Diary of a Trial Juror
The trial ended today. Exactly on the third court day after we started. I have to admit serving as a juror on this particular trial was quite an experience. Judge Mary Johnson said we were an unusually good jury. It’s always hard for people to suddenly leave their real lives behind and focus on the proceedings. It’s natural for distractions to intrude into people’s minds at times during a trial. The Judge noted that we . . . including our two alternates . . . were an extraordinarily attentive jury. Well, this trial needed that. There was so much going on. The language barrier was bad enough, but the cultural barrier. I knew, of course, that there are places like that in the world but I hadn’t realized that the Viet Nam/Cambodia region was among them. Appallingly, it was quite apparent that not only did the defendant not realize that domestic violence is unacceptable under U.S. law, but nor did the plaintiff’s sister and brother-in-law.
We handed in the verdict at about 2:00 p.m. I heard later from the head jury pool officer that we were almost just in time. Judge Johnson deemed the case justified no more than three days at trial, and if we hadn’t had a verdict in time to clear the case by end of today’s court day, Judge Mary was going to declare a mistrial.
Every jury operates differently in deliberations. We had three charges and decided to work from most serious on down the list. Another jury might work the opposite way but that worked for us. Besides the translation issue with the plaintiff speaking virtually no English, and the cultural issues, one of the problems was the evidence was both unsatisfactory and contradictory. The first charge of attempted murder for a while gave us the toughest time. We unanimously believed the defendant guilty. But, did we have enough evidence to sustain the lack of reasonable doubt? Bobby settled it for us. He basically picked up the cleaver, and said something along the lines of “I know it and so do you, but there are no fingerprints on the weapon and no eyewitness or eyewitnesses, so I can’t feel comfortable in that context saying ‘he took this weapon and . . . ‘” graphically demonstrating a potential use of the cleaver. It took the rest of us about a nanosecond for us all to agree, which meant we were required to acquit on that charge for lack of sufficient evidence to not leave reasonable doubt.
The next chunk of deliberations began with being largely focused on conflicting testimony. It was clear to all of us that the plaintiff’s sister and brother-in-law perjured themselves. In their culture, the man essentially owns his woman. Though the plaintiff and defendant aren’t legally married under U.S. law, by Viet Nam mores, they are married by virtue of having lived together. It seem that by the mores of that country, the plaintiff’s sister and brother-in-law (any family members of the ‘wife’ apparently) are required to come to the defense of the male. Here were considering two charges: simple assault and threat to commit a crime, such a threat forming a crime in itself. The defendant had been heard on more than one occasion to threaten the plaintiff. We started with the assault in consideration separately, but by the end, the two lesser charges seemed to us inexorably entwined. What it eventually came down to was “who was the most reliable witness in the case?” As soon as someone stated that bluntly, things became clear. We didn’t think the plaintiff was deliberately lying but she tended to get hysterically and she was completely incapable of understanding the concept of “inadmissible” testimony so she wouldn’t stop when the Judge repeatedly told her to. I suppose that’s where her need to go through a translator was a good thing; because the translator could filter the plaintiff’s testimony in Viet Namese and only translate into English the portions that the Judge indicated not be admissible.
Everyone in the courthouse knew her sister, brother-in-law, and the defendant were all lying. Someone on the jury posed the question: “Who is the most reliable witness?’ At that point, although we knew we had a few more minutes talking it over, we all knew we had our verdict on both the lesser charges. The cop called to the scene was the most reliable witness. Strictly speaking, his story didn’t 100% support either of the plaintiff’s or defendant’s testimonies. However, the discrepancies with the plaintiff’s story were minor: the kind of thing you might hear from multiple witnesses at an accident scene with slightly different vantage points so you get variants based on what they can see and what obstructions might filter from their view. So, essentially, the cop’s story corroborated that of the plaintiff. We talked it over to make sure we did in fact agree, and weren’t just making assumptions of agreement, and rapidly found out we were in fact in agreement to convict on both the lesser charges. I may have been the delaying factor here, since I had regarded the cop’s testimony with particular stringency given that in pre-selection screening I had been asked if I automatically regarded law officers’s testimonies as infallible given that I had someone in my family who had been a cop.
As I mentioned, we were later told we’d just about come in timely with the verdict, but we had actually reached it a bit earlier. There was a delay in delivering the message of a reached verdict, because the timing was such that they’d already sent out for lunch. We told the head jury pool officer when the sandwiches arrived, but the judge and attorneys were also at lunch by then, so we relaxed and enjoyed sandwiches and fruit for lunch. We’d be Judge Mary’s first order of business when the afternoon court session opened.
The Judge sent for us as soon as court went back into session right after lunch, and we went through the protocol of being asked if we’d reached a verdict and then delivering that verdict. Judge Mary accepted the verdict then sent us back to the deliberations area for a little while for her to clear some other business then called us back for a brief courtroom wrap-up.
All in all it was about another half hour to complete the wrap-up and we were technically free to pick up our jury service certifications and go at that point, but Judge Mary asked if we would return to the deliberations room so she could speak briefly with us there. We all agreed, and this time the alternates joined us there, which of course had not been allowed ruing the actual deliberations. This was the point when Judge Mary not only thanked us for our service but noted and expressed gratitude for our conscientious and extraordinarily attentive service, noting even our alternates . . . one man and one woman . . . had carefully attended to all the evidence presented. The Judge repeated what they had told us after acceptance of the verdict. Upon her departure after her thank you talk, we were free to collect our service certifications and leave but if we desired to do so we also, individually now, had the option to return to the courtroom to witness the sentencing. Most of us decided to do so, so we went down during the interval before the sentencing session to collect our certifications then returned to the courtroom.
The defendant had been in jail before on stalking charges or something like that. Of course that wasn’t admissible in the trial but the Judge could consider it for sentencing purposes. Judge Mary listened to arguments from attorneys for both sides which were as you would expect; prosecutors going for harsher penalties and defense arguing for more leniency particularly as the defendant provided the financial support for a child. Judge Mary sentenced the defendant to probation under a suspended prison sentence of one year. When we left the courtroom after sentencing, the head jury pool officer told us that was a smart move on the Judge’s part. If the defendant went to prison now he could get out on probation and although the system tries to warn the victim in such cases they don’t always reach the victim in time which often results in a murder in such a case. Probation under a suspended sentence would require the defendant to toe the mark, and any other criminal action . . . even on an entirely unrelated crime . . . would result in the sentence being invoked and a sentence invoked because of violated probation is not eligible for parole so the defendant would have to serve out the full year in that case and there would be no surprises as to the release date.
All in all, a quite interesting case. By now, it was nearly the end of the court day so the eight of us who had served as jurors took leave of each other and of the two jury pool officers who had served us so well during the course of the trial.
I’m home, now, obviously. But I needed to fully process all I’d experienced as a juror over the past three days so I decided to write up my experiences in my journal.