Three weeks in the King County Courthouse
I recently had the opportunity to serve as a juror for 3 weeks in the King County Courthouse. The defendant was a 25-year-old male charged with 13 counts of vehicle theft, possession of meth, bail jumping, trafficking of stolen property, shop lifting, possession of stolen property, and driving on a suspended license.
Serving on a jury is an experience that everyone should have once in their life. I enjoyed watching the wheels of justice grid out a decision and found it enlightening how the justice system functions in the United States. Talking with friends, I have come to appreciate the experience more as many are called but few are chosen. For those of you who haven’t served, here is how my experience went…
The first day of jury duty about 350 potential jurors are put in a large room, gave a short video presentation about jury duty, and asked us to fill out a quick form that asked for our education and career field. They typically would call 30 jurors and assign each person a number—if a person was not selected to serve, he was sent back to the pool. I knew I was in trouble when assigned juror 8 in a pool of 75 people. We went to the court room where the defendant was sitting with his attorneys and the judge instructed the first 12 people (including me) to take their spot in the jury box—not knowing the charges and seeing a defendant, my pulse quickened. The defendant hadn’t shaved in a few weeks and looked sketchy at best. The mind games were already rolling…
The judge explained the case involved twenty charges mostly involving vehicle theft. She explained the case was likely to take 3 weeks and wanted to know if this introduced an undue hardship on individuals. About one-third of the people were eliminated because they were primary care or income providers and serving would introduce a significant hardship on their family. Nearly all owners of small businesses, mothers, hourly wage earners, and students (needing to make money) were excused. The judge had to bring in an additional 30 jurors candidates people the next morning because of the number of hardships claimed by potential jurors. I knew it wouldn’t be easy to miss 3 weeks from a work perspective (right now is a critical time) but wouldn't be a hardship on my family as Microsoft continues regular salary for employees on jury duty.
We were left with about 60 potential jurors after the undue hardship elimination round. The judge then explained it was important that we made decisions based on the facts of the case and not be unduly influenced by previous experiences. She asked a number of questions and asked us to raise our number card if the question applied to us. Questions included:
- Have you or a close friend had your car stolen?
- Have you been a victim of a violent crime?
- Do you have relatives that work for law enforcement?
- Have you served on a jury before?
- Have you been accused of a crime?
- Have you been convicted of a crime?
While the questions were being asked the lawyers were writing down jurors numbers for follow up question. Next, the prosecution spent 20 minutes asking jurors to explain their answers to the questions. The defense followed with similar questions probing the backgrounds and biases of potential jurors. They focused on if people could be fair given their past experiences or biases looking at the defendant. A number of people were eliminated because they expressed early biases because of the number of charges—he had to be guilty. One person was eliminated because he said the defendant had "shifty eyes." I couldn’t help but think, if I was on trial—I hoped the members of the jury would give me a fair trial without biases. I didn’t really want to spend the next 3 weeks commuting to downtown Seattle but if selected, would do my best.
After a couple rounds of questioning, the defense asked for about 15 jurors to be excused based on cause. The prosecution agreed on a number of them and deferred to the judge on the remainder. I think about 10 people left the room. Each side was the allowed to excuse 6 jurors. The defense would excuse a person and the prosecution would excuse a person. As holes in the jury box were created people from the jury pool were asked to take their place. The attorneys focused most on people in the jury box. I noticed people that talked a lot during the questioning period were most commonly excused. Once each team had expended their excusals the judge thanked the remain potential jurors and sent them back to the jury pool. Those sitting in the box were officially selected to the jury. We were instructed to not talk about the case with anyone until deliberations.
The day after jury selection the defendant returned looking clean cut wearing a sport coat. As the trial progressed his dress code shifted into nice suits. I expect it was a game to weed out members of the jury pool that were inclined to biases based on appearance. As the trial progressed, I expect he tried to change our opinion of him.
Each member of the jury was given a notebook and instructed it was to be left in the jury box but the notebook would be available to to refresh our memory during deliberation. Testimony started off with the prosecution questioning the lead detective about his investigation. Typically, we would show up at 9:00 and enter the court room around 10:00. We would listen to testimony from 10:00 to 11:45 and be excused until 1:30 for lunch. Afternoon testimony would start around 2:15 and last until about 3:45.
Testimony was a long grueling 2 weeks. There were very few made for Law and Order moments that put you on the edge of your seat. Mostly it was police officers testifying about interrogation, stolen vehicle reports, and vehicle recoveries. The prosecution was trying to develop a cadence and rhythm while the defense was constantly trying to disrupt the rhythm. The defendant in our case was accused of stealing late model Toyota Camry’s and driving them for a day and dropping them in mall parking lots. He stole a few things from the cars but basically he was using them as transportation for the day.
We heard testimony from 12 of the 13 people who had their car stolen. It was poignant to see single moms with young children, poor students, and immigrants testify about how their life was disrupted by the crimes of the defendant. Effectively, he was stealing from people that couldn’t afford to have their car unavailable and the impound towing expense.
The investigators in our case read the defendant his rights and then built a relationship. Once he became comfortable they provided him with a list of cars they think he stole and he began to talk. My key lesson—law enforcement officers are trained in interrogation techniques—get an attorney (better yet—don’t put yourself in uncompromising situations).
Opening arguments, testimony, and closing arguments lasted about 2.5 weeks. We were instructed that we couldn’t take notes during opening arguments or closing arguments. I remember feeling butterflies in my stomach as the prosecutor made her final remarks—it is a stressful experience to make decisions about how someone will spend the next years of their life... It was a little more troublesome for me to make these decisions not knowing the effects of our decision—as jurors, we were never given information about the sentencing guidelines for the crimes. My wife Taunya astutely pointed out the role of the jury is justice while the judge is empowered to grant mercy.
During the trial I was frustrated that the defendant caused so much fear, internal turmoil and disruption in the lives of the victims. Yet, I felt empathy for this young man (he was 25 years old) and really wished none of this had happened.
The first step in deliberation was to choose a foreman to direct the deliberation process. I was repeatedly asked to take the responsibility. Honestly, I didn’t want the extra stress but agreed to do my best. It was challenging to guide a discussion while sifting through the morass of testimony regarding car owners, pickup locations, recovery locations, dates, times, and officers involved. We had to look at each count and arrive to a unanimous decision based on the evidence.
We first started by going through each charge and summarizing the evidence presented. Some people on the jury felt he was guilty on all counts while others felt compelled to explore each charge. Tension grew as we talked about different sides of the arguments. It took us about 8 hours to condense our notes and summarize each charge on large sheets of paper hung around the room. After our review of each charge and evidence presented we voted on charges that were easy and postponed votes on any charge where jurors had questions. I think we came to quick guilty verdicts on 12 charges. It was liberating to have some many people agree—internally, it help me feel less responsible for sending this young man to prison as it was a collective decision based on the facts of the case and the rules of law.
The hardest charge to deliberate was possession of the addictive drug methamphetamine. He was found with a notebook that had a baggie that typically holds meth. The baggie only contained residue that did test positive in a field and lab tests. The state crime lab person testified he couldn’t weigh the contents even though his machines measured to .001 of a gram. However, we could see the particles. The jury struggled with the charge—did possession of residue constitute possession? Some people felt it was possession while others felt if they couldn’t get a weight it wasn’t possession. We ended up voting 10 guilty and 2 not guilty. I voted guilty but I couldn’t in good conscious try to convince other jurors he was guilty because the charge was such a stretch for me.
In the end, we found the defendant guilty on 16 counts, not guilty on 2 counts, and unable to come to a decision on the meth possession charge. It was a strange feeling for the bailiff to read the decisions and watch the defendant process the impact. As we walked out of the door, he looked at me directly and gave an approving expression and nod of the head.
I appreciated the experience but there isn’t anything positive that comes out of a criminal trial (outside of removing a criminal from the streets). I felt bad for the young man who was heading to prison and worse for the victims who were violated. I feel privileged to live in a country where people have a right to a trial by jury and court appointed attorneys if they can't afford their own legal council. In my case process certainly wasn't the most efficient operation but it seemed to be designed to give the defendant every opportunity to prove their innocence.