Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Citizen ML Meets the System or My Month on Jury Duty

(Originally posted on MySpace on Sunday, August 19, 2007)

It's been a busy week for me. Just yesterday I stood out in the sun for the whole day and watched bands play at the Sunset Junction Festival in Silverlake. There will be more about that at the end of the month. But I'm exhausted and sunburned and I'm still going to go out and do the same thing again today. So, the following report is a bit rushed and the telling of the tale feels dry and a bit dull to me. That might just be my frame of mind. Hopefully, you'll enjoy…

Over the years I've been notified that I'm being called into jury duty a number of times. I always used the excuse that it was a financial hardship to get out of it, but over the last few years, the government has made it harder to make that claim stick. So, a few years ago, I was actually called into the court building in Van Nuys. That time, I sat there all day reading and then was finally told that I wasn't needed and I went home, thereby serving my duty for that year. The last two years I've received notices, but when I call to see if I have to go in, I'm always told I'm not needed and that my duty has been served. But this year I was finally told I had to report. What made it worse was that I had to report to the Federal Building in downtown Los Angeles. My attempts to change the venue to Van Nuys, as I did in the past when I was called in, were denied for no real reason that I could figure out. They're just getting really hardcore about the whole thing due to people weaseling out, I guess. So, I found myself getting up at 6:30 AM to catch the 7:40 Rapid Bus from Van Nuys and Ventura Blvds in Sherman Oaks to the Red Line Subway station in Universal City. Then I'd board the train to Downtown LA and arrive just before 9 AM, the time I was to report to court.

I found myself facing conflicting feelings about all this. On one hand, I resent being told that I have to serve my civic duty to a government that doesn't think I'm important enough to bestow all the rights they bestow on non-homosexual citizens automatically. I feel I have a valid complaint and would have no problem being a good citizen if I was treated the same as all the other good citizens. Now, I could play hardball with that attitude and end up with a heavy fine or jail time. I'd get my point across, but nothing would change (unless every other gay person would join me and that's not about to happen anytime soon) and I'd just suffer for no one's good. So I opted to serve my duty and complain about it as much as I could to the people in power. That I did and was ignored every step of the way. Oh well. I tried and I will always keep trying.

On the other hand though, I was also quite excited by all this as it was an experience that I had never had before. I'm always interested in new experiences. Even when I was gay bashed by a mob outside the Whiskey A-Go-Go in 1979, I looked at it as an interesting experience. Sure, I was almost killed and was in quite a bit of pain for days afterwards, but I now know what it feels like to be beaten unconscious and the feeling of peace I actually had as I was going under, thinking I was dead. But I can talk about that experience at a later date. Jury duty wasn't quite the intense experience that getting beaten to death was, but it was still something new and I was interested to see how it would play out. Plus, I'm constantly upset that I don't have time to read and all this time on buses and subways, plus our jury breaks, would give me some time to catch up on the books I have stacked up all over my house.

So, I went into this hoping that I wouldn't be picked, but secretly wishing that I would and my secret wish came true. But let me give you the background to what led up to my being picked first.

I reported to the jury room at the Federal Building first thing. There, a no-nonsense woman briefed us about what we could expect to happen to us during the day. Some people were very put off by this woman, but I understood where she was coming from. No matter how simply you state instructions and how many times you do it, a good percentage of people are not going to hear you. And that's what happened. As soon as she told us everything we needed to know, probably a third of the people there asked questions that were easily answered by what she had just told us. A number of them filled out the forms wrong as well. I don't blame this woman for getting frustrated and acting like the room was full of idiots. It was. It was this same woman we had to report to every week to get things like proof of service for those who worked regular jobs, parking validations, or bus passes, which I would get weekly. That was another perk. I had my bus and subway passes provided by the court and I used them all week long, even if it was for personal use, and it was a lot of the time. (By the way, I got along famously with this woman over the following weeks. She never gave me the problems that other people were complaining she gave to them.) She also informed us that we would be getting paid the staggering amount of $15 per day served and that people with jobs were supposed to be fully paid their normal wage by their employers per the law. Those of use without jobs or who were self-employed were out of luck. And it did turn out to be a pain-in-the-ass for me as I had little time to keep up with the online sales that I use to generate bill-paying money.

We were then told to relax and do what we wanted as we waited for the first court to call for jurors. Almost immediately my name was called and I was heading down the hallways to a large courtroom to discover my fate. The room was full with about 50 other jurors. The judge said he wanted to let us know some facts of the case before jury selection started and told us it was up to us if we wanted to continue to try for this trial. He said that it was scheduled to last for 30 days, but he thought it wouldn't take more like 20. He also told us it was a civil lawsuit and would have a good many technical witnesses. We were told that if we didn't have the time to spend on this case, we could excuse ourselves and go back to the jury room to wait for a shorter trial. I opted to stay and that had mixed results for me. After I was picked (more on that soon), I found that "court days" are much different than regular days. Weekends were not counted. And there were many times we were given days off due to holidays and personal problems with the jurors. So this 30-day trial ended up starting on June 19 and going until August 7, a total of 50 regular days. I don't think any of us were really quite prepared for that, and after it was all over, we complained to the judge about it. They really should say that the trial is scheduled for 30 days, giving the jurors a date the trial is scheduled to end, therefore letting everyone know just how long the trial is really going to last.

So, once we decided to stay, the judge told us that we were to go into the court's jury room to fill out a rather long questionnaire. The purpose of this was to let the various lawyers know answers to some questions in advance, thereby shortening the jury selection process. I answered this questionnaire as truthfully as I could, but I did answer a question about lawsuits, saying that I felt there were too many frivolous lawsuits being filed these days. And I did answer another question about corporations, stating that I felt that corporations were inherently dishonest and would almost always choose money over safety. While these answers were honest, I did fell that perhaps lawyers on each side wouldn't like them and I would be dismissed from duty. After we finished the questionnaires, we were told to go home and be back the next day for the jury selection process.

During the jury selection process the next day, my name was called about half way through. Most of the jurors had been put through the ringer and many had already been excused due to beliefs or supposed professional biases. I expected that the lawyers for each side would ask me about my answers to the questions I answered the first day. But to my surprise, I was just chosen to be on the jury with no questions asked. I suppose that maybe both the questions cancelled each other out. But at the end of the day, I found myself on my first jury. The one interesting thing that happened during all this was that at one point the plaintiff's lawyers announced that they would like to excuse a Mr. Hernandez from serving and this middle-aged Hispanic man literally jumped up and ran out of the courtroom. But then the attorneys announced that that was the wrong Hernandez. The Hernandez they wanted excused was a young, bald, heavy metal fan that was sitting in the back row with lots of attitude. But the judge told the attorneys that it was too late and that the heavy metal Hernandez was on the jury to stay since the attorneys had used up their allotment of excusable jurors. The remaining Hernandez was not pleased and constantly let us all know throughout his stay on the jury. Later in the trial, his attitude would be too much and he would be excused from duty after all. It's fortunate that they choose 4 extra people as alternate jurors. (Another juror was excused early in the trial when he overslept and didn't make it into court until the afternoon.)

After welcoming us to his court, Judge Warren L. Ettinger excused us for the weekend and told us that we had to be there at 9 AM sharp on Monday for the start of the trial.

The first day of trial came and we were all told that this trial was called Basco Vs. Toyota. It had to do with a family from Canada who was visiting relatives here in Southern California. They all decided to drive to Las Vegas and while in route, the car went out of control and flipped over two and a half times in the Nevada desert. Four of the family members escaped without major injury. The fifth, a woman sitting in the front passenger seat, was made a quadriplegic when the roof of the car caved in on her and broke her spine at her neck. They were claiming that the design of the car roof, a Toyota Corolla, was defective and that Toyota was at fault for the extent of her injuries.

The judge informed us of our jury duties. He told us that in his court, we were the judges and it was important that we were able to see and hear all evidence. If we couldn't, for whatever reason, we weren't supposed to beat about the bush. He wanted us to shout out our displeasure and the court would make sure any transgression was corrected. He also informed us that we were not to talk about this case at any time amongst ourselves or anyone we knew in the outside world. We were to start at 9 AM (later changed to 9:10 AM to accommodate a juror with school age children) and the day would be through at 4 PM. We would have two 15-minute breaks in the morning and afternoon and a lunch break at noon that would last an hour and a half. And with that, the trial was underway with the plaintiffs presenting their case first.

I'm not going to take you through every little step of the trial. That would be much more boring than this story already is. But I will say that I was surprised how much like TV or the movies the trial actually was. We had plenty of "Objection, Foundation" and "Objection, Leading the witness" claims made by lawyers on both sides. What is missing from films is how long and dull it can be for the lawyers to make a point. There is a protocol they have to use to get what they want out of a witness and after an hour of what may seem like pissing around trying to make a point, I would want to stand up and scream "Okay, we get it", but I realized they had to do this the way they had to do it to keep it legal. We also had plenty of technical witnesses on both sides that gave us testimony on the roof structure of the car and all things that Toyota should have or could have done to prevent what happened. And on Toyota's side, we had plenty of testimony on the accident and how it was the driver's fault and how the roof caving in couldn't have been helped due to the severity of the rollover. I was usually bored by most testimony and ended up drinking lots of coffee to stay awake and alert. I haven't drunk coffee in years now. I was much more interested in the cross examinations, as that was when conflict would usually happen and arguments between the lawyers would get more direct.

The breaks were a godsend to me. I did get much more reading in, finishing three books during the trial. And I used the lunch breaks to visit several restaurants in Downtown LA I'd wanted to try for a while now. At first, I tried to ignore the other jurors, as I just didn't want to be bothered and I would find it hard NOT to talk about the case with others if I was around them. But it wasn't long until I met a few that had similar interests in music or film and before long there was a loose clique formed to go along with all the other loose cliques formed by other jurors. I never went to lunch with any of the groups of jurors even though I was asked to a number of times, but I enjoyed talking to the people I got to know while waiting for the train or bus or standing around for the courtroom to open.

The hardest part of the trial was keeping an open mind. That wasn't made easy due to the dynamics of the various lawyers. I really liked the plaintiff's lawyer. He seemed like a nice guy who really cared what happened to the people he was representing and he never talked down to the jury. On the other hand, the defense lawyer was someone I just couldn't stand. From the first minute of the trial his bad sense of humor and sneaky laugh made me recall George W. Bush and I immediately hated the man. He was just an all around poor lawyer and I was constantly shocked when he would make a racial comment that was unnecessary or not know how to do something like make a case for foundation that even I, who know nothing about the law, could see how to do. And he tended not to trust the jury and treated us like we were idiots half the time.

Now, in retrospect, after what happened, I've got to say that I don't blame him for treating the jury as a collection of idiots. The problem is that he also alienates the few of us who actually do think, pay attention and keep an open mind. At one point, the judge, who I had lots of respect for, actually said something that bugged the hell out of me as well. The defense lawyer was going on about something the wrong way, not unusual for that boob, and the judge yelled at him about it, telling him, "that's not the way we play the game in this court". Now, I know that's just a figure of speech, but I still resented the implication that this was all a game to these people. This was about the life of a woman and what her future would be like and it all depended on this trial. It wasn't a damned game.

So, after we sat through days of witnesses testifying the opposites of each other, the trial finally rested and with a few words about our jury duty, we were sent to the jury room to deliberate and come to a verdict. We had to not only come to a verdict about fault, but if we decided in the plaintiff's favor, then we had to come to a verdict about compensation. In all, we had to address about sixteen questions concerning Toyota and three members of the Basco family. (The husband and mother of the injured woman were also suing for emotional distress.) Unlike a criminal trial where all twelve jurors have to agree, a civil trial like this only needs nine of the twelve jurors to agree on each point. And it doesn't have to be the same nine for each point. We had sat through conflicting testimony on roof strength and testing. We had sat through unpleasant testimony on what happens to a quadriplegic and how they get through their daily functions. We had sat through more conflicting testimony from eyewitnesses to the accident and what they actually saw and didn't see. And now it was time for us to finally discuss the case amongst ourselves and decide what was true and what wasn't.

Now, when I first started listening to this trial, I immediately felt that I knew how I would vote. As much as I dislike giant corporations, I didn't see how this could be Toyota's fault. But as the trial progressed, I started changing. Part of this was emotional. I felt horrible for this poor woman and her family and it was extremely difficult to put all that aside and think solely intellectually about the case. But there was also signs that Toyota knew the roof strength wasn't what it should have been and could have made changes in the structure to strengthen the roof integrity. So by the time I was in the jury room, I was really conflicted. But I was surprised to get in there and find that most of the people had already made up their minds for a vote for Toyota. From the beginning of the deliberation process there were three people who were for the Bascos, seven people who were for Toyota and two who were undecided. One of the undecided was leaning towards Toyota, while the other, me, was leaning towards the Bascos. I was shocked by the attitude of the Toyota side. The three people who were voting for the Bascos presented very logical arguments for their decisions. But the attitude from most of the Toyota people was that they had made up their minds and nothing was going to change them. Even when presented with a very logical argument against their opinion, they would just shake their heads and refuse to budge. One woman actually said that there was nothing that could be said to her, she had made up her mind and that was that; she refused to listen to anything else. Another man kept arguing about things that never happened, stating that he knew other instances that things like this happened and basically supported his decision with suppositions, which we weren't supposed to do. But no argument could sway him either. It wasn't hard for these people to convince the woman leaning towards Toyota to side with them. So that left me, the lone holdout and I became what I feared becoming the most, the swing vote.

We sat in deliberation for several days, with me swinging back and forth, one moment deciding with the Bascos and the other with Toyota. But in the end it was our jury instructions that convinced me. Those instructions told us that the burden of proof falls on the plaintiff's in a trial like this and I came to realize that as much as I wanted to vote in the Bascos favor, their lawyer had not convinced me 100% that Toyota was at fault in this matter. It was pretty obvious that the accident was caused when the driver of the car fell asleep while driving. And because of the severity of the accident, I wasn't convinced that any change Toyota could have made to the roof structure would have prevented that roof from caving in on the driver's side. I suspected that might be true, but I wasn't convinced and our jury instruction stated that I must be convinced. So I reluctantly threw my vote in with the Toyota side and the trial was over.

First we had to go out and have the court read our verdict. This was heartbreaking, as we had to watch the Bascos as they received the bad news. Then we were each polled to make sure that our verdict was properly represented. After that we were sent into the judge's chambers, where he thanked us for our service and asked if any of us would talk to the lawyers. Understandably, the lawyers wanted to know the reasons we made the decisions we made. Once again, I was surprised by the people I sided with as they were all refusing to talk to the lawyers. "I don't want to face them after this," was one comment I heard. But I announced that I felt I owed it to explain to the lawyers and at that two other people who voted for Toyota changed their minds and went out to talk as well. The rest fled like the cowards they were.

Talking to the lawyers wasn't easy and I had to explain to the plaintiff's lawyer that I just didn't feel he convinced me of his case. I mentioned that there were tests they could have done to make their case more concrete and made a few other suggestions. The defense lawyer, being the weasel he is, was strutting about and I made sure to tell him that I felt he presented his case even worse than the plaintiffs. The problem was that the plaintiffs had the burden of proof, so although I didn't like it, I had to vote for the defense. That calmed him down a bit.

And that was that. I've spent the last few weeks wondering if I actually made the right decision. Emotionally, I'm still unsure. Intellectually, I'm sure I did. But it wasn't easy at the time and it still isn't easy when I think about it.

And I have to admit that this experience has really made me wonder about the jury system in this country and if it really works as well as it's supposed to. I was really disturbed by the closed mindedness of the majority of the jurors and how most of them would not listen to any logic at all. I was convinced that even if the plaintiffs had made their case, these people wouldn't have listened to it anyways. I no longer trust our jury system at all, although I'm hard pressed to suggest an alternative. It's all very confusing to someone who is already confused by our system of government.

I was already going through a very emotional time with having to deal with Skip's crazy family after the death of his father and dealing with the death of my beloved cat. And the emotional punch of this trial just made it all worse. So I don't leave this experience feeling very positive. If I get called again, I will go ahead and serve. But I will never agree to so long a trial again. I want to keep them short and sweet in the future.

No comments:

Post a Comment