Sunday, November 13, 2011

My Days on Jury Duty

When we jurors started our deliberations, sequestered in our small room, the vote was 8 to 4 to convict, on both counts.

The process of massaging away the doubts of the four who were unsure in order to reach the unanimous verdict required in a criminal residential burglary case, capped my experience last week--one that was fascinating, emotional, and reassuring about the health of our justice system.

Like most who are summoned (and myself, years ago), I didn't want to serve.  I have a life, after all, and I don't like it disrupted.  I'd have to miss my daily workout, and the classes I take, and the work piled up.  What's worse, I was to start at 8 am the morning after the daughter of our dearest friends was to marry--two states away.  Serving on the jury would mean having to leave the wedding early to make the last plane out, arriving home after 1 am, and battling downtown traffic soon thereafter in rush hour.  It meant the prospect of either awaiting assignment on a case imprisoned in a windowless room with hundreds of others, or worse, who-knows-how-long embroiled in endless testimony and courtroom back-and-forth.

They don't call it jury "duty" for nothin'.  Duty is something you know you should do, whether you want to, or not.

So, last Monday, after flying from LA (pulled from the wedding reception just as my son arose to perform some "schtick" for the crowd) and finally retiring to my bed at 3 am the night before, I showed up at King County Courthouse, endured a long line, a metal-detector beep and wanding, and entered the jury assembly room, a large auditorium-esque space with rows of chairs aimed toward a podium.  At the rear was the restroom, a side area with a few vending machines and a glass-walled "quiet" area where cell phones were banned.

The room filled completely, and soon an employee, followed by a judge, welcomed and addressed the group, explaining that we'd be called to various courts for "voir dire," the jury selection process.  We watched a film describing what to expect; throughout was gracious acknowledgement of the sacrifice made by jurors to further the right to fair trial for citizens.

After not-too-long, the administrator called groups of about 45 names, instructing each to assemble on a particular floor for an individual judge's court.  I was assigned to the third floor, and the bailiff for our court, a sweet-faced younger woman with a melodious voice, gathered us into the courtroom for voir dire.  We each were handed a large laminated number, as if we were about to bid at some grand auction, and told to raise it whenever we spoke, for identification.  As I had been chosen for seat number 12, I got to sit in the cushy exec-chairs of the jury box rather than the spectators' benches.

The defendant, a young, slender brown-haired Caucasian man with a slight smirk, sat next to his female attorney, mid-30s with thick black eye-makeup, clad severely in all-gray.  At a perpendicular table sat the county prosecutor, a square, older woman with short gray bob who appeared all business but offered a soft, upturned inflection in her voice.

The voir dire questions directed to individual potential jurors ranged from clarification about the occupation listed on our brief biography forms to queries about our feelings as victims of home break-ins.  We were asked whether we believed a defendant should testify at his trial, and if we thought that fingerprints were incontrovertible evidence.  We were asked about any potential sources of bias, and whether we knew anyone involved in the case, including names read from a list of witnesses to be called to the stand.

I described how, about 18 years ago when we lived in California, our home was entered while we slept, a packed suitcase and my purse stolen, and with my key, the car from our driveway.  Did they catch the thief? No, but my car was found a week later, abandoned with only minimal damage.  I was asked why a defendant wouldn't testify at his own trial, answering that perhaps he was inarticulate and wouldn't represent himself well.

This questioning lasted about two hours, and finally the attorneys each dismissed seven of the 45 potential jurors under "peremptory" privileges, that is, without having to explain their choices.  As individuals left the room, the line in the stands moved up toward the jury box.  As number 12, since I was not dismissed, I was in.  Immediately, we raised our right hands to "swear or affirm" to try the case according to the law and evidence.  There was no bible or mention of God in any oath I heard, by the way.

Immediately, the prosecutor and defense attorneys laid out their cases.  The prosecutor described how the defendant first attempted to unhinge the secluded back door of the University district apartment of two grad students.  Though the police described screwdriver pry marks, and finding two removed hinges lying next to the door, (which had been installed backward with the hinges outside), the middle hinge was so corroded, it could not be removed.

A bedroom window, about a foot higher than some stairs along side it, did, however, provide an entry.  The female student victim described arriving home and opening the front door, noticing her computer gone from where she'd last used it in the living room.  In the bedroom, she spied the window she'd left slightly ajar slid wide, screen removed.  Her bed was amiss, and a glass of water once on a bedside stand spilled.

She realized the disturbance and began noticing that items were gone: two cameras, two trombones belonging to her music-major boyfriend, her expensive computer with hard-drives, jewelry, music equipment.  Unable to reach her boyfriend or family, she "called the cops."

The police fingerprint analyst determined that one of the prints was clear enough to form the basis for a search.  And, she found a match.

This was the entire basis of the case.  One clear fingerprint inside the apartment window, matched to the defendant.  We heard extensively from the police fingerprint expert, a grandmotherly woman whose 18 years in her position with the Department, 2,500 hours of training, and experience teaching others seemed to qualify her well.  She'd prepared a power point presentation to carefully detail the process she uses to compare prints, and point out the particulars that convinced her that a match was certain.

We heard extensive testimony about the stolen items, in which the victims described and justified their dollar values.  This was the boring part of the case for me, as I didn't know at the time that the prosecutor needed to ascertain a $5,000 loss in order to convict for "first degree" theft.  The defense lawyer didn't question any of it.

As I'd guessed from voir dire, the defendant was never asked to take the stand, and in fact nothing was said about him at all other than his name. The defense relied entirely on trying to plant a "reasonable doubt" in the jurors' minds--are we sure enough that this print really belongs to the defendant? After all, the fingerprint expert is "only human, and humans make mistakes."  Did we want on our consciences that we sent someone to prison based solely on a single fingerprint?  Why didn't the police use new bio-technologies for identifying; why wasn't there a security camera photo of the perpetrator, or stolen merchandise found in his possession?

"If you have even the slightest doubt," the prosecutor insisted, "you are bound by the law to acquit the defendant."

Her tactics worked on four of the jurors.  One said she didn't feel comfortable convicting when the "case was built on just one brick."  Another had fallen for the prosecutor's attempt to confuse, by implying that the evaluation was based on a tracing of the print by the analyst, rather than on the print itself (not the case).  Another had sympathy for the victim, since he had a friend who had faced trial (and was acquitted).

I was rather frustrated, because of course "the slightest doubt" is not the same as a "reasonable" doubt, but everyone in the room maintained respect and calm.  One juror took the lead:  "Let's establish first that this is indeed the fingerprint of the defendant."  That involved discussing the qualifications of the analyst, the details of the power point, the fact that the match was verified.

In measured, logical terms, several of the jurors explained why they thought this had to be the defendant's fingerprint--focusing on its nineteen unique similarities (disconnected ridges, combinations of shapes, distance and placement of oddities) that formed the basis of the match.  We'd heard testimony that in some cases, matches are made on far less--even two unique similarities.  When most of the jurors politely repeated "this is what convinced me..." the facts finally brought the doubters clarity.

Once it was established that the defendant's print was found inside the apartment, we turned to, "did he enter with intent to steal"?

Most amusing was when the "don't convict on one brick" juror tried to come up with alternate explanations for why the defendant's print was inside the window ledge. "Well, my husband does parkour, and goes around hanging off of different places..."  With great respect, we asked if he'd ever removed the screen of a stranger's bedroom in order to swing off its inner sill.

Several clever possible explanations later, we agreed there was no reasonable explanation for the defendant's print to be inside that apartment, which moved us into a lengthy discussion of the value of the items stolen.  Since the prosecutor had valued them at $5,600, and we had the option to convict "second degree" (for total stolen $750-$5,000), we spent time considering the figures in the testimony in the light of the expertise of various jurors.  The techies confirmed the big items' worth; a musician vouched for the trombones; we dickered about the jewelry.  In the end, the calculations still topped the $5,000 threshold.  Our vote was taken and "guilty" on the two counts declared.

In the courtroom, the clerk read the verdicts and then "polled the jurors," asking each if this was his personal verdict as well as the verdict of the jury.  With twelve double yeses, we were dismissed from service, told to wait in our room until the judge could address us.

We were allowed to ask questions, the most interesting answer revealing that the defendant had a record of a prior conviction on the same charges.  I wondered how many break-ins he might have done without detection or successful conviction, which would add to the importance of this verdict in sparing further victims.

We each received a nifty "Certificate of Recognition" and were offered the opportunity to chat with the attorneys.  I would have loved to do so, but my husband was awaiting me.

I was impressed with the care and seriousness of the justice process, and sincerity and earnestness of my fellow jurors.  They were a collection of people of all ages, most taking time from full-time, higher-level occupations, and seemingly well-educated.

When you look at the newspaper (my diversion during several recesses) the contrast between the treatment of citizens in the United States and other countries is stark. We are indeed fortunate to live in this greatest nation on God's green earth--and our justice system is perhaps the basis of its integrity and success.


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  2. Great Post! Thank you for your service. I like your comparison between "slightest doubt" and "reasonable doubt". I only wish all jurors thought like you :)