Thursday, December 9, 2021

Jury Duty: Deliberations

The evidence is prolific and becomes overwhelming when the defendant choose to take the stand and testify that he wanted to steal the car. The only question left is what we do as a jury.  

Here is what we know for sure: Defendant stole a car. There were two kids inside the car. The father dives after the car and grabs on to the door. He is dragged for a block. The driver continues driving for maybe 10 minutes and parks two miles away. He is charged with kidnapping, assault, and robbery. There is video of the defendant walking past the car, getting in the car, driving away, and the father starting to run after the car. There are photos of the father's injuries and testimony from the father of the struggle to get into the car. The teen daughter took video from inside the car. 


The jury instructions are wickedly clear. We are to consider only the law presented to us, the evidence provided to us, and almost nothing else. Not the consequences of our actions, or law outside the packet provided to us.  We are to act as purely rational beings in these considerations. And so, we dive in.  


Intent is a word I never want to hear again(“To act intentionally is to act with a purpose or goal in service of an objective”). If you steal a car, and someone grabs onto it, and you keep driving, do you intend to cause harm that person? Is your intent to get away or is your intent to cause harm? What proof do you have of that intent?  We argued about this for three hours. If a person is in the car you stole, and you didn’t notice them when you stole the car, but you noticed them later, and kept driving, is that intent to abduct the person in the car? Does it matter how fast you notice them? We argued about this for four hours.  


These are the kind of philosophical arguments I have always tried to avoid. Unfortunately, I was now surrounded by them. And the truly perverse thing is that even though I think the criminal punishment system is ineffective, I found myself making arguments anyway. I just can’t keep my mouth shut when someone says “you can drive a car with someone hanging onto it without the intent of causing them harm”. It’s an environment  of, quite literally, rules lawyering, and it turned almost all of us into rules lawyers. The packet says only consider the rules and not the consequences, and people argue the rules, and despite the consequences you can easily get caught up when someone interprets the rules wildly differently from how you did.  


 Because no one is a perfect logical machine, everyone thinks and approaches argument differently. I think there were people in that room who made emotional arguments rooted in emotion instead of based on fact, and I think that prevented us from coming to unanimous consensus. I don’t want to cast them as villains or bad or a frustrating "other" because I also think some of us were making emotional arguments that only *appeared* to be rooted in fact. And I think at the end of the day, from my experiences and what I’ve read, peoples minds don’t really change. People can be convinced of an additional detail or two that completes an argument, but if all the evidence is on the table and someone says “this is credible” and someone else says “this is not credible”, you are not going to get either one to flip sides for the most part. 


So the process and experience of being a juror sucks! You are cast into a highly specialized niche role, staffed with unspecialized people, to produce a highly volatile result, armed with a minimum of training, and a thin packet of relevant law.  


We do not return a verdict on kidnapping because the charge says kidnapping of “[baby] and [teen]”. We all agree defendant knows the teen is in the car but some have reasonable doubt he knows the baby, a 15 month old who is napping quietly, is in the car. We can not overcome the gulf between those of us who think the teen's testimony “I said there was a baby. I think I said it loud enough” overcomes reasonable doubt the defendant heard her and those who think that it does not overcome reasonable doubt.  


We return verdicts of guilty on assault and robbery after painstaking discussion on what “intent” means and how it applies. We submit our verdict and are released. We have the option to speak to the lawyers afterward but I am ready to go. I leave a note for the prosecutor with a juror who seems equally fed up with the criminal punishment system : “do you think putting a homeless schizophrenic refugee in jail prevents future car thefts? Has that worked previously?”. I don’t know how else to express my anger. This isn’t justice. It’s merely retribution.  

So, are juries good? There were 14 jurors listening to the trial, and before deliberations began, 2 were randomly eliminated to form a jury of 12. If two different people were eliminated, we would have come to a totally different conclusion. If a loudmouth criminal punishment hater like me can make it onto a jury, then jury selection is similarly random. If the 14 jurors had been selected slightly differently, there also could have been a totally different outcome. 

We were yanked from our jobs, sometimes at personal expense to us, to perform a perfunctory and ceremonial role. I don't feel good about it. I feel frustrated and angry about my experience. The next time I am selected, I probably won't make such a big performance of Accepting My Civic Duty.

Recommended reading: We Do This 'Til We Free Us