Before I ever served on a jury I often wondered how a group of twelve men and women along with two alternates can get a verdict so wrong? There have been some high profile cases where the person was clearly guilty and the jury found the opposite. The more cynical among us often cite corruption as the rudimentary cause of this, and I was once among them.
But then I was called to Jury Duty...twice. Ugh, I hate even writing those words because I know the Karma forces will pull me in again. It's not that I don't want to do my civic duty, I'm happy to. I do a lot of volunteer work, but if I get placed on a trial and it goes any length of time I'm not getting paid for that absence and it means I need to work after hours to meet client needs and projects I've agreed to do. It puts undue stress on my livelihood.
That's not the point of this post today.
I was once on a Jury where a young man, early 20s or so, was pulled over by the police. It was clear the car he was driving had been started with a screwdriver, meaning he didn't have the keys, meaning he likely stole the car-- but he wasn't on trial for that. That was made clear to us by the Judge. He was on trial for running from the State Police who had pulled him over.
Seems like an easy slam dunk, no? Any of you that know me are wondering where this kid is serving time, were I a judge I'd be known as Hang man because I like to punish the guilty.
Juries don't get ALL of the information and when they get something they aren't supposed to get (like the news that he started the car with the screwdriver) they are sometimes told to disregard that by the judge after the defense objects. In this particular case the young man, who spoke very broken English, ran from the car and to his mother's house where he hid in a closet.
Here's the rub; while in the closet he took out his cell phone and called Worcester Police to come and help him. That was the bit of this that didn't add up to me and my fellow jurors because if he pulled out his phone and called WPD for help then he was clearly frightened.
Which means either he didn't understand that the State Police are also police or that said State Policeman was behaving in such a manner that he scared the bejesus of of this kid. Does that make him less guilty?
We thought it did.
The case rested and we went to the jury room to deliberate and I expected to argue for this kid because of a frightened phone call. As the foreman of the jury (not my choice) I decided to see where we stood BEFORE we got into a lengthy discussion about this so I put it to a secret vote-- Guilty or Not Guilty.
I counted the votes and I was absolutely SHOCKED that it was 12-0 not guilty. In opening it up for discussion it was clear we all felt the same way. We discussed this in unusual agreement for about 10 minutes and then called for the Bailiff to let the judge know we'd reached a decision.
The Judge sent back a note for us to order lunch and to discuss it further before we came out, so we did. We batted around the points of the case. We discussed the testimony of the Worcester Policemen the defense had called who said quite frankly the kid was scared out of his mind. The Arresting State Police Officer was a very young kid and we suspected he had likely abused his power and let the situation get out of hand. The kid DID run--he was guilty of that, but the fact that he called the police from the closet told us he was running from A POLICEMEN and not from the law.
Finishing lunch we went out into the courtroom- the defense attorney looked nervous and the assistant DA looked as cocky as he could. I didn't catch it at the time, but realized later a quick jury return almost always means guilty.
The judge asked if we'd reached a decision, as foreman I stood up and replied "We have your honor, we find the defendant not guilty."
I can still remember the audible gasps from the gallery and the kid jumped up and hugged his mother and his lawyer who both looked shocked.
The judge asked us to stay after the courtroom was emptied and then let us have it (exact wording I'm not certain of but it was in effect);
"I have never seen a more fragrant miscarriage of justice in all of my years on the bench. You should all be ashamed of yourself. Serving on a jury is a sacred obligation and one that needs to be taken seriously and not, as you have done, in a callous disregard for law and order."
We left. Outside the DA was shooting us dirty looks and despite the judge's criticism we all felt, or at least the rest seemed to feel, that we had done our best with the information we were given.
I later discovered the kid had robbed a store, assaulted the State Trooper and THAT is why he ran, but NONE of that made it into the testimony. If I'd had known that, I would have voted guilty, but the prosecutor did a really poor job of getting the right information to us and to this day I don't feel bad about it.
Because you make a decision based on the information you have, and I now have a lot more sympathy for jurors and the verdicts they make.