My Week In The Jury Box: Train Wreck in Three Acts
Went to the downtown courthouse in San Diego last Tuesday in response to a jury summons. I never really expected to serve, but was pretty certain that even if my name came up, voir dire would save me. Who in their right mind would roll the dice on having a practicing attorney, ex-federal agent, ex-public defender, ex-whatever in their jury box?
“Right mind” proved to be the critical part of that question, but we’ll save that for the third act.
I was selected, but not as much by choice as poor planning that left me in the box just as the sides ran low on peremptory challenges. I never really got much of a sense of what the defense was looking for in a juror, but I don’t feel bad about that. I’m not certain the defense knew either. Our pro per defendant made a great first impression on the jury by attempting to dismiss the panel in its entirety for cause (we didn’t care about the facts), and his peremptory challenges were pretty much just random strikes.
Act I – Guilt Phase
Through multiple witnesses (a concept the defendant never seemed to grasp), the prosecutor quickly established a timeline and essential facts. Defendant, a white male in his mid-30s, had been running around a busy intersection “mad-dogging” or rushing at people trying to provoke a fight. He may have even gotten into some small scuffles. At one point he attacked a bus as it drove away with the momentary target of his attention. Eventually he focused on a young latina woman (mentally retarded and with cerebral palsy), shouted “you’re dead” while brandishing a knife and then jabbed at her at least two times with the knife. He ran away and the woman called 911. Three minutes later a police officer met her at the intersection while other units detained him two blocks away. Defendant resisted and was tasered. The victim and another witness identified him on the spot within minutes.
There was some cross-examination, but it generally backfired. Our pro per was very successful in damaging his own case with almost every witness. He may have had information on the eyewitness’s criminal or drug history, but he never asked the eyewitness any questions that might have competently impeached his testimony. The jury only heard about a supposed rap sheet when the defendant tried to bring it up on closing arguments.
Defendant’s actual defense was at least only pathetic – aside from missed opportunities it didn’t actively damage his case. That’s only because it was short lived. The defense was supposed to lead off on Day Three, but defendant only got two questions out (to an investigator retained for his defense at some point in time) before he rambled into a speech. The judge tried to get him back on focus, but after several warnings the judge had to conclude he had no questions for the witness, and the defense rested was put to rest.
The jury found defendant guilty of menacing, assault with a dangerous weapon, and resisting arrest that afternoon.
Act II – Whoops Phase
This was supposed to be the insanity phase, but instead we did a quick session on whether or not the defendant had a prior felony conviction, presumably for a sentencing enhancement. The prosecution produced lots of documentation that we otherwise would have never gotten to see about his prior convictions, probations, parole violations. He’s spent the majority of his adult life in California’s corrections system for an assortment of offenses, mostly centered on drug possession and assault with various weapons.
Per the judge, we had to assume all the records before us belonged to the man in court. I didn’t compare fingerprints, but the photos matched anyway. It did help the jury clarify one of the bigger issues of the trial though: the defendant’s name.
He was charged as Mike Mitchell, but occasionally though not consistently, corrected people to call him Micah Michel. It turns out Micah was only one of about 30 aliases on record. The jury did not hold his conversion to europeanism against him in the deliberations, but it did find that he did have prior felony convictions. Strike whatever.
Phase III – Insanity
This was where something I’d suspected since opening statements was confirmed. Our defendant was a whack job.
Defendant had the burden of proof on this one, and utterly failed. He introduced the reports of two court-appointed psychiatrists who both acknowledged he was ill (paranoia, delusions, etc.) but not legally insane at the time of the acts.
The prosecution then put one of those same psychiatrists on the stand and confirmed the expert opinion.
In the jury room we got to read the reports though. Everything but tin foil hats! Both doctors reported that defendant claimed to have been raised on a CIA facility at Quantico as a prodigy, that he was physically and sexually abused by his mother, and eventually used for experiments by the Army. Lots of drug use, a claim of porn stardom, and a reference to a quest for a severed penis on Fourth Avenue had us rolling on the floor of the jury room.
Despite the entertainment though, and our sympathy for his illness(es), three more votes led to three new verdicts that he was legally sane when he committed the menacing, the assault with a deadly weapon and resisted arrest.
Despite the inconvenience and loss of time, we had a great judge who kept this thing on track and a great jury that knew how to balance the comic nature of the defense with the seriousness of the allegations and get the job done.
For me it was fascinating to be able to sit back and watch the trial from the different perspective. As I wrote on my feedback form for the judge, being able to watch the different responses to the various lines of questioning was valuable, and certainly more beneficial for me than any CLE I’ve been through in the last five years.