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Jury Duty Rocks!

July 16, 2014

That’s me waiving from the 9th floor. Ninth Court on the ninth floor…. coincidence?

The big day came, I dressed in business casual and got myself to the court house.  I set off the metal detector, so got wanded and patted down as a welcome to jury duty.  The Orange County Jury Pool Waiting Room is very nice.  I felt overdressed since most of the other jurors wore jeans and a few even had tank-tops on.  I was figuring a defendant would want a well-dressed jury, but maybe that’s not the top thing on their minds.

I anticipated a day of reading and waiting.  Instead, I was the second one called.  We were off to the races!  Orange County’s elevators are needlessly complicated, but we got to the ninth floor with it’s nice view of Orlando and were eventually ushered into the courtroom.

Small but gorgeous, we faced a courtroom of beautiful wood paneling, close confines and a very small gallery (two rows of seating)… and a table of children.  Wait, blink-blink, those well-dressed very young people are the lawyers!  Making that older guy, who was the proper age for a lawyer, the defendant… the presumed innocent with a very nice tie.

A wonderful and skilled judge with a ready sense of humor explained we were in misdemeanor court.  She also said that she knows jury duty is a burden and nobody jumps up and down with joy when they get the summons.  I restrained myself from jumping up and correcting her, because that actually was my reaction.

She said a lot of other things, but I have a short attention span and have seen many legal dramas, so felt on solid ground.  Voir dire was bizarre, with the young attorneys confusing people more than questioning us.  Peanut butter sandwiches became illegal and taking the 5th doesn’t mean the defendant is guilty (yes it does, but we all pretended we understood it didn’t).  We were asked if we knew anyone who had been convicted of a crime.  Four of us raised our hands.  Personally knowing literally dozens of criminals in my sheltered life, I figured everybody else was lying.  They wanted to know the names and crimes of people we knew and ultimately if it would affect our ability to be an impartial juror.  The first three knew a couple (one’s Dad was the perp and was in jail for twenty years.  That guy wasn’t chosen.) 

Then I was asked who I knew.  “A lot, but it won’t affect my partiality.” It drew a laugh, but the judge appreciated it.

(Before you think I’m some kind of reprobate, let me explain that I am 50 years old, once worked with the police, been a reporter, been briefly in prison ministry and attend a good church full of broken people.)

The judge really was wonderful and kept the mini-lawyers in line without outright laughing, but there was definitely a hidden smile.  Our lawyers were pretty, earnest and eager.  I had to keep reminding myself this wasn’t a high school mock trial.

Much to my surprise, I was chosen as juror number four.

Having been told that after my service I could freely talk about the trial if I wished, let’s go.

The charge was “resisting a police officer without violence.”  Not resisting arrest, mind you, just resisting a police officer.  Without violence.  I didn’t even know that was illegal.

Opening statements were pro-forma with an added bit of, what we would find out later, purple prose.  An officer’s hand was “crushed” and the defendant “ran” which became “moved briskly” and was actually “ambled away.”

The defense attorney smiled prettily and said the state would fail to prove its case.  She used more words than that and an equal number of “uh” “um” and “sorry, just a moment,” but that was the gist.

Three extremely competent police officers took the stand one after another.  The fellow with the crushed hand, when explaining how the defendant closed the door on his hand, held it up.  It looked unscarred, strong and in the pink of health.  In cross examination, the public defender failed to point that out.

There were more objections and sustains than there was testimony.  It was a very stop-and-start process with constant sidebars with the judge (she flipped on a white noise generator whenever they approached to prevent us from hearing, but she slipped once and I found I could hear them better when the white noise was on than when it was off. It was a very small courtroom.)

It took twenty minutes for each officer to walk through the event.  I kept waiting to hear a crime thrown in there somewhere.  Oddly, each officer, when they looked at the jury, looked directly at me, each making eye contact with me throughout their testimony, not at the other jurors.  I’d taken a Facebook quiz that deemed me “irresistible.”  Maybe it had merit.  Anyhoo…

The state attorney made a point of entering a video on DVD into evidence.  The judge asked the deputy to set up the TV.  The lawyer said, “Oh no, your Honor, I’m just placing it in evidence, not showing it.”

The judge looked as confused as we did.

Fortunately, in cross examination, the defense attorney asked to present it.  OK… First a deputy tried to set up the TV and DVD player.  He just had to push the AUX button on the remote, but nobody said if we could say anything or not, so I didn’t.  The TV went away.  A laptop came out.  An hour of testimony was displayed in video.  It took about 15 seconds.  It seemed faster.

Let me sum up:

The defendant was at his place of business outside on the porch steps chatting with someone.  Several police cars pull up, we know, to serve a search warrant (meaning something bad was inside, but we couldn’t know what).  The defendant sees the car and immediately turns and ambles into his office.  Meanwhile (there’s no audio on the security camera) the first officer tells him to stop, by name, twice.  He tries to go in after the defendant and the door is closed on his hand.  He follows in and ushers the defendant out the door, being told (we were told) to “stop resisting! Stop resisting.”

The third cop to testify grabbed him from behind to secure him, to keep him from resisting.  The defendant, we’re told, tensed up and extended one arm and put the other in a fist at his shoulder, causing the second cop to testify that he believed the defendant might have a knife, so he pulled his sidearm. Then the defendant went completely limp, forcing the cop to bring him down.  Incident, from our perspective, over.  More may have happened after that, but that wasn’t what was before us.

Keep in mind, this was from one angle, a bad one, and very, very fast.  It was over before we knew it started. From the testimony, it would be easy to think the whole thing took several minutes, not several seconds. 

We expected at least one of the lawyers to walk us through the video, or frame it somehow for us.  Instead the defense rested.  I was still wondering exactly what the crime was.  The police did a fabulous job of controlling the scene.  They did an equally great job explaining what happened.  At no point did the lawyer contrast what the police expected from what actually happened.  Nor asked what the police really meant by “stop resisting.”  The picture was murky.  Maybe the defense would clarify.

We broke for a long lunch and a couple hours later filed back in.  We were told the defense had also rested.  Had we missed it and they forgot to bring us in?  No, it was all going to come down to closing arguments. 

They didn’t help that much.  Restatement of opening statements.  The state attorney clearly made her case, what there was of it.  The defense attorney suggested the defendant didn’t know they were police (the video she showed us made it clear he did).  She said he didn’t have to deal with the police at all, the search warrant meant they could go in without his permission.  More “uh” and “um.”

The judge read to us and gave us a sheet of what the lawyers had to prove or disprove, and foreman instructions.

There were four items on the list.  The last three were given, no doubt at all.  The first one was “resisting, obstructing or hindering a police officer without violence…”

We were confused.  Less by whether he resisted, more by the “so what?” The cops dealt with it (and really, the Sheriff’s Department should be proud, they were magnificent).  Should the guy really get into legal trouble for passive resistance?  Yet that wasn’t the question before us.  Did he resist?  Yes.  Reluctantly, we concluded he did.  We filed in, made our pronouncement of guilty and were told we could rejoin in the gallery or go home.  I was the only one who needed to find out what the sentence was, hoping it wasn’t jail time.

I entered the gallery just as the judge gave him a year’s probation, a $500 fine and covering of court costs.  The defense attorney asked for it be jail time, arguing that a week in jail wouldn’t inconvenience the defendant as much as a year probation.  The judge pointed out that it wasn’t her job to make his sentence convenient.   If he wanted to go to jail, he would have to break another law, of the many he’d broken before (according to the state attorney).  The other one coming up was the actual theme park ticket fraud he was wrapped up in (he’ll probably go to jail for that one).  Afterwards, I spoke with the state attorney who told me they really didn’t want to try this.  Offers were made, civil action suggested, but the defendant wanted this trial, which would be meaningless when he is convicted of fraud in a few months.

While the correct verdict was reached, it wasn’t the prosecutor who proved it to us, it was the defense attorney.  If she hadn’t shown the video, our confusion about just what the resistance was wouldn’t have been cleared up. Further, as jurors, we couldn’t see reasonable doubt if it hadn’t been raised.

Is it arrogance for me to think I could have won either side had I been the lawyer?

For the state, I’d have shown the video first, then had each officer walk me through it, after first describing what an expected, law-abiding response would have looked like.  Then stressing each moment of resistance and having the cop confirm that such resistance is illegal.

As the defense attorney, I would introduce reasonable doubt, “might he have been going in to notify his boss rather than resisting… in fact, helping you find the right person to talk to?” “If you’re not expecting to be grabbed from behind might you not tense up, then realizing it’s a cop, stop resisting and go limp?”  “Officer two and three, were you really reacting to the suspect or to the actions of the other officers in the heat of the moment, magnifying the overzealous actions of one officer into a chain of reasonable actions built on an error in judgment?” (I realize these specific questions would be objected to; it would take a little longer than I have here to develop the actual questions).

Yes, it’s true, I wonder if I’ve missed my calling…

It really was a fun experience.  The judge said we wouldn’t be called for at least a year.  Bummer.

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