Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Jury duty, pt. 2

The Trial
The trial started on Friday, the prior two days consumed entirely by jury selection. The jurors assembled outside the courtroom at 9am; I was still uncomfortable talking to any of them. One of the old guys was basically Butters from South Park, aged sixty years and made less adorable. The dorky hopelessness was all there. Still, if you wanted to talk to anybody it had to be one of the old guys. The old ladies would chatter amongst themselves in Tagalog and everyone else was absorbed in her cell phone. I had my book and headphones, which together provide a pretty airtight seal against human interaction. This makes my life better in so many ways, and I figured there'd be plenty of time to get to know these people.

Complicating everything was a series of admonitions that the judge stated before EVERY recess: don't do any independent research, don't talk about any aspect of the case especially with your fellow jurors, and (most importantly, quoth he) don't form any opinions in your spare time. This was a recurring theme of jury service and the judge really took pains to stress it: not developing opinions. It's an odd request to make of people whose lives you're hijacking for the express purpose of forming opinions, but it reveals something larger about the justice system. They're very aware of the fact that they need jurors to resolve disputes and keep the entire system running, but they're terrified of the actual decision making process. In theory, you're not supposed to form any opinions until the whole trial is done. Only once all the evidence has been presented and the closing arguments made, and only once all the jurors are in the deliberating room, are you supposed to form ANY opinions. The government would like you to remain a blank-slate drone who absorbs the information presented to your stupid face, right up until you're all locked together in the jury room (yes, they lock the door). They treat the decision-making process as though it were live explosives, rolling a grenade into the jury room before sealing it off and plugging their ears.

The trial actually started, even before opening arguments, with a playback of a video. To set the scene, this was a three-vehicle collision at a major intersection with a four-way traffic light and no protected left turns. There was a control camera at the intersection, so the accident was captured for all to see! They ran through the tape a few times, which was nice because there was a lot to look at. An SUV trying to make a left turn has to wait for the yellow to go. As she goes, a pickup truck trying to make the light blows through the intersection and strikes the SUV. The SUV's rear swings around and strikes a motorcycle stopped at the red light, blowing the rider off his bike. And...scene.

Opening Pitch presented by Geico
The opening arguments are sort of confusing; they're talking about evidence that'll be presented and witnesses that will be called to prove X and Y and such. About half these things actually happened during the trial, and by the end the claims had shifted. So, tip for future jurors: spend this time daydreaming or examining the faces of the court staff for funny faces. They didn't want us taking notes during the lawyers' arguments (not evidence, they said), so doodling was hard. The biggest highlight of the opening arguments was the defendant's lawyer, who had giant coke-bottle glasses and an annoying habit of walking around the entire courtroom while he spoke. In high school speech competitions, there were certain kids who actually spent time working on their speech-walking. They'd hit certain spots on the floor for each part of the speech, and it ultimately described a weird kind of triangle where you ended up at the exact same spot you started. If you plotted it out, it looks like an Illuminati pyramid with the start/endpoint being that laser-eye at the apex. This will all be covered in National Treasure 3. Or The Da Vinci Code 3. Or Deus Ex 3. Or some shit.

Side note: if there's anything we should have learned from the past few years, it's that major international conspiracies are just as impossible as alien visitors. I mean "impossible" in a physical, scientific sense: just as the aliens are constrained by the speed of light, any conspiracy is naturally constrained by the incredible human capacity for fucking up. The world economy is crippled by problems that we know how to solve, but can't convince ourselves even exist. These people are not capable of grand, intricate conspiracies. They can barely tie their own shoes or keep their hands off big-butted Sofitel staff.

The plaintiff's lawyer was an unfortunate-looking man. It's not easy being a short, pudgy, middle-aged Jew, though Jason Alexander seems to have had a good run for the last thirty years. He was not a handsome man, a little rodent-y, but this guy did himself no favors. He sported a greasy, pencil-thin mustache. His tightly-curled Jewfro hair was a little long, but it was a weird length. It was cornrow-length; as though his neck were his legs and his hair were a pair of capris. It was pulled back into a natty little salt-and-pepper knot at the back of his skull. My father sports a ponytail that I'm willing to defend; this was not defensible from a man who actually has a full head of hair. Between the strange bun and the little mustache (not to mention the garish yellow ties and vests that made him look like a penguin), it was a comedy of unforced errors. Speaking of which, he was unable to pronounce any of the medical terms deployed in the case, like "encephalocele." The defendant's lawyer had only a little more medical knowledge, but he could at least say human words with his mouth. After the opening arguments (mercifully brief), we started with witnesses.

The evidence
The witnesses themselves weren't too remarkable. There were only about half as many as promised, and for that I'm extremely grateful. The trial proceeded at the glacial pace demanded by our somnolent judge, who really struggled to stay awake in the sessions just before and after lunch. He had a great face when the sleepies got overwhelming: a sort of grouchy, old-man-chewing-even-with-no-food-in-there set to his jaw. The old guys in the jury had similar problems, but everyone else was really professional. The court reporters were highly competent and totally silent at all times, which was extra scary because they wore a LOT of makeup and had earrings as big as my fist.

Being in court wasn't as bad as I thought; having recently been through secondary school and college, I'm accustomed to the idea of sitting in a chair and taking notes while somebody drones on for ninety minutes. And thanks to the schedule of the court, you never go much more than ninety without a break (appropriately called "recess"). Lunch was ninety minutes on its own, which was enough time for me to drive home and make a sandwich and play with my puppy. Being a juror in the County of San Mateo pays a grand total of fifteen dollars per day, plus mileage. It's insulting to actually think of it as pay, so I consider it a per diem. Specifically, it pays for transportation, lunch, and the booze you'll need every night when you get home.

The evidence was unremarkable. Honestly, we could have decided the case with a reading of the relevant laws and a copy of the video. The expert witnesses were a mix of doctors and "accident reconstruction specialists," which I guess is a thing these days. It sounds like a good gig; regardless of the economy, people will keep fucking up and crashing their cars. They helped to establish some basic facts, but nothing that ended up mattering in deliberations. They were paid hundreds, if not thousands of dollars to appear and say these things, in addition to the thousands they billed for their preparatory pre-trial work. If I make $200 a week I'm happy. Just keeping everything in perspective.

These witnesses established that the defendant (the pickup truck driver; the SUV driver had already settled for an amount we weren't allowed to know) could have stopped for the yellow/red, but chose not to. They also established that her line of vision was blocked by other cars, so at the point where she saw the SUV she couldn't have stopped. Essentially, both of them made poor decisions. As for the medical evidence, the plaintiff had three main problems: headaches, shoulder pain, and a testicular surgery he'd undergone following the accident. That's right, we got to talk about balls. A lot. The surgery was for a pre-existing condition that was non-painful but wacky: essentially, harmless golf-ball-sized cysts inside the scrotum. There were all kinds of lost-wages and economic harm claims, because the plaintiff was a small business owner. It was a mess, and there was a lot of repetitive testimony that shed remarkably little light on everything.

The defendant's attorney was enamored with his deposition book, and during every cross-examination would try and needle the witness about any semantic differences between his testimony and his deposition from a year prior. UNDER PENALTY OF PERJURY, as he said. He really liked that phrase. I imagine it's the lawyer equivalent of those giant foam noodles people brought to the local pool. You know, the ones that every young boy in history has immediately picked up and used as a comically floppy sword? The lawyers are the young boys, swinging these weapons that don't hurt anyone but land with a satisfying THWACK. PERJURY. HAH! I see the appeal, but it was a singularly un-appealing tactic for the jury. This isn't a boxing match; we're not keeping score and awarding you points for landing a blow. Between the video (which I thought showed terrible judgment on the defendant's part) and her lawyer's skeevy tactics, I wasn't sympathetic to that side. OH NO I FORMED AN OPINION!

Kyra Sedwick is the Closer, even though it looks like her mouth could unhinge and open like a python's
Closing arguments. These were absolutely brutal, and the fact that they were at the end of the trial didn't help. At least the witnesses were being asked questions, so the back-and-forth kept everyone awake. In the closing arguments, the lawyers just get to talk for basically as long as they want. In the past, this took days. It's the only part of the court system that's gotten faster over the years. The plaintiff's closing argument was a full hour and I thought that was bad; not so. The defendant's lawyer took over two hours for his closing argument, though to be fair he knew there was a brief rebuttal coming. He spent the entire two hours talking in circles, walking in circles, and engaging in bait-and-switch sophistry. Those semantic differences between the witness testimony and their depositions? MAJOR ISSUE. His first declaration: "this case is about two things: fear and greed." Two minutes later, he's telling us to "pay attention to the scientific details in this case." I'm sorry, there was no expert witness to explain to me the science of FEAR AND GREED. When the man thought he was making a particularly clever point, he'd get this little smirk just so we'd know how clever it all was. He also took a shot at a vacation the plaintiff took with his children when he was "supposedly disabled." Really, you're going there? I know we've been given instructions not to consider sympathy, but it's hard NOT to feel sympathy for this man when you're being such a dick to him.

Eventually it was over; the plaintiff's rebuttal to the defendant's enormous closing statement was a brutally efficient rebuttal. He hit every major point in a fraction of the time I thought he'd need. It was a shining moment of competence, which was frankly startling given how badly both lawyers screwed up their arguments with regard to the medical evidence. Trial lawyers are just highly-trained arguers; you'd think their expertise in the subject would really matter, but it turns out bullshit is a kind of universal firmament. We were read a final round of instructions by the judge (ninety minutes of lowest-common-denominator bullshit) and whisked off to the jury room. This has already been long, and I'm leaving out a ton of events because I wasn't actually doing anything for them. We're nine days plus a weekend into jury duty, and I've spent the ENTIRE TIME just sitting there quietly taking notes. In the third part, I'll detail the deliberations. Spoiler: I owned face.

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