Friday, March 18, 2005

Greatest Hits--Jury Duty ain't like Pauly Shore movies, thankfully

First the background on my first jury duty service from Jan. 2005 ...

It was two defendants accused of killing one young man, so actually we're conducting two trials simultaneously because with the exception of one piece of evidence all the other particulars are identical. The victim, Humberto G., was a senior at Morningside HS in Inglewood. He was killed May 31, 2003 after he was stabbed five times (four in the chest) by Antonio C. (one of the defendants) -- the defense stipulated to this. In fact, during jury selection all potential jurors were asked whether we agreed that sometimes people are justified in defending themselves -- so early on we knew that the defense attorneys would be mounting an "affirmative defense" (no dispute over the fact that the accused killed the victim, but claiming that the killing was justified).

The other defendant was a young man named Juan A., a friend of Antonio's that was with him the night of the killing. Both Calderon and Avila were charged with murder in the second degree, which is different from murder in the first because there was no advanced planning.

Opening arguments started on a Thursday, after three days of jury selection, and they were pretty boring. The prosecutor, Tracy L., took a long time with hers and she has the most annoying habit of shifting her weight while she stands about every 8 seconds. Go ahead, stand up and have someone watch you do that for a minute. It will have them laughing their asses off in about 40 seconds. So, this is opening statements and already i am foreseeing lots of trouble concentrating. Meanwhile she lays out her version of events....

Humberto G. and his best friend, Alex Negrete, are walking late at night on the way home from a party and they pass by a Jack in the Box and get jumped by Antonio, Juna (the defendants) and two other friends of theirs. Pretty soon the six total people break off into two separate fights of 2-against-1. Juan and Antonio against Humberto and Alex N. against the other two.

The defense attorneys have a slightly different version of events. They say that a carload of friends, Juan, Antonio and four others (the other two never engaged in the fighting), stopped at a Jack in the Box [I don't recall if a reason was given, and it doesn't matter because arguments are not evidence] and were minding their own business when Humberto and Alex decided to jump them. The defense attorneys said that they would show that there was a bad history between Alex and Humberto, football players, and Juan and Antonio, two smaller guys.

So off we go to the case, which didn't start until Friday morning (one thing about court in Los Angeles County, it's not the most efficient for a trial juror, but it does allow lots of time to get work done)....

The first witness is the prosecution's witness. It's Alex. He says that he and Humberto were leaving a party and walking to a cousin's house so that they could get a ride home. On the way there they passed a Jack in the Box and Humberto had been on a cell phone off and on. While at the Jack in the Box a car pulls up and four guys get out, one of them looks like he has a bat, and they rush them. They hesitate for a second then run away. Soon though, Humberto turns around and starts fighthing. Alex says that he wouldn't leave his boy hanging, so he goes to fight, too. Pretty quickly the end up pairing off into the separate groups and then shortly after that the cops get there. He and Humberto are thinking of leaving, since they didn't do anything wrong. The cops call them back over and then once they're up against the car, Humerto collapses and he dies a short time later. Once the defense attorney's get to crossexamine him, it gets argumentative as they keep trying to figure out some thing with an alley and why the stick found at the scene doesn't look anything like a bat. It was like a four-by-four, not round like a bat. Alex says that it was dark and it was a fast thing. He also says that once he showed the cops the crime scene that he saw what it really was.

Overall, he seemed to have a very skewed view of the truth, but i never got any sense he was lying, per se. just that the questionable reliability of an eye-witness seemed to be shining through here. his memory clearly portrayed he and humberto as beyond reproach in this incident, except that they should have kept running away rather than turn and fight.

His testimony basically takes the first day. The second day we get the testimony of Ericka M. She is the defendant Juan's girlfriend, but also apparently has a history with Humberto, the deceased. She testifies that she was driving Antonio, Juan and the others home when the check engine light turned on in her car so she pulled into the JackintheBox. She didn't even see Alex and Humberto. She said that Juan and Antonio and the rest of the guys passed around her cell phone and were talking to someone, but she didn't know who. She said that she didn't really see the altercations because she was not near them and it was dark. Bottom line, she corroborates Alex's testimony that there was a phone conversation. She also testified that someone told her to "pop the trunk."

The cops are up next. Btw, while i haven't exactly written a particularly dramatic email, i have done the favor of ignoring the dozens of objections. Let's put it this way, for those who've watched Law and Order and The Practice, the type of behavior that Sam Waterston's and Dylan McDermott's characters got away with -- the argumentativeness, the quasi-conversations -- wouldn't have flied in judge John Meigs courtroom. He runs a tight ship and the attorneys are up and down like jack in the boxes (no pun intended) objecting to everything. If it hadn't been a murder trial it would have been laughable.

Anyway, back to the cops. First it's the lead detective. He doesn't have much to say in terms of anything he saw, because he didn't see anything. Basically, his biggest purpose was that he interviewed Antonio and interviewed him on tape. So we listened to a conversation in which Antonio admits to stabbing and killing Humberto. He says "he lost it." The cop also said that there was no way Alex would have even been allowed to walk the cops around the crime scene. So then it's more cops and the coroner. Bottom line, Humberto was drunk at the time he was killed. They never tested Antonio's shirt to see whether Humberto's blood was on it and they didn't test the knife (murder weapon) that they found at the scene. Or if they did test it, the results weren't available at the trial.

The prosecution rests its case. At this point, i feel like the defendants are clearly guilty of something, murder or manslaughter, but i'm not sure which one. At this point the trial has been going on for several days and believe it or not, the jurors have done a pretty good job of keeping their mouths shut among each other. at least i think we have. instead they (i pretty much just read) end up talking about their love of john grisham books and movies and Nic Cage as an action hero. Um, yeah, these are your peers, America! i hope none of you ever end up in a jury trial.

The defense calls just one witness.... Antonio's brother, Daniel (who incidentally i had a dream about last night, and it's now like a month since the trial has concluded). Basically, he says that they went to JackintheBox to get something to eat, but they were closed. He also said that they go there a lot to eat, even kinda late, but they didn't know the place was closed. Daniel was a shitty witness. He somehow managed to have pretty detailed answers for every question from the defense attorneys, but when asked the same question from the prosecuting attorney he'd say he didn't remember. it was again something that would have been laughable had this not been a murder trial.

Then we got to closing arguments. If you're bored reading this, just remember, I had to freaking sit through all this. Closings were horribly long and we were again subjected to Tracy Lopez's shifting weight thing. Again, if you're feeling bored by this e-mail, stand up and start speaking at someone and shift your weight every 8 seconds... you're both guaranteed to be laughing within 40 seconds.

And now it's friday (7 days after the trial began) and we get the judge's instructions, which take two-plus hours and during which two jurors nodded off. and all of us were more or less baffled by the legalese. one of my favorite things about legalese, they love to define words with themselves. this made deliberations great fun.

deliberations.... we're in a 20 x 20 room with men's and women's bathrooms. we essentially are not allowed to leave except at designated breaks. we started with a quick mousketeer roll call, so we could call each other by name rather than just numbers. this dude scott volunteers to be jury foreman. he's mid 30s and a pretty important guy at his church and he cannot stand silence, so he always has to crack really bad jokes to fill silences, and has been doing that throughout the trial.

we read through the charges and definitions on murder 2 and review the judges instructions for Antonio only, based on that we vote. 5 guilty of murder 2nd, 4 non guilty of murder 2nd, three (including me) undecided. after reviewing the evidence though and the definitions of murder 2nd, which requires malice aforethought, which is essentially conscious disregard for life, it ends up 11 guilty and 1 not guilty. Our not guilty person says that given that this happened during a fight she cannot resolve the doubt she has as to whether the stab wounds were a "conscious disregard for life." She sees it as more heat of the moment, which is manslaughter. With no reliable eyewitnesses, we don't actually know how the fight happened.

The doubters, myself included, we ended up moving to Murder 2nd because of the number of stab wounds. with five wounds, four near the heart, to us this was enough to show some conscious intent to harm and it clearly demonstrated to us the "not caring" whether the guy who was stabbed lived or died. However, after a few hours of talking about this, she still wasn't convinced. End of deliberations on friday afternoon.

Monday starts with Scott wanting everyone's name and contact info because he's planning to write a book about his experience. he says it'll be half our rants and half commentary on the departure from jeffersonian ideals. he says we'll all get cuts from any future proceeds. Four of us don't sign, including me. I mean, I know everyone in Los Angeles is writing a screenplay or script or wanting to act, but this is fucking ridiculous. Well, after this discussion, it starts getting heated. People are really pressing her, imploring her to convince them of why she's right. It then starts getting raised voice argumentative. With people interrupting each other to take shots at her. I'm starting to get really embarrassed.... I work with teens for a living and granted we aren't discussing murder verdicts, but they're much better behaved.

At one point, the foreman, Scott, says that he should ask the bailiff to call in the alternate because she's being so stubborn. First off, illegal to do that, secondly, just really classless and bad form. at this point, a juror (bill) and i (we were generally the most cool customers in the room) can tell it's over in terms of us ever agreeing. that comment has pushed marissa (our lone holdout) over the edge temper wise. and then to make matters worse, scott throws the autopsy photos at her as if to say, how can you not find the guy guilty who made these wounds. seeing that were about one wrong look from marissa kicking scott's ass, i jump in. i start pointing out that the jury deliberation process isn't about us convincing one another of our points of view. it's about each of evaluating the evidence and interpreting the judge's instructions. and to respect the integrity of the process means each of us renders an independent position, that hopefully agree. so thankfully that serves to cool the room and we all realize that we're a hung jury on defendant number one.

defendant number 2 (i'll keep this really short). basically we're in disagreement again. in this case 10 in favor of just involuntary manslaughter (essentially because there was no way of knowing how involved juan avila was in this whole thing. he wasn't engaged in the fight and never touched the knife). but two were in favor of murder 2nd. i think that they were actually misinterpreting the law, but given the negative vibes in the room we weren't going to get over that. so we're hung on both. [side note, for each case we voted like four or five times].

so that's it. i know really long and not especially good writing. despite the negatives of much of the process, the boredom, the immaturity of my fellow jurors, the profiteering foreman, the ridiculous weight-shifting Assistant DA, the comically color coordinated defense attorney (her glasses matched her outfits every day, seriously, either the frames or the lens tint), it was a very compelling experience and one i'd repeat again when called. i am most glad that marissa never "caved" into the pressure even if i think she was wrong. the justice system has continued because it's far more important than any single verdict, it's about the process and watching it was like watching them make sausage, it's kinda ugly, but in the end you get something important and ultimately kinda satisfying.

So sorry this is soooo freaking long and not particularly exciting.


supaflake said...

I just finished Antonio's second trial. Guilty of 2nd dergree murder. Only 45 minutes in that little room. There was a bunch of lying in our case from Alex and Erica to Daniel. Just thought I'ld let you know that your verdict was actually handed down on Tuesday.

agentslaeyer said...

Thanks so much for the update. How did you even find this? Also, I really hope that on one read this during jury deliberations or the trial. That would be bad.