Monday, March 15, 2010

Trial By Jury



This morning, I found myself back at the local Superior Court, the site of last year’s battle with corrupt and venal prosecutors who sought to advance their own careers at the expense of my innocent son. Readers of my blog know that justice did prevail, but at a high cost.

Anytime you’re forced to spend nearly a hundred grand to defend your kid against frivolous criminal charges, you have to ask yourself . . . how many other innocent people rot in jail because they could not afford a first rate defense?

In this economy, how many people lose their houses or their livelihoods, when forced to give it all up to defend against a malicious prosecutor who menaces their family with impunity while hiding behind the shield of the State?

Like most people, I grew up believing there was some degree of fairness in our court system. In particular, I believed our prosecutors took the idea of protecting the innocent and convicting the guilty seriously. Now I know better. I realize they too are only human. Some of them may – hopefully - possess the strong moral fiber of a trusted village pastor while others have all the ethics of a street corner pimp or crack dealer.

If the specimens I encountered last year are representative of the sort of creature we depend on to protect the public, look out! The problem is, how do you know which ones are good and which are bad? And what do you do if you are set upon by the latter, when they see a chance to make a score over your dead body?

All you can do is what I did last year . . . trust in our jury system, and hope the jurors can see specimens like that for what they are. In my son’s case, they did, and I returned to the court today as a potential juror to return that favor if offered the chance. Would they take me?

At 8:30 I found myself in a room full of people, typing away at my computer as potential jurors filled the room and things got tighter and tighter. By nine, fifty-four of us were packed into a few hundred square feet, as if we were participants in some bizarre rat behavior experiment. With all their talk about the importance of the jurors, judges and lawyers still relax in comfortable offices while we are packed like cattle. The lesson to be learned: importance is only a ten letter word. They did have a private bathroom for us, after all. With no lock.

Why do I mention the bathroom lock? I'm glad you asked . . . Google Pottygate and you'll see what kind of specimens frequent this court. As the newspapers say, this DA actually convened a Grand Jury to investigate allegations that her Clerk of the Court stole her private bathroom key . . . and got stomped by the higher courts.

I wondered how long it would take for the cramped space to eliminate all traces of civility from my fellow jurors. Who would be the first to crack? The sweaty fat guy in the second row, or the hallucinating freak in the back, the one with the bright yellow t-shirt and Einstein hairdo? Some people read read books as college professors corrected papers. As the jurors went snap, crackle, pop, a few of the most deranged and troubled ones gnawed bloody stumps where fingers used to be.

From the marginal comfort of my chair, I gaze out at my fellow potential jurors. Are they smart? Are they insightful? Are they perceptive? Surely some of them are. How would I select from this pool, if I were a defense attorney? Would I want someone like me on the jury, a person with an inclination to see the law in a very cynical light?

I doubt things will get that far. Whatever a defense attorney might think, if I were one of the prosecutors we whipped last spring, I’d surely eliminate the likes of me from any jury pool at my first opportunity.

We see what happens soon enough. I filled out the “juror questionnaire” and handed it to the fellows in white uniforms. We watch a video, throughout which stern looking figures remind us of the importance of the jury system. An hour passes, and the judge walks in. “Folks,” he says, “There is just one trial today in the Superior Court. That defendant has decided to go ahead without a jury, so you are all dismissed.”

The clerk says, “I’m not telling you what to do for the rest of the day, but this jury slip won’t tell your employer what time you got discharged . . . “ He leaves the rest unsaid; there is a motel around the corner that rents rooms by the hour. The parking lot between is crunchy with glass from used crack vials, and soggy with discarded cigarette butts. Walking carefully, I left the court and stepped out into a rainy late winter day, with my questions of jury service unanswered and all my cynicism intact.

9 comments:

Kanani said...

You not only spent 100 Grand, your son had endure the rantings of a prosecutor who was acting like a bitch. I wwould say she was a bitch, but that would be an insult to the canine type.

I spent at least $15k on legal fees for our son. 10k was just to get the IEP's, another 4k was to get my son off charges of J-Walking or some other dumbass thing the cop decided to send up to the courts. I think it was jay walking and smarting off, which he shouldn't have done. Needless to say, he was looking at either jail time. We hired an attorney, and he sorted the whole thing out.

But how many aspergians with an anxiety disorder end up in jail or prison? And how many never ever recover from that experience?

Anyway, back to the bitch comparison. Perhaps heathen would have been a better word. My feeling is that we have way too many substandard law schools, & a glut of low grade lawyers.

kyra said...

john, you're such a gifted story-teller. i felt like i was right there with you. that, for me, made the discouraging facts almost palatable.

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Thomas Thomas said...

Well spoken John. I just had my first Jury experience. I actually got on a trial. The one thing that was disappointing was that we ended in a hung-jury. The good thing about that was that since I had voted guilty (the vote was 10 guilty to 20 not guilty), and by the end was very comfortable with my vote, that at least the defendant did not get off with Not Guilty and he can be tried again. Of course that will cost the county a lot more to prosecute again. The charge was 1st degree Murder with a gang affiliation. We did convict on a robbery accomplice charge.

I have not had an overly negative personal experience with the justice system, so my emotions were not shaded in that way.

Pagan Sphinx said...

Right on. Nothing else added or said about the jury duty experience in Western Massachusetts. It's probably far worse in other places, too, I'll bet. Ugh.

I've had a couple of interesting
experiences with the court system, both having to do with a pyscho neighbor who terrorized my family and then tried to sue my husband on top it with the most bizarre and malicious accusations you could imagine. I'm interested in what happened to you and your son. Will be following that link soon.

Thanks.

Amy Murphy said...

Yes! Yes! Yes!! Thank you John Elder!! I went through a very similar experience with my Aspie son last year. Getting the prosecutor to understand his Aspergers was Key to his defense and I was fortunate enough to be able to hire the only lawyer, in this small town, who specialized in Aspergers and Autism. Had we not had the funds..he surely would have been railroaded.
I also was selected for jury duty recently, and love your analogy of packed cattle, as it is so very true!! And me without my anti-anxiety medicine!
Little did they know that they dismissed "The Perfect Juror" who takes the law literally and adores following concrete rules and stipulations. I would have been ideal!
Thanks so much for your post. It really made my day!!!

John said...

As this case shows, our "Justice" system is not through our peers. Ignoring the jury selection process, the vast majority of cases never go to trial. This basically makes the DA the jury, and stastistics on plea bargaining results vary wildly by socio-economic status of the defendants.

I too came very very close to going to jail as a teenager (though I did damage property), and only recieved probation and a lot of community service due to the support of my parents.

In Cubby's case, the DA may have pressed the case through ignorance. That is, she's ignorant, and your son is not. Historic persuction of geniuses is not unheard of. She may have been persueing personal power, not of career, but of "mine is bigger than yours" mentality.

abertrand1 said...

I can understand you cynicism. I persoanlly fell that the whole concept of "innocent until proven guilty" is merely idealist. It is impossible to eliminate all the crap out of the courtroom. I can't see the situation changing anytime soon.

On a different note, you book was excellent. I was daignosed with Asperger's at 8, and I am now sixteen. Your book explained so much and gave so much wisdom. Thank you.

Bill Hartwell said...

The worst part about jury duty, in my experience, is when the judge LIES to you and tells you that you do not have the right to judge the justice of the law in the case presented to you. I say LIES, because no less an authority than the United States Supreme Court has ruled that it is the DUTY of the jury to judge both the law and the facts of a case, and if the jury finds that the law is unjust, to refuse to convict.

Meanwhile, prosecutors and judges continue to peddle the LIE that juries are supposed to be nothing more than rubber-stamps for the court. I'm nobody's rubber-stamp. If you can't convince me not only that the person in question is guilty of violating the law, but also that the law is just, I'm not going to vote to convict.