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Wednesday, June 2, 2010

My Experience as an Alternate Juror for a Criminal Trial

One of the hot topics in the local news is about the upcoming Mehserle trial (better known as the "BART police shooting trial"), and SF Gate was able to show readers some of the unique interview questions (Voir dire process) that was being asked to people who have been called-up for jury duty service.

If you ever get an opportunity to serve on a jury, it is a humbling and interesting experience. Don't be offended if you get excused during the Vior dire, it's just part of the process for an impartial jury.

I had a rare opportunity to be on a jury, but even more rare was being selected as an alternate. One of my co-workers asked me if I was going to blog about it after the verdict was said and done, and I thought about it, and now I feel it is the right time to talk about it.

Readers, be aware: Since the verdict has been decided and was read in open (public) court, I am legally allowed to openly discuss about the case.

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Summoned to Jury Duty
A few weeks before I was instructed to report to San Francisco's Hall of Justice, I got the usual letter from the courthouse telling me about when I will have to be on-call. They told me to be on-call for a week starting April 26th. So I gave ample notice to my supervisors of my possible planned departure and waited until the first day to check their website if I was to be report in.

It turned-out, I was instructed to show-up at 9:30AM on the first day of my on-call service.

What a bad streak of luck for me... every time I have been notified of jury service, I had to report to the first day (Monday) at the earliest time slot (usually before 10AM). The first time, our group went into the courtroom where I was not selected as a jury member (bike vs. car civil case), and the second time the jury commissioner told us less than 15 minutes after arrival to go home because the defendant did a plea bargain.

Called Into The Courtroom
Shortly after checking-in and watching the video about how the jury trial system works, the commissioner instructed pretty much the entire group to a nearby courtroom for jury selection.

The judge informed the big group that she was only going to do hardship petitions at that time and told everyone that if they didn't have a hardship, they are ordered to return to the courthouse a week later in the morning. I could hear the grumble from the jurors that they now have to come back for another round of jury selection. Hey, at least they get their juror service stipend and mileage. I can't get the $15/day stipend because I'm a government employee, but the mileage at least gave me a one-way bus ride and a cheap cup of coffee.

One Week Later: The Real Jury Selection Process
On May 3rd, everyone came back, but you can notice a handful of empty seats. Some of them got their hardship petitions approved. The group learned that the case may take a few weeks, and reopened the hardship process because it could interfere with those who have vacations and assuming it would be a short trial. So as I sticked around since I had no petition, the real jury selection process started-up.

The judge informed us about the charges the defendant was accused of. He was charged with:
  • Domestic violence (assault with serious bodily injury, a higher level than simple assault or battery).
  • Dissuading a witness.
  • Possession of narcotics with intent to sell.
  • Multiple violations of a stay away order.
The court clerk called-up 24 people, with the first 12 people sitting in the primary jury seats, four sitting in the alternate seats, and the rest in additional seats near the jury box. This is when it got a little personal, the Vior dire process.

The Voir dire is a formal process that allows the District Attorney and the defense to basically filter out the jurors to create one that would be impartial and fair for a jury trial.

I was not called-up as part of the 24 person pool (random lottery), but I was instructed with the others to listen carefully to the questions and be prepared to respond if called-up to sit in the seats. Here's how the process basically went:
  • The judge asked everyone to verbally answer some basic questions, including what neighborhood we live in, people in the household, and our highest level of education.
  • The lawyers took careful notes about each person and asked more detailed questions which related to the case. Based on the answers given, each lawyer can excuse so many potential jurors for any reason, but they don't have an obligation to respond to why the juror was excused. The lawyers can also chat with the judge if they all mutually agree a juror is not suitable for a jury (e.g. not fluent in English).
Once the jury pool was reduced, they basically shifted the ones left standing in the jury box area. For example, if potential jurors numbers one and two were excused, everyone would shift over. One interesting issue that arose is that the number excused did not fill-in the entire jury box of 12 jurors and four alternates, so others had to be called-up for Voir dire.

Then it was my turn... I was called-up to sit in seat 19 and had to answer the usual questions the judge asked the jury earlier, mention to the judge if I knew any person in the courtroom, any possible biases I may have, and answer any questions from the lawyers.

After the lawyers excused some more people, the final jury was completed. I moved into seat 14, better known as "alternate #2." I was a little bummed that it is likely possible I won't be able to deliberate the case, but on the other hand, I get to do something completely different than work!

The judge instructed the newly formed jury to report a week later for jury trial.

The Jury Trial (Day 1)
The jury trial was to begin with the usual stuff you see on those courthouse TV shows; the District Attorney gave his introduction into the case at hand and showed us pictures of the victim, and some of the other documents he was able to enlarge for everyone to see. The defense (Public Defender? I wasn't sure) gave their view of the charges at hand.

Sure, those courthouse TV shows sound exciting, but in reality, jury trials are not that exciting. I won't say it's boring to the point where I wanted to sleep (I'd be in big trouble...), but was interesting enough for me to pay attention, and note taking in our official court notepad helped me focus on the case at hand.

The D.A. called in the first witness, the victim; she was brought in so the lawyers can try their hand at the domestic violence/assault, and dissuading a witness charges. I have to say, she was a little shaky with sitting on the witness stand; some of her answers were vague and it made it a challenge for the D.A. to ask good questions and get decent answers. I don't know if she was afraid to face her ex-boyfriend in court or not, and the defendant sure looked mad based on the look on his face while she was giving testimony.

With the witness on the stand, the D.A. played jail telephone recordings to help refresh her memory of some of the conversations they had over the phone while the D.A. is trying to demonstrate through the audio tapes that the defendant admitted to hitting the victim and trying to dissuade her from testifying in court and seeing the District Attorney.

It was the end of the day and the victim was dismissed from the stand. The judge informed us every time the jury had to leave the courtroom for a bathroom break, lunch, or going home for the day, that we are not allowed to talk with anyone about the case, and to make no judgments about the case. That included my parents too who were curious about the case, but I had a civic duty to keep my mouth shut.

Jury Trial: Days 2 & 3
On days two and three, the D.A. called-up a number of people to the witness stand:
  • Local SF police officers gave testimony on the domestic violence incident and the possession of drugs. One of the officers wrote the report that showed the victims injuries on a standard domestic violence form they use, and was also shown a picture to support those injuries. A second officer at the incident scene gave testimony about the drugs that the person had in possession, and it was a lot of drugs. You'll learn more about the drugs shortly. As standard policy, the defense asked their round of questions to the police officers.
  • A member of the SF Sheriff's Department who investigates jailhouse crimes was called-in to make sure the audio tapes played to the jury was authentic. The jury got to hear more of the jail telephone recordings. It's interesting to note that if you make a phone call from a jail, the jail will record your phone call, unless if it is to a doctor, lawyer, or a religious adviser. He was also asked about the large amount of drugs the suspect had, and if it was true if the suspect was able to sneak in more through his butt. I was trying to hold back the laughing because the D.A. kept saying "buttocks" as a formal term instead of other, more amusing words like anus, rectum, and asshole. It got even more silly when the D.A. said, is it possible to sneak in, say, 500 pills up the butt? Then went even higher to 5,000, in which the Deputy said, it is possible if the person can take that much in there.
  • Another member of the Sheriff's Department was called into simply support the regular procedure of transporting the narcotics to the drug lab in San Mateo County. Based on the responses given, it sounded like this was a no brainer, the process was done correctly.
  • A member of the San Mateo drug lab was called in to testify about the narcotics. The drug tech said there was 200 alleged ecstasy (MDMA) pills in the bag that was found in the suspect's sock during the time of arrest. The lab tech confirmed on one of the pills that it contained the drug. The defense asked the tech about the testing procedures, to create doubt in the jury, and it was known that only one pill was tested; it almost sounded like the lawyer wanted all the pills tested. The defense also wanted to know the strength of the tablet tested, but the D.A. wanted to point out that regardless of the strength of the narcotic, any amount is possession.
By this point, the D.A. rested his case and allowed the defense to call-up any witnesses. By this point, the defense didn't call-up any witnesses, and we had to get ready for the final statements from both sides on day 4.

Jury Trial: Day 4
In the morning, the bailiff met with the jury group and said that lunch would be free today; for the exception of the alternates. Damn... no free lunch for me? Turned out I went across the street to the Live Sushi Bistro for a tasty lunch while my jury colleagues had cold sandwiches and a can of soda. Bravo to the budget cuts; I thought they'd get Chinese food.

It turned out the estimated time of the jury trial was way overestimated. The trial was going to run at least two weeks or even four weeks, but my part of the service as an alternate was going to end quite quickly. It was day four of the trial and the final arguments by both sides was happening today. Each side gave their view of the case at hand and reminded us about the statements from all the people on the witness stand. The strongest piece given during this portion was from the D.A. when he played a snippet of the audio tape the jury heard earlier.

Jury instructions... oh my gosh, that was the most boring part of the process. The judge gave the entire jury (including the alternates) instructions, including how the law explains each charge and the lesser charges, if the jury decides if the defendant is not guilty of the original charge offered. A lot of stuff had to be repeated as per court procedure, and we were told later that we'd get it in writing too.

Once that was done, the judge sent the 12 jurors to the deliberations room, and the alternate group was informed of the process for us. I was next in succession if a juror was excused (originally, #13 moved to the primary jury on the second day), and she told us to be ready to report to the courthouse in the situation a juror was excused.

Deliberations and the Verdict
It kinda sucked to return to work on that Friday while being pestered by my co-workers about the trial. I couldn't tell them anything at that time, but I was also relieved that I could return to work and prepare for the last week of the Spring semester at SF State.

In the next week, I didn't hear word until I was eating breakfast in the campus dining center on Wednesday. The clerk called and informed me the jury made their verdicts:
  • Guilty on the lesser charge of battery.
  • Guilty on all remaining counts: possession of narcotics with intent to sell, violation of stay away orders, and dissuading a witness.
I told the clerk while I'm having my eggs and toast, that while it was disappointing I could not be deliberating, it was an interesting experience, and to pass on my appreciation for the hard work and effort to the judge and lawyers.

Akit's Analysis of the Case
While I could not deliberate, here's my take about the case after hearing all the evidence and testimony:
  • I felt the defendant was guilty on all charges.
  • The most damming evidence that got him nailed with being convicted with battery and dissuading a witness was the jail phone recordings. The automated recording system gives a disclaimer prior to calling someone that the phone calls are recorded and monitored. The guy should have kept his mouth shut because he basically admitted to the crimes he was charged of.
  • One tablet of MDMA is bad enough for a possession charge, but having a baggie full of 200 of them? That to me felt like intention to sell.
  • I knew that the SFPD drug lab was shut down, and it had to be shipped to San Mateo County for testing, but since the transportation and testing process was done properly, I believed the narcotics are for real and was not tampered with. Anyway, SF's lab didn't even touch the stuff.
  • The District Attorney's case was really strong and he had a lot of strong and credible evidence to back it up.
  • The defense was weak, but the lawyer had to try his best to fight back through cross-examination of the witnesses.
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Akit's Tips to Surviving Jury Duty at the SF Hall of Justice:
  1. Bring a music player or an iPod. There will be times when the judge is handling court business outside the presence of the jury.
  2. If you can, bring your own lunch. If not, there's plenty of places to eat within walking distance of the courthouse, including fast food restaurants.
  3. There is a snack bar at the courthouse for those lighter occasions.
  4. Yes, you can bring in hot coffee to the courthouse, but the deputies will just ask you to hand carry it through the metal detector instead of feeding it through the x-ray machine.
  5. There is not a lot of sunlight in the courthouse, and the only place to get some is at in the jury assembly room. The room is not just for the potential jurors to assemble, but for those who are a member of the jury to soak in the views of the downtown skyline.
  6. The courthouse bathrooms are super clean and well stocked. Make sure to take care of your "business" during the trial breaks.
  7. There is WiFi in the courthouse, including the main hallways. Use it! It's free.
  8. If selected to be on a jury, you can get discounted parking for $5 a day. Not a bad offer since mileage is only $2.50 a day.
  9. Jury stipend is $15 a day and $2.50 for mileage, but won't get paid if it's their first day. Second and beyond days will get the pay. Local, state, and federal employees are not eligible for the $15 stipend and you must notify the jury office. Regardless of where you are employed, mileage can be taken or waived. The State will mail checks twice a month.
  10. Muni is an alternate option and is served by the 27-Bryant, 47-Van Ness, and 8X-Bayshore Express (AX and BX too). Expect delays eastbound on Bryant due to the Bay Bridge freeway entrance.
  11. Lastly, remember to get a decent night's sleep. You don't want to struggle staying awake during a trial.

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