Thursday, December 06, 2018

Jury duty: the trial

If you are a fan of courtroom dramas on TV or in the movies, you are probably familiar with the basic format of a trial: opening statements from the prosecution and defense, presentation of the prosecution case with witnesses and evidence (including defense cross-examination and prosecution redirect of the witnesses), presentation of the defense case with witnesses and evidence (including prosecution cross-examination and defense redirects), closing arguments, jury instructions from the judge, deliberation, and delivery of the verdict(s).

Defendants are presumed innocent under the law until proven guilty by the prosecution (in this case, the State of Minnesota). Defendants are not required to prove innocence, only introduce reasonable doubt in the prosecution's case. Our verdicts, guilty or not guilty, were required to be unanimous.

The rules of the court

After the fourteen of us were selected as the jury and the trial began, we always entered and exited the courtroom through a side door that led to a jury deliberation room. For the duration of the trial, this was our home base in the mornings, on breaks, and during deliberation.

We the jury were not allowed to directly speak to any officer of the court (judge and attorneys) except through the judge's clerk, a recent law school graduate. If we had a question, we would ask the clerk, who would relay the question and answer. We were not to have contact with the defendants or witnesses at all.

Although the proceedings were recorded by a court reporter and audio recorder, the jury would not have access to either record. We took copious handwritten notes and were to told to rely on them, our memory, and our own experience and common sense during deliberations.

Our life during the trial

Until the trial began and we took our assigned seats every day in the jury box, we the jury were strangers to each other. Over the course of the trial, we had lunch together in small groups, took sudden breaks for scheduling and legal maneuvering to play out (sometimes for half a day). We could talk about anything except the case. We discovered common interests and personalities, gradually learned each other's first names (we were always Mister or Miss whomever in the courtroom). Some jurors pretty much kept to themselves, until the alternates were excused and deliberations began.

Without knowing for sure, I guess that the ages of our fellow jurors fell into every decade between 20s and 60s. With a couple of exceptions, the women on the jury seemed to quickly find interesting things to talk about in the mornings and during the breaks: shopping, vacations, happy hour bars, restaurants, food, children, mobile phone games. The five men generally did more listening than talking, not even broaching reliable “guy” topics like sports with each other.

Testimony and evidence

Witnesses were admonished to answer verbally with words, for accuracy and since the court reporter would not be able to transcribe head nods or non-verbal responses like “uh-huh.” We would often hear an attorney ask a witness to clarify a non-verbal response with, “Is that a ‘yes?’”

When the attorneys approached the judge to confer, a white noise generator would prevent any chance of the jury (or court reporter or audio recorder) overhearing the conversation.

Some audio and video evidence was introduced, but we would not receive the printed transcripts during deliberation. Replay of recording excerpts would only be permitted by asking the judge.

Witness testimony was intense. We took as many notes as we could, not knowing what small fact or observation would be critical in forming a verdict. We heard from alleged victims, family acquaintances, expert witnesses, law enforcement, Child Protection Services, family members, and finally the defendants.

During morning, lunch, and afternoon breaks, I often fled to the skyways, jury assembly room, or just climbed the stairways up and down for a complete change of scenery and to recover mentally and emotionally until we were called back into court. Checking email and doing some work remotely was possible, but on some days the length of the breaks was unpredictable.

After the prosecution and defense presented their closing arguments, the judge provided us written copies of the charges and the law, gave us instructions, and dismissed us to the deliberation room with our stacks of legal notepads.