Tuesday, April 15, 2003

jury duty

My jury service ended today. Overall, I feel that i did my small part at combatting injustice.

The accused men were two black men both of whom attended a large party at a well-known bar here in San Francisco. The more serious of the accusations (six counts in all among the two men) were that these two men had committed battery against san franciso police officers, that they had resisted arrest and provoked violence.

I like to believe that I have a fair and open mind about these things. Most of my direct experience with the police, with law enforcement, has been through my younger brother, a tattooed rebel who has served jail time here and there. I know, from him, that at times he has been treated unfairly, been the subject of quick accusations and, for many police officers fits the profile, both in his looks and demeanor of a 'usual suspect.' But, I also know that he can be a bit of a scoundrel sometimes, that much of the jailtime he has served has been, from our family's perspective, well-deserved.

The case I just heard lasted about a week and we deliberated for about eight hours total before coming to a unanimous decision. The first jury poll showed that we were unequally divided with the slight majority of us weighing in with a 'not guilty' verdict. Others were undecided and a few were convinced of the defendant's guilt.

I was surprised at how civil, fair and open-minded my fellow jurors were. Maybe I had watched too much tv an expected it to be contentious. But, we heard each other out, carefully reviewed everyone's notes, went over the details of the testimony both from the defense and the prosecution witnesses. As we discussed the details among ourselves, more and more inconsistencies emerged, across all testimonies.

I know from my readings and from having known a defense attorney very well that witnesses can be unreliable. Our memories are fallible and selective. When judging someone's recollection of an event, you have to also take this into account and not assume that direct contradictions in testimony necessarily assume that a witness has willfully lied. In some case, we actually found the opposite to be true, that some independent testimonies were -so- similar as to arouse our suspicions.

Those of us who argued for 'not guilty' relied on a couple tactics. The first was to remind our fellow jurors (and ourselves) of the distinction between 'not guilty' and 'innocent'. It seemed clear to me and to others that a lot of misconduct had probably occurred on both sides that night. But, our role here was not play impartial judge and award guilt or innocence. Our very narrow role was to determine whether the prosecution had presented us with enough compelling evidence to determine whether -these- specific defendants could be convicted of -these- specific charges. Its an important distinction.

The second tactic among all the jurors was to look at credibility. It was generally agreed upon that both sides (prosecution and defense) had deep flaws in their case. Despite the small errors of memory, there was gaping holes in the prosecutions case that were enough to make me (and many of us) uncomfortable that two men could be convicted on this basis. Or, to put it more personally, that you or I could be convicted on nothing more than this. It was not a matter of pointing out that police can be untruthful (they can) but, in our case, merely pointing out that police can be human, and like all us humans, flawed.

After eight hours of talk, of the discussion of the finer points of the case, we slowly came to agreement. Each of our fellow jurors felt inclined to agree, if they had not done so earlier, that they could not uphold an abiding conviction in this case, that they could not walk away and feel, say a month later, that they had made the right choice in voting for a conviction.

We all voted Not Guilty on all six counts.

I should add here that one mistake made by the prosecution (and to a lesser extent by the defense) was to underestimate the intelligence of us 12. In many cases it was clear that loaded words were being used to try to sway our view of events, strong words that should not have been used. If such introduced prejudices are not supported by the testimony of your witnesses, they are likely to backfire, causing the jury to more cleanly pick apart your case, looking for other signs that they have been manipulated and, ultimately (and this is a prosecutor's nightmare) casting doubt on your entire presentation.

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