few other directives to us jurors most notably bundling up when going outside for lunch and getting a good night’s sleep. He also ordered us to have a good weekend each Friday. The judge was very courteous to us jurors and always made sure we understood what was going on as well as that we were as comfortable as possible. He did try to make the experience as pleasant as possible.
I should note here that the defendant was originally arrested on Jan 29, 2011. The case took three years before coming to trial. After the trial was over, I went on to the county court’s site and saw an incredible amount of motion hearings pertaining to the case. During the trial, the two lawyers continued to object about pieces of evidence I thought would have been adjudicated prior to the trial. I guess the judge suspected this would happen at times, so rather than continually sending us back to the jury room the judge and the two lawyers would leave the courtroom to discuss the objections. Interestingly, not once did we ever have to stand when the judge would enter or exit. Also interesting to me was before any piece of evidence was formally entered into evidence, the opposing attorney could question the witness about the evidence before announcing whether he would or would not object to it. If no objection or the judge overruling an object, the item would then be entered into evidence.
Skipping forward: after the judge read all of the counts, applicable laws and instructions, the jury went off to deliberate while the other alternate and I went to a separate room to sit. We asked the court officer whether we would be allowed to leave or if we had to stay until the jury came back with a verdict. The court officer said it was up to the lawyers and the judge whether or not we could leave. At that time they wanted us to remain, but he would let us know if something changed. The two of us discussed what we thought of the case and it only took us a few minutes to decide on our verdict. We had our phones taken away from us like the jury did, but the other alternate was allowed to keep her iPad. (I am sure the officers didn’t know she had it). The two of us mostly read and discussed other things especially what we thought about the other jury members. Occasionally we talked about the trial, but there was only so much to be discussed.
The first morning we were in a separate jury room, but after that we were put in an empty courtroom since all the other jury rooms were being used. Because we were in a room that had no buzzer, the officers had to keep coming to check up on us. Due to that we had extended conversations with them about all kinds of topics including about court proceedings and what little they knew about what was going on in the jury room.
Only once did the jury ask a question. The question was, “What does the phrase ‘per se’ mean?” The judge didn’t actually answer the questions specifically; he just re-read the two counts to which the question referred. At the end of the first day of deliberations, one juror had asked to be excused because they felt no verdict was going to be reached and they could not stand being in the room any longer. The judge wouldn’t allow it and said they were a smart group who should be able to come to a verdict. Furthermore, he said a new jury was unlikely to see the case any differently and it wouldn’t be worth the time or money to go through it all again. Finally at the last minute on the second day and after 9 hours of deliberating, the jury reached a verdict. The verdict was read and the jury was thanked and everyone finally got to go home.
After being excused, the court officer gave everyone their phones back (they were given back any time we were not in court or deliberations) and told us we could talk to the lawyer. I could tell most of the jurors were pretty emotional. (Apparently there was a lot of screaming and cursing going on in the jury room. During one lunch break a couple of jury members basically revealed almost everything that had been going on in the room to me which of course is not allowed.) One juror, the foreperson, turned to me as we were waiting for the elevator and said she was going to recuse herself if they had to come back one more day. I was the only one who wanted to speak to the lawyers mostly because I wanted to tell the defense attorney what I thought of a couple things he said during his summation.
So now you have a little insight into the process of being a juror or at least an alternate. It was an interesting experience and to tell you the truth, I’d sign up again in heartbeat. Oh and one final thing, honestly, I did not officially decide on my verdict until just before the summations though if one of the lawyers made me look at any evidence differently, I was open to changing my mind. That didn’t happen.
One final note completely unrelated to this diary: it would be remiss of me not to acknowledge that yesterday was National Rare Disease Day. As someone who suffers from an ultra-rare genetic condition (less than 3000 people world-wide are thought to have what I have), awareness is the biggest obstacle to funding and research. In fact Jeremy Lee Miller, star of Elementary, just spoke on behalf of a related disorder of mine at a Congressional hearing this past week.
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