Jury Duty Flashback
When I had jury duty at the end of 2009, my post here didn’t mention much about the prosecutor. He presented a competent case, but the drama was all in the defendant. There were a couple of time where the DA lost his cool, but given the tenor of the trial it was understandable even if it was a bit over the top. Parts of it where also what I remember as junior DA theatrics, or maybe the legal equivalent of spiking the ball after a good play, but again, let’s remember he was playing against a mentally ill self-represented defendant. It came across like an NFL player spiking the ball after a good play against a Pop Warner team: poor sportsmanship, but nothing more.
The name struck a bell when I saw this article today though highlighting the prosecuting attorney’s conduct in another prosecution: Irrelevant and potentially inflammatory questioning and a pattern of misconduct that rendered the trial fundamentally unfair, at least according the the Fourth District Court of Appeal. Unfortunately I’m not surprised at all.
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.
Arrived at the Vista Courthouse at 7:45 to fulfill my civic responsibilities, fully prepared to be a juror. The line for security screening was long, but I flashed my bar card and walked around the screening station. After all, four hundred dollars per year in dues have to get you some benefits.
Apparantly the 7:45 start time on the summons was just a suggestion though. People kept strolling in until about 8:30. The clerk and a judge explained the system and turned on the special video for us to watch, then sent us on break for 45 minutes. About this time my cold meds started to wear off, possibly exacerbated to the extensive perfume worn by the woman sitting next to me. Sniffles and a bit of a migraine put Chuck in an even worse mood than he started the day in. No one turned on the TV. I was no longer in the mood for the book I’d brought, and I’d read through the morning news on the Palm.
I wasn’t the only one in trouble. Between the smoking ban and the cell phone ban, there were a lot of people squirming. The caffeinated crowd was doing all right (for now, until the do-gooders get bored again). There were a number of laptops visible, but the clerk had announced that no wireless connections were available, and a number of people were having trouble remembering how to use their dial-up connections (cord available at the counter if you leave your driver’s license).
Finally, at 10:30, the clerk announced that everything on calendar for the day had either settled or been continued. Everything. Of the 400 or so people called for today and present in the waiting room, not one was called, even for voir dire.
God Bless America.
Preparing for the Worst
Slept well last night, at least compared to the previous night, but I’m convinced that my sinus tumor has become respiratory ebola. My back says I need a really good swim, and my pathetic reflection in the mirror says I need some time laying out by the pool, and the parasites currently making phlegm in my lungs are just saying we dare you. Tempted to call the little beasties’ bluff, but I have an obligation tomorrow that I really want to get over with, so I’m doing some indoor work today and saving some research projects for breaks in jury duty tomorrow. Yep, I’ve been summoned for jury duty. This is the third time I’ve been tagged since I moved to San Diego in 2001. Once went to voir dire, the other just involved watching a lot of Fox News in the waiting room. I guess that’s one of the downsides to staying in one area more than three years.
I haven’t done much with juries professionally in several years, and I’m pretty certain no attorney in their right mind would let me sit on their jury. Too unpredictable and unpidgeonholeable.
In the back of some attorney’s mind they can run through the questions like: Do my criminal justice beliefs come from my days as a federal agent or as a public defender? Do my feelings about the insurance industry come from my experiences with BorgHealth, my two years doing insurance investigations and adjustings, or my current work with my clients.
Let’s just leave it by saying the only thing predictable will be my sense of wrath on any party I view as wasting my time.
TV’s influence on the law
Does anyone else think that forcing potential jurors to sit through hours of FoxNews might constitute undue influence? Just something that crept into my mind several times today, mostly at the start of each thirty minute news cycle, as I sat and waited and waited and waited.
I was not selected. I was not questioned. I made phone calls and read a trashy novel and tried to block out the background noise.
Jury Duty Recap
I’ve just donated one and a half days to the civic good. From the notes written in the border of my crossword puzzle I took in with me it appears things were said.
I learned that:
– San Diego has the third largest trial jury system in the U.S. (N.Y. is out of the running because they divide the city up into boroughs).
– 900,000 citizens were issued summons to participate during the last twelve months.
– Darts is a five-letter word for pub competition.
– Partipants can be selected for either getting licensed to drive or registering to vote.
Why are bureaucracies so slow?
Why are bureaucracies so slow? Monterey County, the home that I left last July, just summoned me for jury duty. I’ve always been curious about serving on a jury but I’ve never had the opportunity. One side effect (down-side or up-side, your call) to never living anyplace very long is that by the time local bureaucrats learn who I am, I’m already gone.
If they’d pay per diem, I might be inclined to go up for the vacation, though I doubt many lawyers would let a former law enforcement/security officer and present attorney get through voir dire except under pretty unusual circumstances. Unfortunately, I’m disqualified since I’m no longer a resident of the county, not just groveling for an excuse because of the long commute or financial hardship.