5 Days in court
In the past few days I have been selected as a juror for a criminal trial case in the county that I live. This was one of my nightmares; to be in court and have to Judge someone without knowing the whole truth but in the end it was an learning experience that I could ever had expected.
Not going to get into the details if the defendant was or was not guilty or what he did, honestly, that does not matter, at least not in this story.
All started with a letter in my mailbox informing that I was selected to participate in a Jury Duty selection. As anyone else I had responded to the call and this is where my experience started. After the instructions they start calling the panels for a given Judge. Till then you do not know what you will be facing and, more specifically, if you will be called to be a juror.
The numbers are called one by one until the panel are filled and it is a random process. There was 9999 available numbers in the set and these were being called in. Mathematically this means that you have 1/9999 to be called in since it is a random called set, but, the odds can be greater if you have a number in the 3 digits set. My number, was 2 and I was pretty sure that my odds were very low. Well, I was wrong, I got called in for a panel.
Instructions goes on and everyone moves to court and stand in front of the Judge, lawyers, prosecutors and the defendant. I don’t recall seeing on TV dramas the defendant being a part of jury selection or at least being there, but TV isn’t real life and the defendant was there. A situation that is at least uncomfortable to begin with.
Now both prosecution, defense and the Judge had to filter out, out of a group of 50, the jurors for the case. Filtering out 12 out of 50 should be easy right!? Actually yes and no. It was a week long case and it would start on the next week so the number of jurors being looked for were 14. At the time I didn’t knew what that meant but basically it means that there are 2 spare jurors in the case of any of the other 12 can’t make through the voting process.
The selection starts, instructions are given and this is where things starts to get interesting and you start to loose a little bit of hope over humanity. It is like being honest, polite or having a good common sense is something nonexistent. Fairly, from the set of 50, half is gone because of bias, from the remainder, the other 40% will be gone because really strong opinions (which almost can relate to bias). The rest that remains are what they call the lucky ones. The Judge didn’t mention why we are called the lucky ones but I’m pretty sure that is because it is getting harder by the day to find people to fill in those seats.
A week goes by and the trial has finally started. I had informed everyone that I wouldn’t be available through the day and that I was a juror on a trial case and headed out to the court.
I didn’t know what that meant then, I was a juror. Walking through the halls of the court carrying a badge saying that you are a juror you see everyone trying to avoid you as much as they can. They aren’t doing that because they are being rude, it is mainly that they are ordered by the Judge to not have contact with the juror and, we the juror, should inform the Judge if anyone has contact, especially about the case, with us. Along with that another thing happens too, as a juror you are now carrying the upmost respect of the courthouse. Not a single person that works on the courthouse doesn’t understand the importance of your role there, a role that can be a real heavy burden. Imagine the weight of your decision to start with. That alone is already something and then, you gotta imagine how much the fact that you are a juror can impact other peoples lives, people close to you as your family, team members and some other people that might depend on you. Finally imagine if that role can impact you financially. Here in Florida the company is only required to pay your merits for the 1st week, anything after that is the State responsibility.
I hadn’t thought about all of that when I was in the selection process or even after. I only realized most of it on the next day. That was how long it took for it to sit that I was a juror. Let me put it on this way, at the moment I realized that I knew that I had 50% chance of helping putting an innocent man in jail or 50% chance of helping a guilty man to be free. Either scenario didn’t please me at all but I didn’t understood it then.
When the 1st instructions started and the Judge very patiently explained these, you learn that as a juror it is not your responsibility to judge the defendant, it is your responsibility to judge the evidence presented. Hearing this took a weight from my shoulders that was a real pain. Regardless what was the verdict, it was the Judge decision to put that man in jail or confirm him as a free man.
In Florida it is the States responsibility, or how they states, burden, to prove that the defendant is guilty as charged. What this means is that the defense team can only sit there and do nothing and the prosecution requires to prove, being any reasonable doubt, that the defendant is guilty.
Beyond any reasonable doubt
As I see it, beyond any reasonable doubt is a very blurry thing especially because all that is necessary to break the evidence presented is doubt and with that a guilty man can walk free.
They have their own legal terms for reasonable doubt, but, let me put it like this: can you affirm, based on the evidence, with no doubt, that the defendant is guilty? If the answer is no, then the defendant walks a free.
Consider this. Have you ever watched that drama series from Netflix, How to get away with murder? Well, the process is somewhat what is done. If the defense lawyer is really good he can generate doubt over the evidence presented which then breaks the “beyond reasonable doubt” required from trial. Even with today’s technology, cameras, CSI and so on, I can understand why there are so many trials where a guilty defendant walks free and that is a scary thing.
Each day goes by and every time you enter the room you hear the same thing: “Jurors walking in. All rise” and when you look around the whole room is standing waiting for every juror to be seated and situated. The Judge calls the court in order and the process starts. Witness and evidences are presented by the State, there is a lot of back and forth with the witness where words are properly measured to attempt to tell a story in the perspective of the inquirer in a way that the other side won’t context and the witness or the evidence will present what they want to the jurors. When one side ends, the other has the chance to start what is called cross-reference and the best way I can describe this is to have two 5 year olds arguing and both saying that the other is a liar.
Recesses are called, meetings with the Judge are called, and there is a lot of back and forth, waiting and listening during the days. This might be the closest from a TV drama that you will get in court with the exception of things being a lot less rehearsed.
I deal with information in a daily basis and quite a good amount of it but during trial there is quite a considerable amount of information and data that you have to keep on your brain with some help of the notes. A little thing can be difference on the verdict.
After a couple days on trial you start to have a certainty of things even knowing that you shouldn’t. By all means the defendant is innocent until proven beyond any reasonable doubt that he/she is guilty. You hold your thoughts, your notes, and try your very own best not to be judgemental so you can listen to the very end.
On the last day the State brought her big guns, the very important witness and evidences and, with a powerful closing, addressed the jurors. The defense cross-reference the witness and evidences and, similarly to the State, brought a powerful closing to the jurors. Were they both right, were they both wrong, what was the truth?
I have written about this before but at any given moment there are 3 truths going on, yours, mine and the truth. During trial this is really true, there is the defense truth, the State truth and the truth. Unfortunately the truth is the only that we will never know so you got to judge the evidence and the stories presented (even if you are instructed to not listen to the openings and closing from the State and Defense, after all, you can’t “unrang” a bell).
In the last day of trial my services as a juror were dismissed. It is not like I didn’t want to voice my opinions after all of that but it happens that I was the 14th juror and only 12 were needed. I didn’t felt offended or sad that I didn’t voice or placed my vote, actually I felt a bit of relief. I didn’t realize how hard would be to judge something, how hard is to weight the evidence placed, how hard is to consider everything given to you and, to make matters worse, you gotta do that in agreement with 11 others. If it is already hard enough for 4 people to agree to what restaurant they will go, imagine 12 agreeing on the evidence placed.
As a side note, thinking about the weight of a judgement, I can’t even think what God has to go through.
My quest in court has ended and I left before knowing what was the verdict (although I’m sure that a small search would tell me about it) and, even knowing that it was an intense learning experience, something I will never forget and that I didn’t want to do it at first, I’m grateful that I did.
Seeing the respect given to everyone in court and how polite people were and how thankful everyone there were for your service brought a bit of respect to the judicial system back to me but more importantly it brought me hope that the world still has a shot to be a better place.
After all was set and done I understand why the Judge, on the first day, told us that after the military being a Juror was the 2nd most important role that a citizen can do for his country.
About the trial
I have promised myself that I would never talk about the trial with anyone even if I wasn’t required anymore to keep it as a secret under the Law. The reason is, I don’t want to keep that in my mind and I really want to forget about it. I don’t want to forget the experience but I don’t want to remember the case, the names, the evidence, the witnesses, nothing like that. To put it simply, there are things that shouldn’t be remembered.
Before throwing that letter away
Before throwing that letter away, consider if you can spent a week to help with a trial because that might be that kind of one in a lifetime experiences.
To the staff of the courtroom. If you guys are reading this, by any miracle chance, I want to thank everyone for treating every single person that was in that courtroom respectfully.