STEP RIGHT UP AND SPIN THE WHEEL…

By Stephen Jay Schwartz

Next week I check in for Jury Duty, and I really wish I could afford to be placed this year.  As it is, I’ll have to try to appear “unappealing,” so I don’t become one of the chosen ones.  I think saying I’m a crime novelist will do the trick.

A number of years ago I had one of the coolest experiences ever.  I was working at Disney Studios and they paid my normal salary while I was on Jury Duty.  Out of the dozen or so jobs I’ve had in my life, this was the only time my employer actually paid for Jury Duty.  Which was great, because I sat on that jury for three weeks.

It was a murder trial.

Now, I’d spent some time pulling cable on Judge Wapner’s The People’s Court, and I even worked as a director’s apprentice on an episode of Jake and the Fatman, so I figured this courtroom thing was going to be a piece of cake.  I soon learned the difference between “TV Land” and The Real Fucking Deal.

Here’s the scenario:  A guy and a girl in their twenties were sitting in the front seat of a car.  They were a couple.  Their “friend” was in the back seat.  The girl was driving, with her boyfriend in the front passenger seat.  The guy in the back pulls a gun and shoots the other guy in the back of the head.  He tells the girl to keep driving.  They end up in her apartment, where he rapes her at knifepoint, and then leaves.

What I found amazing was the killer managed to create an excuse for every bit of circumstantial evidence connecting him to the homicide.  It seemed that, through the discovery process, he was able to study the evidence gathered against him, and then create, probably with the help of the cheeseball lawyer he’d hired, a convenient explanation for why it looked like he had killed someone.

I can’t remember all the details, except that the two guys were going to “jack” some guy’s house that night, that they’d shot up a drug-dealer’s apartment earlier, blah, blah.  These guys were not missionaries.  Ultimately the suspect said that it was the girl who did it, that she killed her boyfriend and came to him looking for help to get rid of the gun and other evidence that was still in the car.  This explained his fingerprints at the scene, it explained the blood on his hands and clothes, it explained his behavior when he was questioned.  Her boyfriend’s body, by the way, was left in the car.

There was no usable evidence tying him to the rape of the girl.  Basically, after all was said and done, it came down to his word against hers.  Yet, in my opinion, the circumstantial evidence was enough to hang the guy.

As jurors, we heard testimony from ballistic experts, gunpowder residue experts, the coroner, blood spatter professionals, and a private investigator, among others. 

And then we heard the testimony of the girl.  I’ve never heard anything so real, so intense.  And I’ve never seen a film, TV or stage actor come across more believable.  Although her words did not constitute “evidence,” they left an indelible mark on my mind. 

I knew nothing about the other jurors during the trial.  None of us discussed the case.  We did it by the book.  Then came the deliberations.  Suddenly the place was alive with character, passion and conflict.  It was Twelve Angry Men, with the addition of women. 

After all the evidence had been considered, after days of detailed analysis, we had eleven jurors prepared to convict the guy.

One juror held out, because he thought the prosecutor had an attitude.

Yes, the prosecutor had an attitude.  He was like a caricature of a1950s ex-homicide cop, with the same antiquated Dragnet-era prejudices.  He’d come right up to the Jury Box, his fingers shaped like a gun held in the air, and dramatically yell, “Pow!” while describing the deadly gunshot.

Eleven of us ignored his antics.  We looked at the evidence and made the best decision we could.  One juror held out.  And that constitutes a mistrial.

As I see it, a guilty man was set free that day.  Of course, the state could’ve chosen to call for a re-trial.  Or they could’ve plea-bargained a deal with the guy’s schiester lawyer.  I never learned the outcome.

A couple years later I was again placed on a jury and I couldn’t wait to get started.  I wanted to sit on another murder trial.  Then came the case:  A small dent on the back of a car, a driver suing his insurance company, a stack of chiropractor bills, the insurance company proving beyond the shadow of a doubt that the driver was trying to bilk the system. 

Boooooring.

I guess you never know what you’re gonna get when you spin that jury wheel.

What about the Murderati Clan – what have you taken away from the Jury Room?  (And I’m not talking about pencils and staplers!)

 

32 thoughts on “STEP RIGHT UP AND SPIN THE WHEEL…

  1. JD Rhoades

    Never been in the jury room myself, but as a cheeseball scheister lawyer there’s one thing I’ve learned that I always tell clients:

    "Everything you see on TV about court is wrong, including the news."

    Reply
  2. PK the Bookeemonster

    I live in the biggest city in Montana — small by other standards — of about 100,000. I’ve only been called once for jury duty and that was when I was first eligible around age 20. I think I was dismissed because of my youth. Never been called since though I would do my duty if so.

    I enjoy courtroom dramas. I think books have more room to make it more real — how it happens over a long period of time and is at times rather boring. Television and film have to speed things up and make it dramatic always.

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  3. Chelsea

    It was more than 20 years ago, but still remember my only stint at jury duty. Attempted murder and assault. The trial lasted the first day and we deliberated the second. The defendant and his friend were at a bar. He had a revolver he was trying to sell and was supposed to meet someone there who was interested in buying it, but the other person never showed up (um…yeah). So they chatted up a couple women and the defendant–sans friend–wound up back at their (the girls’) townhouse. There, the defendant and the boyfriend of one of the girls got into an argument. Defendant slugs one girl, goes for his gun and shoots at the guy (misses completely). Police come and take him away.

    We were methodical, going over all the evidence, easily breaking the defendant’s lies–he claimed the gun was in one pocket of his coat and five bullets were in the other. We were supposed to believe that, while an angry boyfriend was chasing him through a townhouse, this guy was able to get to his coat, pull the gun out of one pocket, the bullets out of the other, load the weapon and then shoot. Yeah. We convicted him.

    The jury fun came in when one juror wanted to go for 2nd degree assault while the rest of us were going for 1st degree. It was 4:20 pm, court was supposed to be over at 4:30 pm and we had been deliberating all day. Finally the guy next to the standout said, "if we don’t give them a unanimous decision in the next five minutes, we’re going to be back here again tomorrow." The guy changed his vote and we were done.

    Oh, another fun thing. This didn’t happen in my jury but I heard about it at lunch fro one of the other jurors. When a jury in a different courtroom was sent to the deliberation room while the judge and lawyers argued some point, everyone took a seat except for one guy who went to the bathroom. When he came out, he was informed that he had been elected jury foreman. So there’s a tip for you…don’t be the first to go to the bathroom, you might wind up jury foreman.

    Reply
  4. Louise Ure

    What a sad comment that your defendant was set free based on a witness’s "attitude." and good luck with the "crime writer" defense. It sure didn’t work for me.

    Reply
  5. Allison Brennan

    I’ve been called twice. The first time I was waiting, waiting, waiting then dismissed. The second time, in late 2007, I was Juror #2 called in to be questioned. It was a domestic violence case. I wanted it SOOOO badly. The guy was accused of beating up his girlfriend and kicking her with steel-toed cowboy boots on their front lawn. The judge asked everyone basic questions, and she had a few extra for me about my books, what I wrote, and if that would affect my ability to be on the case. Of course not, innocent until proven guilty. She let me stay (she dismissed three or four.) Then the prosecutor and defense attorney asked specific questions of several people. The prosecutor asked me a few questions about my books and research. They then got to remove jurors without cause (they get like 3 or something that they don’t have to state a reason for getting rid of.) The prosecutor dumped a woman who said she didn’t think she could look at the crime scene photos because she didn’t like the sight of blood. The defense attorney got rid of me. He didn’t have to say why. I was bummed. πŸ™

    Reply
  6. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    JD – present company not included in the cheeseball schiester lawyer comments, of course. Really, if you’d seen this guys lawyer you would have convicted HIM.

    Brett….must you get EVERY job for me? Maybe I should have you put in a good word for me to the folks doing the Barry Awards next year…

    Chelsea – that’s a great jury room story. It sounds like you had an interesting case. Good fodder for the fiction, too.

    PK – it’s interesting, I’ve seen some of the most dramatic court room moments and the most boring moments captured in film and TV. It depends on the writing, directing and editing. I don’t think I’d ever want to direct a courtroom scene, personally, because they’ve been so overdone. And usually key points in the story are revealed in court room scenes, which often feels like a dramatic cheat.

    Reply
  7. Allison Brennan

    BTW, that 12th juror should have been hung. Talk about someone who shouldn’t have been allowed to sit. If our personal opinion of the people involved go into play, especially the prosecutor or defense attorney, that ludicrous. But that’s humans for you.

    Reply
  8. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Allison – that’s just mean! You never know why a prosecutor or defense attorney will make that call. I remember when Peter Guber, who was the President of Sony Pictures at the time, went in for Jury Duty and ended up as a juror in the shoplifting trial of Winona Ryder. Now THAT sounds like a conflict of interest. But Guber did his civic duty and he didn’t let that get in the way of his decision.

    Reply
  9. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Yeah, we discovered that the 12th juror was total anti-government. To him, the prosecutor represented all that was evil about our government. I wish he would’ve been vetted out by the defense attorney or prosecutor in the first place.

    Reply
  10. pari noskin taichert

    Stephen,
    The closest I’ve been to jury duty was for a mock court to train lawyers. I’d love to serve, to see it for real and to experience it.

    But then . . .

    I’ve heard that in New Mexico, juries are really iffy because there’s almost always someone who pays no attention to the evidence and has decided before the trial starts that "The MAN" is trying to stick it to poor poor pitiful defendants. Really.

    My blood pressure might not survive that kind of stubborn idiocy.

    Reply
  11. Tammy Cravit

    I’ve never been on a jury so far (not a U.S. citizen), and even if I was a citizen, I doubt that any sane defense attorney would want a woman who spent seven years as a volunteer rape crisis advocate and now works as a paralegal in the foster care system on a jury. (Defense attorneys, in my experience, do NOT usually want anyone who actually knows the way the law works to be sitting in that jury box) So, I doubt I’d ever sit on a jury.

    That aside, as someone who’s spent a non-trivial amount of time in courtrooms, I think one thing that many authors/TV shows/etc. gets wrong is how slow-moving court can be sometimes, and how much time attorneys spend sitting around waiting for their cases to be called. I remember attending a hearing recently where my supervising attorney spent the better part of two hours sitting in the jury box reading a book — and I spent the time chatting with a Child Protective Services worker — after the judge decided that our hearing (which, for confidentiality reasons would require the courtroom to be cleared of spectators) would be schedule "at the end of the calendar". Court, in my experience, is very much a "hurry up and wait" sort of endeavor.

    Reply
  12. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Tammy – that’s my experience as well – sit around forever, then spend a couple hours a day doing the actual work. I’ll bring my computer with me and, hopefully, finish my novel while waiting to be called.
    Your experience as a rape crisis advocate and the work you do with the Child Protective Services must bring a sense of reality to your writing that few authors have. I’d love to interview you someday, so I can get a better perspective myself. Of course, then I’d never be chosen as a juror!

    Pari – that was EXACTLY what that juror said – that the MAN was sticking it to the individual. That was his whole argument.

    Reply
  13. Margaret A. Golla

    On a Federal discrimination case: I learned more about rebar than I thought possible.
    On a murder trial: I learned that going over the facts of the case ad nauseum just makes this juror sleepy.
    On a insurance scam: glad we found for the plaintiff because AFTER the case was over discovered the defendent had a previous record–selling drugs to high school kids. Oh, this was the one the holdout was a little old lady who ‘felt sorry for the poor young man’.
    Yeah. . . right. . .
    Two years ago, I BARELY got off a murder case, though unpubbed I do write romantic suspense, PLUS my niece is an Asst. DA for the court. The judge wouldn’t excuse me, even after they grilled me for 40 minutes. The prosecuter had to use one of her ‘gimmies’.

    Reply
  14. Tammy Cravit

    Stephen (and any other of the ‘Rati crowd), I’m happy to talk and answer questions about what I do, about my experiences as a victim advocate, foster parent, and paralegal in the juvenile dependency system, and about the practices and procedures for juvenile court proceedings. If any of that is interesting, please feel free to send me an e-mail. Stephen, if you would like to do an interview sometime, please drop me a note and I’d be glad to participate.

    Also, for anyone here who is interested and is a member of the sistersincrime Yahoo group, KB Inglee and I did a Mentor Monday Q&A recently where we answered lots of questions about the juvenile justice and foster care systems and the experiences of the kids in it.

    Reply
  15. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Margaret – it’s intersting the things you learn about the defendant after the trial concludes. We had certain indications throughout the trial that our defendant was a very bad guy. The girl who testified made mention of "how the guy always gets away with things," and then the defense attorney would say "Object!" and the judge would say, "Sustained," and then we wouldn’t hear any more.

    Tammy – thanks for the invitation – it’s so great to have people to turn to for research questions. Some day, when I have time (yeah, when is that, Steve?), I want to phone and in-person interviews with everyone I can. Have you ever read the book "Working," by Studs Turkel? It’s a fantastic look at the work people do and their attitudes towards it. I would love to do an updated "Working," for modern America.

    And, Louise – good to see you here! Sorry I didn’t catch your comment earlier!

    Reply
  16. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Allison – by the way – when I said "That’s just mean!" I meant it in response to the fact that the defense attorney kicked you out of the jury pool without any explanation. Sorry if there was any confusion.

    Reply
  17. toni mcgee causey

    The only time I was summoned for jury duty was like PK above–I was about 20, and had no babysitting available to me. The judge looked up, saw a baby in the courtroom, called me to the front and told me to go home. I tried to argue that he’d be quiet and that I’d be a good juror and after he wiped the tears from his eyes, he made me leave. I kinda wanted to stay… it had to be more interesting than what was on TV all day long.

    I’ve never been called again, since. They probably have "crazy" down by my name somewhere in the system.

    Reply
  18. Mike Dennis

    Back home in Key West, I was called for jury duty in an attempted murder case. There was no question the guy was guilty, BUT was he guilty of attempted murder 1st degree, second degree, or aggravated battery?

    There were only six of us on the jury. I was immediately elected foreman (why, I have no idea), and called for a vote right away. Five for attempted murder 1st degree, one for aggravated battery.

    The holdout was me. And yes, Henry Fonda was on my mind every second of those six hours we spent in the jury room, haggling and arguing, in English and Spanish, until the verdict was delivered: guilty of aggravated battery.

    The impact of this incident on me was staggering. I had always, my entire life, been the first to holler, "Get a rope!" I was the first villager to light his torch and incite the rest of the rabble to storm the castle. Well, here I was with the actual chance to get the rope, and I backed away. Why? Because, in my opinion, the prosecution did not prove its case. The defendant was wearing prison garb, and his English was poor, so that was 2 strikes against him. I couldn’t bring myself to call that third strike.

    Years later, I became friends with the judge. He remembered the case, and was curious as to why we came back with the lesser of three verdicts, since he himself was ready to send the guy away forever. I told him, and he said, "That’s how our system is supposed to work. Congratulations."

    Reply
  19. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    That’s an awesome story, Mike. And the judge was right – that’s how it’s supposed to work. The prosecution and the defense team need to do their jobs. The defense lawyer on the case I was on was just terrible, didn’t know the law, did and said things inappropriately, and the judge had to reprimand him several times. Then he won the case.

    Toni – I think some people become "favorites" for whatever reason. I know that my mother-in-law gets summoned every year. I get it every other year. My wife gets it every other year, too, and we always have to dispute it, since she’s an at-home mom who homeschools our boys, and is the primary caregiver to one of them, who has autism. One question – was the judge tearing up from laughter or compassion before he sent you packing?

    Reply
  20. ZoΓ« Sharp

    Hi Stephen

    Never been called for jury duty and being self-employed, not sure I want to be, but I did go and sit in on the coroner’s court which was incredibly dramatic without meaning to be. It taught me how the matter-of-fact description of violence can be far more intense than pointing a finger at the jury and going "Pow!" ever could be … ;-]

    Reply
  21. toni mcgee causey

    I’m pretty sure it was laughter. πŸ˜‰ I was so earnest! I really was too naive to see the problem. (I mean, I was used to doing everything with a 5 month-old in tow… sitting around all day listening to people talk seemed like a cinch.)

    t

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  22. Nancy Laughlin

    I can relate to the hung jury frustration. The only jury I’ve ever sat on was a child molestation case, and I hope to never sit on another. The case was supposed to last for ten days (the same number of days for which I got paid). Instead it lasted 2 and 1/2 months.

    Both lawyers and the judge were incredible, really top notch.

    The defendent and his wife lied about everything. So many other witnesses contradicted their testimory that it became almost comical. The two victims were very believalbe, to me. Unfortunately during jury questioning, one jurist said he never believed teenagers, ever. They always lied. They kept him on the jury, god knows why, and he meant what he said. Out of the 9 felony convictions, we got two guilty, one not guilty and hung on the other six. The two guilty weren’t dependent on the victims direct testimony. That jurist also refused to "railroad" the defendent by voting guilty on the other felonies. He even convinced one other jurist to vote his way in the end.

    Reply
  23. D.A. Confidential

    As a writer I imagine a jury trial is fertile ground for stories. As a felony prosecutor who just finished a murder trial, I know my job is! Funny you should post about jury duty because it’s one of my pet issues. I know a lot of people don’t want to do it but every single juror I have ever spoken to has said it was one of the most rewarding experiences ever. I blog about jury issues every Friday because I think the jury system is so important. My judge always tells them: "Next to serving in the military, jury duty is the most important, and sometimes most difficult, service we can perform for our community." I agree.

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  24. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    D.A. – I agree. I really wish I could do Jury Duty every year. I find the experience to be fascinating and important – something that defines American life. The thing that always hangs me up is that I can’t afford to do it. Our employers say "take your vacation time to do it." Really? Don’t I need my vacation time to simply chill out? To survive this rat race? What I end up doing with my vacation time is finish major sections of the writing projects I’m doing. I wish there was a better way to deal with the jury duty, so it doesn’t put undue financial stress on the jurors.

    Point in Case – Nancy’s trial lasted for 2 1/2 months. How many of us could survive that? I think most jurors are retirees.

    Reply
  25. Alexandra Sokoloff

    My only jury duty so far was a contracts case between a shyster Hollywood producer and a development exec he had fired during what was clearly a psychotic episode. I was so clearly not supposed to be on this case in any way – the producer was someone I could well have been up for a job with and knew full well was a moronic asshole, and the exec was a friend of a friend who I had met at numerous parties. Neither attorney nor the judge would disqualify me.

    It didn’t give me a whole lot of faith in the process, actually.

    Reply
  26. D.A. Confidential

    Stephen,
    In theory, or in Texas, the law protects people from losing their jobs or, I think, regular pay when they do jury duty. It’s very hard on those who have their own businesses or get paid by the hour, though I recognize that. Here, we’ve increased the pay from four bucks a day to forty a day. Hardly a king’s ransom, but at least recognition that it causes a financial burden on people. I think what gets me is those who are on salary, will not suffer financially, but just see jury duty as an inconvenience. I just think that’s a shame – I’ll never get picked but I’d love to do it!
    DAC

    Reply

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