by BJW Nashe
When the jury summons arrived in the mail at the end of last month, I figured I might be in for a strange experience. Turns out I was correct. Jury duty was an adventure — and it wasn’t all that excellent.
As a secular progressive from the People’s Republic of Berkeley who just happens to be living way up in rural Northern California near the Oregon border, I had an inkling that my approach to jury duty might differ substantially from others living in this particular community. It’s not exactly “Duck Dynasty” up here, but it’s closer than you might think. Tea baggers and birthers run wild in this county, running roughshod over city council meetings and school boards. Lately they’ve been chattering about seceding from California and forming a new state called “Jefferson,” because they are sick and tired of “liberals in Sacramento” telling them what to do. Never mind that without funding from Sacramento, this place would return to the Depression-era 1930s, with rates of poverty, crime, and illiteracy even worse than they already are. As it is, unemployment here is higher than just about anywhere else in the state. Most people who do have a job toil away for minimum wage. Guns and meth are quite popular. Teenage pregnancy is common. Most people hate the government, think Obamacare is ruining the country, and view the President of the USA as a Muslim socialist who must be impeached.
So much for cultural context. One shudders to think what might be going on down at the county courthouse.
In the local news I noticed that a big murder trial was set to begin soon. A man who allegedly stabbed his wife to death had been prosecuted a few months ago. His trial ended in a hung jury. Now the authorities were rushing ahead with a second trial. I would probably be included in this jury selection process. The newspaper said this trial was expected to last a minimum of six or seven weeks, followed by who knows how many days of painful deliberation. It’s the last thing I wanted to be involved in. I spent a few hours online, reading up on the case, hoping I could demonstrate that I knew too much to be an objective juror.
In fact, my worries were unfounded. I was not part of the murder trial jury pool at all. On the appointed day, a large group of us — 150 or so — were traipsed through “Weapons Screening” at 9 A.M. sharp and herded into the “Jury Assembly Room.” We were shown vending machines full of soda and candy. We watched a video about how interesting and rewarding the jury duty experience could be. The video, which contained no nudity or violence or car chase scenes or explosions, failed to make much of an impression on anyone.
After the video, I heard my name called out, along with 50 others. We were the “lucky ones” whisked away to a quiet courtroom upstairs, far from all the snacks and anxiety below. We were headed straight for another trial altogether — something far more pedestrian and less time consuming than murder. Our trial would be a domestic abuse case.
Three white guys in suits and ties — the clean-cut Deputy D.A., an overweight defense attorney, and the sketchy defendant — stood watching us as we filed into the courtroom. We all rose as the judge made his entrance, then sat back down so he could lead us through the selection process. He was a garrulous old codger who discoursed at length about trials and the law and other related matters, even though our attention seemed to be drifting. It was easy to daydream in there — about food, sex, shopping, movies, sports, anything at all. We were being paid fifteen dollars a day to space out, watch the clock hands turn, and sneak peaks at our cell phones.
I was among the first dozen called up for questioning. The same questions were repeated over and over to each one of us. People were excused and promptly replaced with fresh meat from the pool. It was tough to find female jurors who had not been traumatized somehow by domestic abuse. I was the only one who answered “yes” when asked if I had ever been arrested. For what? Possession of a controlled substance, a long time ago. Yes I thought I had been treated unfairly, and yes, it had made me suspicious of cops, not to mention deeply skeptical of our drug laws. But no, it was not likely to affect my ability to think clearly about a case of domestic abuse. In fact, I was so relieved to be excluded from the murder trial that I was willing to be honest and just go with the flow.
Later that afternoon, I was still sitting there in the jury box. After an hour-and-a-half break for lunch, and several hours spent listening to tedious questions, I was on the jury, poised and ready to do my civic duty. I had been selected, along with four other men and eight women (one of whom would later be randomly chosen to be an alternate juror).
The next three days were spent churning in the bowels of criminal litigation. We heard the lawyers’ opening statements. We heard witness testimony. We looked at photographed injuries. The prosecution’s main witness was the woman who’d been allegedly assaulted in her home. She was just 22, with hair dyed jet black and spider webs tattooed on her elbows. Put her in a white evening gown and she could pass for Morticia Addams. Not a bad look in the eyes of certain jaded city types, but not likely to endear her to the knuckle-draggers in this town. The main witness for the defense was her boyfriend, who’d been charged with assaulting a domestic partner and inflicting grievous bodily injury. He was pleading not guilty because he “acted in self-defense.” About five years older than her, he had a crew cut, beady little eyes, a large jaw, and a muscular build. Whenever one sleeve slid up his forearm, you could tell he was inked up solid from shoulder to wrist. He vaguely resembled a rough trade version of Edward Norton’s character in Fight Club. I had a hunch he’d spent some time in prison, most likely associating with the Aryan Nation.
The story of the alleged crime featured the sort of banal violence that occurs all too frequently across this great land of ours. The testimony was rather dull. No fireworks, no bombshell revelations, no emotional breakdowns, no tearful confessions. Nobody on the stand screamed, “You can’t handle the truth!” There were no Jodi Arias-style phone sex recordings — nothing lurid whatsoever. Not even any police misconduct. Just memories of a dumb argument between a guy and his girlfriend, which escalated into violence and landed her in the hospital.
Although neither witness was entirely credible, it wasn’t that hard to piece together what happened on the night in question. Apparently the guy and the girl had shacked up together just a few weeks after they started dating. They had met shortly after his release from prison, where he was serving time for an assault conviction resulting from a bar fight. On the night of the argument, they had been living together for five months or so, and she was four months pregnant. Money was tight. Rent was late. The guy’s friend agreed to pay his entrance fee into a poker tournament at a nearby casino. He won $1500 at the tournament, then gave his friend half of the money, per their arrangement. When he got back home, his girlfriend blew up at him for giving away so much of the money. They argued. He evidently raised his fist in a threatening manner. She ordered him to leave the house. He refused. She insisted, following him from room to room, yelling at him, “Get the fuck out!” Some pushing and shoving ensued. She testified that he choked her and spit in her face. He denied this, but admitted to shoving her against the wall and throwing her to the floor and pinning her down. At some point they were both standing up and he leaned in less than a foot from her face, with both hands behind his back. Both testified that she struck him 8-10 times in the face. Both testified that he stood there motionless as she struck him. Then, once she stopped swinging, he decked her with a single roundhouse punch, cutting her above the eyebrow.
She knew the cut required stitches. He told her that if she went to the hospital, he would end up back in jail. Conflicted about this, she decided to concoct a story. She called her mother to drive her to the hospital, telling her she had slipped and fallen down, hitting her head. Her mom didn’t believe the story. Eventually, the truth came out. After receiving six stitches, the girl told her mom and the doctor that her boyfriend had punched her. The police were dispatched to the house at 2 A.M. No answer at the door, so they climbed in a window and arrested the boyfriend who was hiding out in the bedroom.
Once all of this splendid testimony had concluded, the attorneys presented their closing arguments. The prosecution asserted that the boyfriend, who had a history of violence, had struck her in a fit of rage, not in order to protect himself. The defense attorney argued that the well-meaning boyfriend had returned home from the poker tournament with a pocket full of rent money, only to be attacked by his irrational girlfriend. He was the victim, not her.
The judge read us a bunch of instructions before we were sent off to deliberate. He combed through the law regarding self-defense. In California, to legally act in self-defense, one must reasonably believe that there is a legitimate threat of being harmed or touched unlawfully, that use of force is necessary to mitigate that harm, and that the force used is not excessive given the nature of the threat. In addition, one cannot provoke a violent encounter and then claim self-defense.
I assumed that we could probably convict this guy on the assault charge, but figured the grievous bodily injury charge wouldn’t stick. Yet I had a funny feeling about the self-defense angle. The fact that she had struck the defendant first, before he hit her, was probably going to be a bit of a sticking point. I didn’t anticipate just how sticky this would prove to be, though. When we took an initial vote, the results were ten not guilty, and two guilty. So much for my assumption about the assault charge. What really surprised me was how quickly our jury deliberation grew heated and intense, before degenerating into outright absurdity.
I thought the defendant’s own testimony proved he had not acted in self-defense. Allowing her to strike him multiple times as he leaned into her face, without budging or attempting to duck away or block any of the blows, demonstrated that he perceived no threat. He knew his girlfriend couldn’t hurt him. He was probably taunting her. He then punched her purely in retaliation, not in order to reasonably protect himself from harm.
The ten jurors weighing in favor of not guilty, however, were firmly dug in and unwilling to budge. Their position was summed up as follows: she was angry about the money, she started the argument, she hit him first, so she got what was coming to her. It was as simple as that — a kind of schoolyard mentality at work. Never mind that she was a pregnant woman who didn’t even know how to throw a punch. In fact, most jurors used her gender to discredit her. If she had been a man, they said, this case would have never come to court. In taking her position, I was being “sexist,” which was unfair to him, because I wasn’t treating them as “equals.” I considered this to be tortured logic around the issue of gender.
The debate swirled. I argued that if anyone had acted in self-defense that night, it was the girlfriend, since she had been pushed to the ground and shoved against the wall. She had a right to feel threatened. No, said the others, striking him as he stood there was clearly an example of “unlawful touching.” He had every right to let her have it.
We went around and around like this for about seven hours. Ridiculous statements were made. Several jurors claimed that she should feel fortunate he had shown such restraint. One person said she was lucky he didn’t go after her with a baseball bat. Another juror, who worked as an armed security guard in town, said, “If anybody — man or woman — starts hitting me, I’m just gonna get my gun and shoot ‘em.” That’s reassuring to know. Yet another said, “Do you know how hormonal and irrational pregnant women can be?” When we viewed pictures of the young woman’s stitched up wound, and the bruises on her arms and legs, several women on the jury mocked her. “Oh, poor baby.” “Well, that’s what you get for starting a fight.” “She’s barely even hurt.”
Wow, this is Planet of the Apes, I told myself. They should put a sign up alongside the highway right at the county line. “Welcome to [blah blah blah]. Where rednecks defend themselves against pregnant women.”
When some jurors began personally attacking me because of my opinions, I said there was no point in going on, since I wasn’t about to change my mind. The other juror who’d started out leaning toward not guilty was wavering. She probably would have caved, if given the chance. But she ended up sticking with a guilty verdict. I said there was no way I was going back into that courtroom to deliver an acquittal. Moreover, I was sick and tired of arguing about it. So I shut it down. We were a hung jury. The jury foreperson notified the judge that we were hopelessly deadlocked. Our adventure was coming to a close.
Back in court, the judge questioned us briefly, before concluding that there was no hope of reaching a unanimous verdict. The prosecutor appeared stunned. He probably thought the case was a slam dunk. The defense attorney looked mildly amused. The defendant stared at us with his beady little eyes and grinned. We were released.
On the next morning, while strolling past a gun shop downtown, bathed in the gorgeous autumn sunshine, just for the hell of it I phoned the Deputy D.A. He was also from the Bay Area, and he was still pretty shocked by the trial’s outcome. We spoke at length about what had happened in jury deliberation. “Is there anything I could have done differently?” he asked. “You could have moved to another county,” I told him, and we both laughed.
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