Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Jury Duty

I reported for jury duty yesterday.

This is something I have done frequently in the past. And observing the jury selection process is something I've done professionally. In my reporting days, I covered the high–profile trials in the county where I lived and worked.

So when I report for jury duty and I have to listen to the equivalent of an intro to the legal system lecture, I must admit that I'm a bit bored. I feel like I've heard — and seen — it all before.

Well, I felt that way until yesterday.

Let me start my recap by pointing out that prospective jurors were required to be at the court building by 8:30. I can assure you that, in Dallas, the morning rush hour is well under way before 8 o'clock. The court building is about 12 miles from my apartment, and it's in a section of Dallas I seldom visit. I had been summoned to unfamiliar territory at the worst possible time of the day — and on a Monday, to boot!

It is safe to say I was not enthusiastic about my task.

Anyway, I left my apartment much earlier than I needed to. I managed to make my commute before traffic got to be too bad, and, as a result, I had a lot of time to kill after I found my parking spot at the court building. It was one of those situations when I really miss smoking. I mean, I'm glad I don't pay outrageous prices for cigarettes anymore, and I don't miss coughing when I get up in the morning, but a cigarette or two in such a situation was always very calming for me, and I miss that sometimes.

Anyway, I missed it yesterday when I had some time on my hands.

Well, I was in my seat at 8:30, along with a couple of thousand prospective jurors. But you know who wasn't there? The person who welcomes us and recites the basics about jury service. Usually, that's a judge, and he/she ordinarily gives the jurors an oath to be truthful when asked any questions during jury selection.

But no judge was on hand at 8:30 ... or at 8:40 ... or at 8:50.

I had a book with me because I know, from previous experience, that you can spend a lot of time on jury duty just waiting for something — anything — to happen. So I read ... for awhile. But then I gave in to the temptation to watch the people.

Jury duty is second only to the afternoons I've spent at racetracks in my life when it comes to people watching.

And I saw several people in the Jurors' Room who looked like celebrities. One looked like Redd Foxx — but I knew it couldn't possibly be Redd Foxx because he has been dead for many years. Pat Morita also is deceased, but I sat next to a fellow who looked just like him — older, a little heavier and his beard was a bit fuller, but he did resemble Morita.

Another one looked like Jeff Goldblum, who is alive, and, for all I know, he may be on location in Dallas for the filming of a movie or he may be taping episodes of the Law & Order" show in which he stars for USA Network. But I don't think he lives anywhere near Dallas County so he wouldn't be summoned for jury duty here.

Now, before I continue, I should tell you that there has been a big change in the Dallas County court buildings (and there are about six or seven of them now, I think) since the last time I was summoned for jury duty. A computer system has been installed, and jurors are encouraged to answer a general questionnaire online.

The jury summons includes a printout of the questionnaire, and jurors may submit the questionnaire the old–fashioned way if they choose. But the county encourages folks to fill it out online.

Part of some internal paperless movement, I'm sure.

Funny thing, though. I don't recall being asked to fill out that questionnaire before, and I've responded to jury summonses from four Dallas locations now, I believe. But this time they were insisting on it.

Now, I had completed the questionnaire online at home so I didn't need to do it. But the woman asked all the prospective jurors who had not filled out the questionnaire to get in line to do so on computers that lined the wall of the Jurors' Room.

And when she made her request, I was amazed at all the people who stood up. In some ways, it was like the answer to a cliche. There were a lot of blacks, a lot of Hispanics, a lot of elderly people. Those are the groups that the studies tell us can't afford computers or won't embrace the computer age.

But those same studies tell us that young people are embracing every technological advance that comes along, yet I saw many young people who were in line. I looked at that line and marveled at how it snaked around the room. And it just kept growing as stragglers made their way in.

And still no judge.

Around 9:20, a lady from Juror Services stepped up to the microphone and began singing the praises of the computer system. At the same time, she had an apology — of sorts. "We usually try to get started assigning jurors to different courts by 9:30," she said. "Obviously, we're not going to make that today, but that's just because we have so many jurors today."

And, with that, she left. And we sat and waited for another 15 minutes — until a judge showed up. He gave us the oath and told us how great this computer system was (by this time, the line had gone all the way around the room, and the end could be found out in the hallway).

Well, shortly before 10:30, they started assigning us. Nearly two hours after we had been instructed to be in our seats ready to begin the jury selection process.

My juror number was in the second group called, so I took a badge and went with roughly six dozen people to the seventh floor, where we waited outside the designated courtroom for more than an hour. Then a bailiff came out, called each juror by name and passed out one–page questionnaires for each to fill out. We had about 25 minutes to do things like write our names, addresses, summarize our past jury experiences, as well as recapping the times when we were victims of crimes.

Then we were asked to list three prominent people we most admired. I don't think I had ever been asked that question before, and I really had to think about it for awhile. I finally decided that I couldn't think of any living people that I really admire so I wrote down three names of deceased people.

Well, the bailiff came back out shortly before noon and gathered up the questionnaires. We were asked to remain outside the courtroom. Meanwhile, the jurors who had been gathered for another case down the hall were dismissed.

At the time, I presumed they were being dismissed for lunch, but apparently they were turned loose for the day. I spent quite a bit of time in that hallway, and I never saw them again. So I conclude that one of two things happened — a jury was chosen in record time or some sort of plea agreement was reached.

My money is on a plea agreement.

Well, around 12:30, the judge called all of the jurors into the courtroom. We filed in, and the judge told us that the defendant was charged with five counts of robbery. While we had been sitting out in the hall, the defendant apparently had agreed to plead guilty so the prosecution was relieved of the responsibility of proving his guilt.

But that did not mean that we were being dismissed yet. Now, it was necessary to select a jury for the punishment phase of the trial.

This was a new one on me. Of course, it may be nothing more than a difference between state laws. Or it may be the evolution of sentencing that takes place over time.

I was fresh out of college when I covered the police beat and covered trials in Arkansas. And the only times I remember a punishment phase — which is like a second trial, but it is only concerned with the sentence because the guilt of the defendant has already been established — were in murder trials. In those instances, the jury had to decide between a life sentence or the death penalty.

Not every murder conviction involved that choice. If the murder was believed to be premeditated, a death sentence was an option. If it was believed to be unintentional, a death sentence was not an option.

And I'll admit I never covered a robbery trial. But I did cover non–fatality trials in which the defendants were convicted, and I do not remember a single instance where a punishment phase was involved.

Of course, that was awhile ago. Laws change. Procedures vary. And I am living in a different state now.

Anyway, this particular defendant has plead guilty to five counts of robbery. Now, under existing law in Texas in 2010, the distinction between theft and robbery is that theft applies to the taking of another person's property. It becomes robbery if another person is injured or killed or believes he/she is in danger of injury or death.

When selecting a jury, the lawyers cannot provide any of the specifics of the case so we were constantly being reminded that we were being given hypothetical scenarios that fit the parameters of the charge.

For example, it would be possible, we were told, for all five counts to have come from a single event. Immediately, my mind turned to images I have seen from security cameras — of a shadowy figure wearing a ski mask and wielding a gun in a bank or a convenience store.

But then I dismissed that thought. No one had mentioned the phrase "armed robbery." Unless Texas law doesn't differentiate, "armed robbery" is a specific kind of robbery that explicitly involves the use of a weapon. Garden–variety robbery means simply to take someone's property through violence or intimidation, whether it was deliberate or not.

As one of the attorneys explained to us, it could be something as simple (and, frankly, as admirable) as a young mother who is out of work (not hard to imagine in this economy) and goes to a nearby store to steal food for herself and her small children. She's been to the store before, and she knows the staff is sparse, and there is no security camera. So she snatches some candy bars and runs out of the store — and runs into five people on the way out, knocking each of them down and causing them to suffer some kind of injury — a bump on the head, a bruise on the knee, etc.

That would be five counts of robbery stemming from a single incident.

On the other extreme, it could be five separate incidents, and the victim in each case was either threatened (deliberately or not) with bodily harm or was, in fact, injured — possibly killed, although I think we can rule out that possibility. It's fair to assume, I think, that if any of the robberies had resulted in anyone's death (or actual injury, for that matter), the justice system would be concerned with a lot more than charges of robbery.

Well, the judge dismissed us for lunch and told us to be back outside the courtroom by 2 o'clock. We all held up our end of the bargain — but, once again, we had to wait ... and wait ... and wait. So I did some more people watching. I saw a woman who was a Nicole Kidman lookalike. And I got to see her a few times, as she walked up and down that hallway that afternoon.Again, I'm reasonably sure it wasn't Nicole Kidman — but she did bear a striking resemblance to the actress.

Finally, around 2:30, we were invited back in, and a young attractive woman from the district attorney's office questioned us about our ability to impose sentence.

Under Texas law, the judge told us before lunch and the young woman reminded us after lunch, we had three sentencing options for a count of robbery:
  1. We could impose a prison sentence of up to 20 years on each count. (In the case pending before the court, it had not yet been determined whether the prosecution would request or the judge would impose that the sentences be concurrent or consecutive.)

  2. We could impose a fine of up to $10,000 if we felt it was warranted.

  3. And we could, if we had decided that a prison term of 10 years or less was appropriate, recommend probation.
The young woman wanted to know if we could consider the entire range of options.

And I would estimate that about two–thirds of the prospective jurors said they could. But some could not — and I was one of them. I told the young woman that, during my newspaper work, there had been a time when I covered the police beat and I covered trials in court. I conceded the possibility that all five counts could occur, unintentionally, in a single incident. But I said that, based on my own experiences, I find it hard to believe that the case did not involve multiple offenses — which, as far as I am concerned, puts it in a different category than a first–time offense.

In truth, a first offense doesn't really mean anything. Here's a hypothetical of my own. Someone could be stopped for speeding for the first time when he/she is 25. Let's assume that he/she got his/her driver's license at the age of 16 and had not been stopped for speeding in nearly a decade of driving.

Does that mean the driver was never guilty of speeding before? No. It simply means he/she had never been caught before. It might be a first offense. The driver may have been a model driver for more than nine years, always obeying the speed limits, always stopping at stop signs and stoplights and observing any other rules of the road. But, on this one occasion, perhaps the driver was faced with an emergency of some kind and got pulled over for speeding. That's certainly possible.

It's also possible that the driver was guilty of speeding quite often but had been shrewd enough to avoid being pulled over until he/she got sloppy.

There's no way we could know. All we know is that there is no record of speeding in the past. He/she may have been very good — or very good at being bad.

But multiple charges tend to mean multiple offenses on multiple occasions. Even if the defendant hasn't been charged before. The fact that he (and, in this case, it was a he) was probably charged with robbery on more than one occasion doesn't necessarily imply that he was never guilty of robbery before.

In any event, five charges suggest to me that it happened on more than one occasion. That suggests a pattern of behavior, and I find it hard to imagine a circumstance — even one in which the defense can satisfactorily establish that one of those occasions was the first time he committed the offense — in which I could recommend probation.

Anyway, that is what I told the young woman when she asked me if I could consider all the sentencing options. And she thanked me for my honesty.

After she finished talking to each potential juror, one of the defense attorneys got up and said the prosecution had already taken care of some of the territory he wanted to go over so he expected his portion of the questioning to go much faster. I'm sure that was fine with everyone. The time was 3:40.

And, indeed, his part of the proceedings did go much faster. He had specific questions for a few of the prospective jurors, most of which were based on their answers to the questionnaires. A few were related to people who worked (or had worked) in law enforcement. He wanted to know if that would affect their ability to reach a verdict. He spoke to some who had indicated that they had been victims of crimes. Could they be fair?

Then he sat down, and the jurors were told to go back into the hallway. The time was 4:10. About 15 minutes later, the bailiff came to the door and called out five names. These people were going to be asked clarification questions in the presence of the judge and the attorneys. So the rest of us waited and waited while each one went in and spent 5–10 minutes elaborating on their written and/or spoken responses.

While we were waiting, Nicole Kidman walked by again, heading in the direction of the elevators. Considering the time, I assume she was leaving for the day.

Then, around 5:10, all the jurors were called back into the courtroom and the judge read out the names of the 12 people who had been chosen to sit on the jury and the name of the single alternate juror who had been chosen. The rest of us were dismissed.

It was nearly 5:30. By the time I got to my vehicle, it was about 5:45. I faced a 12–mile drive to my apartment — and all the people who would be on the road at that hour.

And then, when I arrived home around 6:30, the day was over, nearly 12 hours after it began for me.

When I got up yesterday, I had mixed feelings about our judicial system. I still have mixed feelings. That hasn't changed.

But I do believe this country has the fairest, most impartial method for choosing jurors of any country in the world.

The system has its flaws. The compensation, for example, could be better. A few years ago, when I was last called for jury duty, they paid $6/day. But they changed. They still give you $6 for showing up for jury duty, but then, if you're picked for a jury, you'll be paid $40/day.

You won't get rich that way. Most trials only last a day or two. But when you think about the expenses people encounter in order to respond to a jury summons and serve on a jury — parking fees, the gas you burn driving to and from the courthouse, buying your lunch — $40 should be enough to cover them and leave jurors with a little extra.

It's a small price to pay to guarantee that people who are accused of things in America receive a fair trial.

Maybe that will change in the future. I've heard several reports about unemployed people who would not respond to a jury summons because it was too much of a hardship for them in this economy. With budget shortfalls, it's not hard to imagine the current rate of juror compensation becoming too expensive for some places to sustain.

I guess that is a symptom of the ripple effect this economy has on all aspects of American life.

We could have a debate about what is needed to encourage people to show up for jury duty. But we should never short–change our criminal defendants.

And that's what we will do if we try to get juries on the cheap.

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