Archive for April 7th, 2018

The Thinker

The verdict

Eight years ago I was called as a juror, sat for a trial then learned over lunch that the defendant had copped a plea. This week I was called to be a juror again. Seventeen were called for a criminal trial, eight of us were empaneled and six of us got to render verdicts. I was one of the latter. I should have expected as much given that my juror number was 3. If hoping to get out of jury duty trial, hope they give you a larger number.

Aside from paying taxes and obeying laws, citizens have only two duties. Voting is optional, but jury duty is not. So I drove to the courthouse in Belchertown, Massachusetts (a really bad name for a town, BTW) and got predictably lost for a while, arriving about ten minutes late. Fortunately, I was not in trouble or the last to arrive. They forced us to watch Today on NBC and I tried to tune it out with a crossword puzzle.

The case involved someone I realized later I probably had met tangentially. Not only does she live in my little village, she also does a lot of ordering at the local pet food store we frequent. At age twenty-nine, she looked ten years younger and no more than one hundred pounds soaking wet. She was charged with negligent driving and driving under the influence. She had participated in a charity golf event for her employer, played eighteen holes of bad golf, retired to the clubhouse and consumed (she testified) about twelve ounces of an IPA. Sometime afterward she drove home, but probably missed the turnoff to the shortest way home on her GPS and ended up in South Amherst. There at a set of double roundabouts she flew over the circle, destroyed a tire and ended up on the side of the road. She said approaching the roundabout she had glanced down at her GPS to understand how to navigate the two roundabouts and that bad timing caused her accident.

A lady watched the whole thing and she and her husband tried to offer assistance. She testified that the defendant seemed shocked and/or drunk. She was not very coherent when she tried to talk to them, but was proactive enough to have her registration and drivers license ready for the officer who showed up some minutes later. She was given a sobriety test by being asked to walk a straight line, one foot in front of the other. After one step she leaned on her car for support. She attempted the test three times and was eventually arrested and taken to the police station. She never got a Breathalyzer test.

So it was up to the six of us who actually made it to deliberations to pass judgment on her. The woman who watched the accident testified, as did the arresting officer. Her husband who was also a witness was not called, nor was a second officer also there. The judge solemnly instructed us that we either had to find her guilty or not guilty, and we had to be unanimous.

In one respect Massachusetts law is good, since we were a jury of eight instead of the traditional twelve, and two were alternates who got to sit in a nearby room and twiddle their thumbs. Even with six of us in a room it looked like we might end up as a hung jury. However, no one really wanted to come back on Friday to deliberate some more because it didn’t look like we would have a change of mind.

At least it was easy to convict her of the first charge of negligent driving. Not only was there a witness, but also the defendant admitted it in her testimony. The driving under the influence charge though divided the jury. The standard for convicting someone was that the evidence had to be beyond a reasonable doubt. And we all had different ideas about what the criteria was for beyond a reasonable doubt. The judge was not too helpful either. When we filed back into the courtroom for more instructions he basically told us that we had to figure it out for ourselves and we had to be unanimous.

So when we filed back into the jury room we at least agreed that the beyond a reasonable doubt is an unreasonable standard. But it is useful in forcing us to compromise our principles, which is probably the point. Where was the reasonable doubt here? The officer testified her eyes were bloodshot and there was the smell of alcohol on her breath. Then there were those repeated sobriety tests. Was this beyond reasonable doubt? In my case, at age 61, I wasn’t sure I could pass the test completely sober.

It was to a couple jurors, but not to the rest of us. Would one beer affect one skinny woman that much? Maybe it was half a dozen beers. It’s hard to say how tanked she was because of the lack of a Breathalyzer test. Why was one not done? We weren’t allowed to ask any questions, simply judge on the evidence presented. And we were explicitly told we had to use our own life experiences as a guide.

I remembered a day thirty-two years earlier when my wife and I arrived with painting supplies to paint the townhouse we had just purchased. We opened the door to find the ceilings down and water flowing out the door. It was probably the most traumatic thing that had happened to either of up to that time, made more traumatic because we only had a verbal okay on our insurance policy. We were in shock for hours. That was my life experience. Could something like this have happened to this woman, who had only recently bought the relatively new Acura for cash? Maybe she was mentally ill too? Was she rattled because of something like that, or from having one too many IPAs at the club?

Who could say? When pressed I agreed that she was likely under the influence. But could I convict her for this opinion when I felt it did not meet the standard of a reasonable doubt? We all agreed we would have liked to hear from the witness’s husband and the second officer. But the prosecution didn’t think it was necessary for their case.

Ultimately, four of us felt there was reasonable doubt about her condition and two did not. The two who felt she was guilty compromised their reasonable doubt standard. And that was the justice we ended up delivering: not guilty. The forewoman said she could agree because she was at least found guilty of negligent driving.

The defendant cried when the verdict was read, whether from joy or sorrow is hard to say. It was more likely from joy because her license had been suspended. Because of our verdict she was allowed to drive again. I felt we delivered imperfect justice. On that no one in the jury room disagreed. We hope that if she was drunk at the time, she learned her lesson. We’ll never know.

I learned that despite all the legal mumbo jumbo and the sonorous words from the judge, our jury system is imperfect. I suspect the amicable judge presiding over the case silently agreed.

 

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