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August 19, 2004

Juror notes

I just got finished being a juror in King County Superior Court. I’d never been a juror before, and had the naive idea that being a person who exercises his biases for a living, and had access to a newspaper, I would be disqualified. Well, I wasn’t.

Several wanted to be disqualified, including one man who was supposed to attend an adoption hearing and a woman with a 3-year-old who was not used to day care. The man was excused immediately and the woman reluctantly. For the rest of us, the judge said he was not interested in hardships to our employers, only to us. Everybody stayed.

I was initially Number 17 out of 35, which meant I wasn’t in the box. But the defense attorney knocked out a couple of guys in the box, and I was in. I thought maybe he’d knock me out, too, but he gave me the thumbs-up. I was happy. I wanted to be in.

It was very much like court on TV and in the movies, at least in the form of the thing. The judge, Ronald Kessler, wore a dark robe and big floppy bowtie. He explained our role, patiently and clearly. He was the ruler on questions of law and we were the rulers on questions of fact. We could not ask questions. We could take notes. I had heard about juries where you couldn’t, and being a former newspaper reporter, I thought that was nuts. I took notes and was glad I did, but I was careful not to take so many notes that I was distracted.

The case was about a man in possession of a stolen truck, a heavy pickup that belonged to a tire service center and had the company’s name stenciled on the doors. The police had been tipped off to the whereabouts of the truck and the man who had it, and they staked it out.

The man had come out from behind an apartment building, and looked around as if to scout whether the coast was clear, and went back around the building. The lead detective, who knew him, identified him. The lead detective thought he’d been seen, and drove off, telephoning his backup across the street a description of the man. She saw a man of that description get into the truck and drive off.

The lead detective pulled up behind the truck and identified the man in the rear-view mirror. The same guy. Another cop passed him on the road going in the other direction, identifying him through two windshields. He has a very distinctive look.

Patrol cars were called in to stop the truck, and when they turned on sirens, the truck bolted, driving down the wrong side of an arterial street with heavy traffic. Cops chased him a while, then broke off the chase because it was too dangerous to bystanders-and because they knew who the culprit was. A while later they found the truck, got a dog and tried to track him, but the dog was confused by the scents of children.

Two days later they had another tip, waited for the suspect and saw him get off a bus. He ran, and for a while eluded them. They brought in a dog, but the dog was confused by rabbits. They had given up looking for him and were walking back to their cars when he stuck his head out of some bushes. They had him.
He was not charged with stealing the truck. We never knew who did that. He was charged with possessing stolen property worth more than $1,500 and attempting to evade capture.

Essentially, our job as the jury was to decide whether the story above, which told by four police officers, had actually happened, whether the man in the truck knew it was stolen and whether the defendant was the man in the truck. After a fairly short discussion, it was clear to everybody on the jury that the answers were yes, yes and yes, beyond a reasonable doubt.

The jury was an eclectic group. There were people in their early 20s and people with gray hair. There was a black woman reading a book on divinity studies and a young white woman working on a term paper on disaster preparedness. There was an apartment builder in his 50s who said a Christian prayer over lunch and a naturalized immigrant from Bombay who worked at Microsoft. They took their roles seriously. We were told not to discuss the case until it was over, and as far as I know, nobody did.

Probably they disagreed on the sort of public questions a newspaper writes about, but they came to quick agreement about the defendant and the charges against him.

The ease of the thing was a disappointment. There was no great puzzle to untangle, no intriguing anomalies. There was no argument over motives or evidence, no disagreement over what mattered and what didn’t. There was no division by race or gender or class or religion or belief about human nature or anything really. We were all citizens serving a role. The prosecution had the guy nailed, and the defending attorney had not tried to rebut any of it. He had called no witnesses. He merely reminded us that the state had to meet the burden of proof.

I felt sorry for the defense attorney. He was an earnest guy, but you could see by the expression on his face that he knew his ship was sunk. The prosecutor was cool, assured.

I was the jury foreman. I wanted that job, and volunteered for it. It was a short job. I refereed the meeting for 20 minutes, wrote “guilty” and “guilty” for the two counts, signed the paper and carried it back into the courtroom. The judge called me by name and asked if the jury had reached a verdict. I was a bit stagestruck; I said “yes,” and then immediately thought I should have said, “Yes, your honor.”

The judge asked each of us whether this was our personal decision and the jury’s decision. Each of us said “yes” twice. He thanked us. We filed out, and five minutes later were released to go home.

In was a case in which the prosecution seemed to have all the cards, and yet the rules in some ways favored the defense. The defendant did not have to testify, and did not. It gave no alibi, but he prevented the prosecutor from trying to ask about his record. I had an idea that there might be one, because the police witnesses spoke as if he were an old customer. I thought the defense attorney might object to their hints, but he did not.

I had expected justice to be slow, but this was efficient. Even the judge said so.
My biggest disappointment was the dogs.

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Posted by Bruce Ramsey at August 19, 2004 10:39 AM



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