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I, The Jury, Part X: Does the System Work? (Part I)

We can't have this much Trump legal news without another entry in the jury service series. Today we move into accounts that offer assessments of the overall system:

L.B. in Atlanta, GA writes: I was selected for a murder case jury in Maryland back in the 80's. I was a 20-something white guy.

The defendant was a young Black male. The defendant had been in a car with a young Black female. They were pulled over by a Maryland state trooper. The defendant had been to prison before and did not want to go back. He pulled a gun, shot the trooper, and told his companion to "get in the car and let's go." In one of the wisest decisions of her life, the girl said "No."

She stayed at the scene until the police arrived and offered testimony about what happened in court. It was a pretty open-and-shut case as to what happened. There was never a question of guilt. The vital question, and what took considerable jury deliberation, was whether it was premeditated murder or manslaughter.

What surprised me was that despite the defendant being Black, the very first person to vote guilty was a Black woman. She seemingly had zero compassion or care for the future of the defendant.

In the end, I and another young white guy were the last to be convinced that it met the legal definition for "premeditated," as the whole incident happened quickly, and was by no means pre-planned.

That experience taught me that: (1) people may surprise you in how they vote and (2) jurors take their responsibility seriously when someone's life hangs in the balance—even though the death penalty was not on the table.

R.H. in Santa Ana, CA, writes: Many years ago, my aunt was killed when a coal company semi backed out onto the highway in front of my uncle, who didn't see the trailer because it did not have lights.

Tort law has a concept called Negligence Per Se, in which the jury is told to presume negligence on the part of a defendant who injures another person while the defendant is breaking a law intended to protect people like the injured plaintiff.

Backing a semi truck onto a four-lane highway is illegal. Driving a semi truck at night without lights on the trailer is illegal. The judge should have given a negligence per se instruction, but he did not.

That coal company was at the time one of the largest employers in a several-county area.

Defense verdict.

Sometimes juries get it wrong.

S.S. in Seattle, WA, writes: I served on a jury for a federal case. It was in Seattle, and it was about drugs, guns, and money. There were lots and lots of charges. There were weeks of testimony. There was never any question that the judge was the single most important person in that room. There was also never any doubt in my mind that we twelve good [wo]men were a close second. The courtroom was a tight ship. We all did our jobs. The prosecution laid out their case in great, tedious, pedantic, crawling, repetitive detail. The defense asked question after question repeating the story the lawyers had presented in a dozen different ways already. Witnesses answered question after question. There was absolutely no drama.

We were instructed that during the presentation of evidence we couldn't talk to each other about any of it. That was the hardest part. When we were given the case to deliberate, and we finally got to talk to each other about the case, we reviewed each charge, read it over and over, talked to each other, searched through rafts of evidence in the books, looked at our notes, and, if we all agreed that the prosecution had delivered evidence that matched the criteria for that specific allegation, made a very deliberate decision on each charge. The prosecution made their case for quite a few of the charges, but missed a couple. The defense didn't provide an account to contradict the evidence presented, so we had no reasonable explanation for what we heard other than what the prosecution alleged.

In the end, it was a set process, no surprises, no drama, very little left to the imagination. There was very little room for variation from what the judge saw as proper, expedient, polite, respectful, almost mechanical, process. If that is anything like what will happen with the Former Guy, things will work out.

R.E. in Birmingham, AL, writes: I served on a jury about 13 years ago. It was a civil case between two long-divorced people who apparently spent all their time and money suing one another. It was icky.

When we got to the jury room, I was almost instantly selected as jury foreman based on the fact that I was the only juror who took notes and, you know, paid full attention. In our case, the ex-husband had sued the ex-wife because she called the sheriff on him when he came to her house, and he spent the weekend in jail. In his instructions to us, the judge had explained the elements that the plaintiff had to prove in order to prevail. I wrote those on a whiteboard, and then turned around to face my peers on the jury. Most of them were looking at me like I had been speaking Greek, and then engaged in an animated conversation about who they thought should win, based entirely on their individual senses of "right" and "wrong."

We eventually reached what I thought was the only defensible verdict, in part by persuasion and in part because some of them just got tired of the process and went along with anything that would get them out of the room.

To give you a sense of the level of understanding and analysis that was taking place, I have to include an event that happened during the trial itself. We were on a break, and a fellow juror sidled up to me and asked "what happens if we find him guilty?" He was asking me what would happen if we rendered a verdict of "GUILTY" against the PLAINTIFF in a CIVIL case. Good Lord.

We still have a big backlog of content, but we'll do another of these before the month is out. (Z)

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