Grand juror, part two

Back in July, I discussed what it was like being on a grand jury.

I’m still on one. Our term is three months. Two months are served, but we should be done at the end of the month. Then supposedly I get at least three years off from again being a juror.

Generally, we meet once a week. Sometimes we get a week off. Only once did we need to take a lunch break. Generally, they keep us going and we are released sometime after 1 PM. Sometimes it’s just one case we look at. We’ve had as many as three in one day.

Initially, the cases brought to us for indictment were mostly about drug trafficking. We got a couple more of these cases since then, but it’s run a full gamut of crimes. So far we haven’t refused to return an indictment. The prosecutors are always very well prepared and the evidence is overwhelming. There is also the low probable cause standard needed for an indictment. Given we only need twelve of 23 grand jurors to indict, it’s hard not to indict.

The newness of being on a grand jury though has worn off. I often leave the jury room feeling soiled. “What a piece of work is a man!”, Hamlet reflects in Shakespeare’s play, where most everyone dies. “How noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving, how express and admirable in action, how like an angel in apprehension, how like a god!” From the perspective of a grand juror, I’m feeling pretty appalled by our species. Granted, we see society’s underbelly, but it’s a grimy and uncomfortable place to inhabit.

A few days ago we heard from a witness to sex trafficking. We haven’t issued any indictments on this case yet. It will take a few more visits from prosecutors. I know stuff that I really didn’t want to know. What makes it worse is you are privy to the names and sometimes addresses of those under investigation. This woman in her early 30s, fresh out of rehab, described in mind-numbing clinical detail her sexual encounters and the pimp that controlled her. From five to 8 times a day, she provided mostly blowjobs to clients at a house in my county. The john’s money was left on a table downstairs and discreetly picked up by the pimp. In return, he fed her drug habit and gave her shelter. He wouldn’t buy her clothes, shampoo or even tampons. The money was supposed to go toward paying the rent, but mostly it went to feed the pimp’s massive drug addictions. She was alternatingly crying and blowing her nose while matter-of-factly discussing the sexual services she provided. Blowjobs were apparently no big deal. But once she was taken to a hotel where she was anally raped against her will. That was the final straw. The pimp threw her out on the street, but she found a friend, went into rehab again and has been drug free for many months.

I was just appalled. I think everyone in the jury room wanted to say “I’m so sorry” to her and give her a hug. That wasn’t allowed, of course. We can ask questions but aren’t allowed to grieve with a witness and say we care.

We also indicted a man for murder. He’s indicted on four counts, one of them murder. Both were in their early twenties and both were unwisely put in a halfway house (actually, an apartment in a larger house) for young adults. I don’t understand why this agency would put two people of different genders in the same apartment. He was clearly disturbed but she was clearly doing well in the program, working at a local fast food restaurant and had a car.

The most disturbing part was watching nearly two hours of videotaped testimony taken at the local police department. For fifteen minutes we watched him play with his smartphone and carefully rearrange the contents of his wallet. Then the detective enters and starts asking questions. Over the course of nearly two hours his story evolves and changes. This rather normal looking overweight man toward the end of it just comes out an admits he murdered her. He doesn’t seem particularly bothered by it, but he is concerned about going to jail.

We also got to see voluminous pictures of the victim, the knife cuts she endured, and blood on the floor and refrigerator. I’m confident when he’s before a trial jury he will be convicted on all counts. Our state has no death penalty, but I’m awfully glad he’s unlikely to every taste free air again. Bail was denied, not that he had any money to pay it. He was picked up in his roommate’s car by the detective outside a fern bar where he enjoyed a free meal – he had a coupon apparently, and a couple of hundred dollars he stole from her.

There were also two indictments for rape. A local attractive young woman who worked at a local fitness studio met an old flame at a local bar. She didn’t like the vibes she was getting from him, so she left. Outside the club she gets to chatting with a stranger across the street who eventually offers her some weed. He offers to take her to his place, which she assumes is an apartment. Walking on a path through the woods she discovered his tent instead (he’s homeless) where he forces her to give him a blowjob and then sexually assaults her. This woman though at least had to good sense to report her rape and seek treatment. She seemed happy to testify against him to ensure this guy never rapes a woman again.

It’s not just men that we indict. We indicted one woman for a couple of dozen cases of animal cruelty. She wasn’t torturing pets, but neglecting farm animals she had purchased and stored in someone’s barn. She basically didn’t have the money to feed them. Several cows and goats died, and many of the rest were sick and near death. We heard testimony from a state investigator. There’s enough of these cases where there is a whole team working just on animal cruelty cases.

I wish our species was noble in spirit and infinite in faculties. And I’m sure there are some fine examples out there. But there are many base and disgusting people out there for which the term “human being” is probably more than they deserve. Just calling them bestial is too good.

I’ll be glad when my term is up and I can go back to pretending we’re not as bad a species as all the evidence I’ve seen and the testimony I’ve heard clearly indicates.

I, Juror

Having lived more than fifty years, you would think I would have been summoned for jury duty at least several times. Somehow, I never was. I had an inkling it was coming when in March I received an official piece of mail from the Clerk of the Circuit Court asking about my availability for jury duty. About three weeks later, the actual summons arrived requiring me to call or go online after 5 p.m. on April 13th to see if I was needed for jury duty on April 14th. I was not, however, in Fairfax County, Virginia potential jurors have a two-week summons, where you normally report only one day a week. A week later, I went back online to find out that I actually had to report at the courthouse this time.

I wonder how many jurors are like me: honestly interested in being a juror. It’s not that I wanted to stand in judgment of others or help mete out sentences. (In Virginia, juries decide the actual sentence.) It had more to do with seeing so many depictions of a courtroom on TV and never having had to be in a courtroom. This, no doubt, was due to my extremely clean lifestyle.

I was anticipating the experience to be somewhat underwhelming, but surprisingly it was not. One thing I did learn quickly is that while many jurors are summoned, not that many are seated on an actual jury. Both prosecutor and defense attorney look aggressively for reasons to excuse jurors.

After spending close to two hours reading newspapers and magazines with about a hundred other potential jurors in a large jury waiting room, my group of about two dozen was finally escorted to Court 4J. Clearly, my tax dollars had been well spent with this new courthouse. It was about as fancy as they get, and all the courtrooms looked shiny and new. Because I happened to be in the first dozen in the group, I was seated in the actual jury box while the rest sat where the public sits.

The case involved a young man who had been pulled over by Fairfax County detectives. He was alleged to be distributing marijuana because two dope bags were found. Moreover, a drug scale was also found between the passenger and driver’s seat. Possession of marijuana with intent to distribute is a felony in the Commonwealth of Virginia. The defendant was looking nervous, despite dressing in a dark suit and tie. Both the prosecuting and defense attorneys were dressed for success.

During the voir dire, all sorts of jurors were excused. One could not commit if the trial took a second day because she wasn’t sure she could find a babysitter, as her child was too young for daycare. Others openly expressed biases that precluded them from sitting on the case. Two potential jurors approached the bench to discuss their confidential circumstances with the judge and were excused. We were all asked if we had any opinions regarding drugs and marijuana that would disqualify us from rendering a fair verdict. It just so happened that I personally favor marijuana decriminalization. However, I saw no point in speaking up because I knew I would not let my opinion keep me from rendering a fair verdict. My opinion has always been that the law is the law, and no matter how stupid it may be sometimes, we are all required to abide by it. A number of other jurors were excused for no obvious reasons. Maybe they looked biased. For some reason I remained and other potential jurors quickly filled their spots.

I was anticipating the casework and presentation to be a bit sloppy, but I quickly grew to respect both the prosecutor and the defense attorney, both women. If I ever need a good defense attorney, I now know whom to ask for. The defense attorney was particularly insistent. Did we understand that the defendant was presumed innocent? Did we understand that the prosecutor had to prove these particular charges beyond a reasonable doubt in order to convict the defendant of this felony charge?

Enter the prosecution witnesses: three Fairfax County police detectives who in early October 2009 apparently were shadowing this man as he left a Bally’s Gym off the Shirley Highway. Left unstated, but reading between the lines, was that the defendant knew he was being shadowed as he pulled into a parking lot, turned around and started heading back toward the Capital Beltway. He even dodged onto an off ramp then illegally dodged back into traffic. All the detectives testified they smelled unburned marijuana when approaching the vehicle. All detectives also noticed that as he was pulled over he leaned toward the passenger side. They noticed some part of the plastic bags sticking out of the glove compartment, opened the glove compartment, assessed it was marijuana and arrested the suspect. The scale was found later in a search of the car.

While the case looked straightforward, it was not. The defense attorney in her opening statement said there would be testimony from the family that the defendant’s younger brother had purchased the marijuana in D.C. Moreover, the defendant did not own the car; it belonged to his father. He also carried over $1000 in his wallet. There were lots of circumstantial evidence but no one could testify they actually saw the defendant put anything into the glove compartment. If he did seal the bags, it was done in a hurry, and the bags that were presented looked well sealed. The defendant had no drug paraphernalia on him, yet the detectives said there was a strong odor of marijuana when they approached the car.

We shuffled off to lunch with strict instructions not to discuss the case. It was an odd lunch because the defendant and his family were sitting two tables away and the three detectives were three tables away watching him. By two p.m., we were back in our jury room, waiting to be summoned back into court. We waited. And waited. Conversation became more difficult as we were running out of things to talk about. Nevertheless, we could read the tealeaves.

It became official around 2:30 when we finally got back into the courtroom. The defendant had pled guilty to a lesser charge. We were not told what he had pleaded guilty to, but simple possession of marijuana seemed likely. While I had not yet heard the defense witnesses, copping a plea seemed an obvious act for the defendant. In my mind, the prosecution had not proven intent to distribute marijuana beyond a reasonable doubt. Reading between the lines, this defendant seemed to have been tracked by detectives before and probably had other encounters with the law that we were not told about. I would not have been surprised if the defendant had actually been some low level distributor, but the evidence was just not there to convict beyond a reasonable doubt. Yet he probably felt he might have gotten a hung jury and some other jury might convict him. There was probably enough evidence to convict him of possession of marijuana if that had been the charge. Intent to distribute was a stretch given the evidence.

We were thanked for our service and I was back in my office by 3:30. I know I won’t be summoned for at least three years by this circuit court. Most likely, this was my one and only chance to be a juror and yet I judged nothing, just listened impartially. However, the judge did thank us. A jury trial often leads to these last minute plea deals. The trial becomes the wedge that can move a case toward settlement.

My guess is that if summoned for jury duty your odds are at best one in three that you will actually decide a case. Off the bat, you have close to fifty percent odds that you will be excused for one reason or another. Our case was likely not atypical in that in the middle of it, prosecution and defense decided to agree to settle for lesser charges.

Still, it was an interesting day. Our judicial system does work and it was all handled with great professionalism. While courts and juries make their share of mistakes, it works quite well. I left feeling grateful for our judicial system and feeling confident that if I were brought up on criminal or civil charges, I too would get a fair trial.