Wednesday, April 30, 2008

jurist imprudence

I had jury duty this afternoon.

It's scary in there
Democracy is basically a good idea and so is civic duty. But the idea of being judged by a jury of my peers is bowels-turning-to-ice-water scary. Almost as frightening as having your fate decided by an appointed judge (read: crony) or elected judge (read: politician). But not quite. Hardly anyone likes jury duty and I'm no exception (and I forgot my damn earplugs) but like a pap smear or colonoscopy, you don't have to like it, just get it done (as professionally as possible).

A few years ago I was chosen to be on a jury trying two of the five people accused of torturing and murdering a mentally retarded man. The ringleader, Suzanne Basso, was eventually given the death penalty by another jury. However, it was Bernice Ahrens Miller (Suzanne's close friend) and Miller's son, Craig Ahrens who were the defendants being tried by our jury.

count to three; it's okay to use your fingers
Before I go on, let me return to today's jury duty. It was municipal court, pretty much guaranteed to be a simpler, briefer experience than the previous one. Of the larger group that showed up for jury duty all but two made the first cut into little potential juror pools (I was cut after the second round of tryouts, ptl). The pool to which I was called numbered 14. Six were to be empaneled. The judge (a zaftig amazon with good hair) was mercifully intelligent and non-pontificating unlike her irritating bailiff. She asked each of us to answer three questions. Each one requiring a one word or simple sentence answer. Three questions:

  1. Occupation
  2. Where you live (what area or neighborhood)
  3. Have you ever served on a jury
Three questions...and she even gave an example:
  • Astronaut,
  • Clear Lake,
  • No, i have not served.
Out of the 14 people, five couldn't complete this request without prompting. And that's immediately after being asked and hearing others answer correctly. FIVE out of 14, godsaveusall.

Back to the murder trial
First of all, let's get this out of the way: the trial was about the torture and murder of a mentally retarded man. There were gruesome glossy photos and lengthy lawyerly theatrics. There were few mitigating circumstances to this sideshow of human abasement. It was ugly and sensational.

This was almost 10 years ago, in 1999; there were 12 of us. A decent cross-section of our population, slightly skewed towards white lower middle-class, as I recall. The makeup of the jury didn't stay with me as anything more than a fairly typical "peer" sampling.

What I learned about the jury process
Many come into the jury room clutching their damaged inner child or hopped up on god or chomping at the bit with an axe to grind. This was about abuse, so some who had been abused felt compelled to share. This was about depravity and so some jurors felt compelled to use this experience as a way to right society's wrongs.

All we could/should do was to make a decision based on the facts presented. Nothing more, nothing less. It was hard enough without all that other shit. The defense and prosecution depended on the antics of lawyers. God, there are so many douchebags practicing law. However, we could only glean the facts from the lawyers' arguments and the witnesses' testimony. The attorneys' logic and debate skills were to persuade us one way or another. They dueled and we held up the score cards.

My fellow jurors veered off point so many times. They distorted logic and threw in some politics and religion. They were indignorant. A small number (2 or 3) of us attempted to drag folks back to the subject at hand. There was open hostility and crying. Let me repeat, there was crying. On that note, my fundamental jury duty axiom:


None. If your ex-husband beat you and this trial reminds you of that nightmare, talk to your fucking therapist. If the photos are so upsetting you need to have a little meltdown, do it at home. Because we were deciding the fate of two OTHER human beings. It wasn't about anyone else except them and the victim. As much as I understand that this was upsetting to everyone (yes, even me) I wanted to scream at these jurors: it's not your turn, fucktards! It's not your life and liberty hanging in the balance. FOCUS!

The jury is back
We eventually found the defendants guilty. The crime was pretty overwhelming and their culpability undeniable. The punishment phase was harder. The son (25 years old at the time) barely registered a room temperature IQ. I didn't expect the defense to put him on the stand. It seemed like such a bad idea. But, as it turned out, his simpleness actually helped him in the punishment phase. They both went to jail but his sentence was significantly lower than the hang 'em all contingent wanted to give.

Ultimately, a child-like, retarded man died a cruel, painful death and four simpletons went to prison because one woman was a master manipulator and, I must moralize, a right evil bitch. Suzanne Basso's own daughter rejoiced at her sentence and volunteered to, metaphorically, "pull the switch."

I hope I never, never have to be judged by my peers. But if that ever happens, I hope some of you more rational assholes out there don't dodge the summons.


ollie said...

Out of the 14 people, five couldn't complete this request without prompting. And that's immediately after being asked and hearing others answer correctly. FIVE, godsaveusall.

And they say our schools are crap..."Texas Miracle" indeed ;)

Anonymous said...

Texas schools suck because we don't have enough teachers practicing WIZARDRY!!!

I'm moving to Flori-DUH where they raise 'em right!

...and yes, there are too many psychologically-damaged people out there, taking up space and filling up the jury pools..

Anonymous said...

Bebopped on over from the Aether, noted this post. Thought: would you be more or less likely to want to be judged by a jury of your "peers" if you were guilty?

epiphenita said...

actually, tdh, guilty or innocent, i find the prospect of 12 random people deciding my fate truly unsettling.

however, i would still choose my peers over some random judge...and hope that a few of the chosen would have their logic intact.