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.
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!)