Being a Juror
© 21 Jan 2012 Luther Tychonievich
Licensed under Creative Commons: CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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What I learned this week.


This week I served on a jury for a murder trial. Since it was always on my mind since Tuesday, I refrained from posting in this blog until I could legally comment upon it.

The trial was of a man who had killed his wife. The defense was not contesting any of the basic facts of the case, merely the legal classification of the act. However, the prosecution still felt it important to present all of the evidences of the uncontested killing, going at a remarkably slow pace and presenting a lot of evidence that seemed pointless. For example, the celular telephone of the victim was admitted as an exhibit, but not testimony about finger prints or call history was given. Throughout longs days of this tedium were buried little vignettes that gave insight into the issue we, as jurors, were to decide: was there malice, and if so was there also premeditation?

The jury was a very pleasant bunch, almost all college-educated and all polite and friendly. We had many pleasant times in the gaps between sitting mutely in the courtroom and many of us exchanged contact information before parting, intent on continuing the friendships we had begun in the jury room and during our meal breaks. It was remarkably difficult to refrain from discussing the case before deliberation; the urge to comment on the oddities of the previous hours was often almost overpowering. However, when we finally did get to deliberations we found that, far and away, the largest problem we had was very personal; we’d all agree without much difficulty on the trustworthiness of various witnesses, but not on the consequent level of doubt as to what happened.

Several elements of the in-court experience didn’t match my expectations. The first was the all-encompassing tedium: myriad ancillary details were dribbled in thrice-repeated testimony from witnesses with nearly as much time waiting for the lawyers to flip through notes to find the right question. The second was the very open nature of the proceedings; when one lawyer would object to testimony, the judge would ask the other to reply and the two would argue back and forth until the judge felt to side with one or the other, but never were we of the jury told anything about what we were or were not to consider. The third was closing arguments, which deserves a paragraph in its own right.

Now, I knew that the point of closing arguments is to have the lawyers try to emotionally manipulate us into believing their version of the story. And I knew that would mean they needed to tell us a story. But I didn’t expect their stories to be so shockingly bad. There were no witnesses of the killing itself (the accused claimed memory blackout during the event), so all we had was circumstantial evidence, but some of that was pretty compelling. Compelling, but apparently invisible to anyone except the jury. It took about three minutes of deliberation for us to throw out everything either one had said as false beyond reasonable doubt.

The most impressive element of the whole experience, though, was having a story unfold one isolated and carefully-restricted piece of evidence at a time, and that in no particular order. With the exception of a few rather dubious witnesses, no speculation made it into the courtroom. It reminded me a bit of the Feltron Reports: a slew of data that surrounds fact, but doesn’t really tell you the fact itself. And not just scattered data, but data that we couldn’t select. Many times I found myself wanting to put a question to a witness, but I had no way to do so. I found myself often wondering what parts of my life is documented in a manner admissible in court, and who I would look like through the those data.

Now that a conviction and sentencing has been pronounced a lot of the things I thought I would mention here seem unimportant. I expect few will care about my opinion of the blood spatter specialist or my respect for the way the DNA lab witness dodged every effort from the lawyers to force her into implying something that the DNA data just didn’t support.

One parting thought: being a juror is work. My blood suger dropped as quickly as it does on a hike, and my appetite matched. Lunch breaks were a bed of silken pillows for a bone-weary brain. I wonder if I would grow accustomed to the experience if I did it often.

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