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Notes From Inside The Jury Room

So I picked my wife up from jury duty (she was thrilled when she got the initial invite in the mail; then nearly despondent when I pointed out that being summoned to Municipal Court meant it was “only” for a Class C) and took her to lunch.  The entire trial had begun at 8:30 a.m. and finished before we ordered our midday meal at Polvo’s

Of course, I asked her for the details, and as they got more interesting, started jotting notes on a tiny scrap of paper.  The notes resurfaced from the bowels of a desk drawer recently – the trial was about a year ago – and here’s the gist of them.  

Class C Failure to Signal Intent charge, pro se (unrepresented) defendant, and one witness: the citing cop.  The officer testified that he saw the defendant change lanes without using his signal.  On cross, the defendant grilled the officer about whether or not it was possible that he (the cop) had taken his eyes off of his(the defendant’s) vehicle, and perhaps this was when the signal came.  The officer declined to agree that this was even a remote possibility. 

The defendant didn’t testify, but when his turn came for closing, he asked the judge, “Can’t I tell them that I signaled?  It’s obvious from my pleading Not Guilty that I’m saying I used my turn signal.”  The judge simply replied no. 

The jury retires.  And here’s where nearly every worst fear a criminal defense lawyer has about deliberations is confirmed by my wife.  Among other matters, the jury discussed the following issues: 

Some defendants set cases for trial because they are hoping the cop won’t show up. 

While this is true, it’s obviously not a legitimate (charge based) starting point for discussions about guilt/innocence.  My notes are sketchy on the next point, but they seem to confirm that the conversation turned to “we only heard one side of the story” ergo, we gotta go with that.  Quickly followed by a “why didn’t he just testify” / “if he had said he used his signal, we’d have something” debate. 

Next comes my favorite: 

I thought using your turn signal was “recommended”.  I didn’t know it was against the law. 

Perhaps this is the prosecutor’s fear, rather than mine.  Essentially, there was a jury nullification argument.  My wife didn’t start it, but she told me that she chimed in, something to the effect of, if you’re turning onto a street then yes it’s a law, but if you’re just changing lanes, it’s just something you’re supposed to do. 

“Recommended”.  I had a discussion with her at lunch about whether or not this was merely a recommendation, or an actual honest-to-goodness traffic violation.  And remember, the trial was finished before the waiter brought us the queso and chips.  She made it through the whole thing, but was still unsure that this was really, oh I don’t know, what would you call it, a “law”? 

The “recommended” discussion is filed under “There but for the grace of God, go I”; I suppose that explains why it’s my favorite part.  But moving forward to the punch line, someone else suggests: 

I feel sorry for him, but he needs to learn a lesson, and if we find him Not Guilty, he won’t learn a lesson. 

Now we’re in prosecutorial dream land deliberations.  Let’s get those jurors focused on what might happen (gasp!) if a guilty defendant didn’t learn his lesson.  Skip all of that BRD nonsense about the state proving their case, and concentrate on avoiding the worst of all possibilities: an unpunished guilty man.  Doubt my thesis that prosecutors often have similar concerns?  How about this comment from a recent D.A. Confidential post about DWIs:           

What I do know is that many felony DWI-ers get away with acquittals or having their cases reduced to misdemeanors, which seems like positive reinforcement for their behavior.

That’s right, a not guilty verdict is simply a guilty man getting away with it.  Can’t have that.  Now let’s talk punishment (and back to my notes): 

If we’re not sure, we could fine him $20. 

Ahhhhh, the compromise verdict.  Not a disaster when it comes to traffic offenses, but truly life changing when you’re talking about a felony.  My wife gets kudos at this point for saying that she knows we (the jury) are not supposed to do that, to compromise on whether or not he is guilty, but balance it out by giving low punishment. 

She didn’t want to tell them she “knew” that from her CDL husband, so she told them she knew that because…….. 

…she saw it once on Law and Order

Awesome.  Proof positive that Earle Stanley Gardner, et al., are irremovable from our jury rooms.  (And remember, at least she was right, not supposed to have compromise verdicts.) 

So how did it end up?  Guilty, and a $20 fine.

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  1. Interesting post, always fascinating to see what goes on in the jury room, but I do have to take issue with one snarky comment, if you don’t mind. You quote me accurately as saying:

    “What I do know is that many felony DWI-ers get away with acquittals or having their cases reduced to misdemeanors, which seems like positive reinforcement for their behavior.”

    Then the disappointing part where you misinterpret/put words in my mouth: “That’s right, a not guilty verdict is simply a guilty man getting away with it. Can’t have that.”

    I just wanted to (a) point out the obvious, and (b) clarify my view.

    (a) Obviously, my comment does not equate your interpretation. I started with the premise that the defendant is guilty because sometimes I see blood results suppressed (properly, I might add) and the result is a lesser plea.

    (b) If you know me, and I believe you do, then you know that I have great respect for our system and I’ve never made the blanket statement that a not-guilty verdict equates to someone getting away with it. Now, anytime I get a not guilty that’s the case because I’d never prosecute an innocent man/woman…. <— tongue in cheek, please do not quote!!!

    Seriously, I do love to be linked to and quoted, and given the dearth of prosecutor blogs I'm kind of setting myself up for defense lawyers to kick at me. But I'll have to jump in when I feel you're not being quite fair to me or my fellow prosecutors.

    Otherwise, great new (to me) blog – I'll link mine to it forthwith.

    Reply
  2. Jamie Spencer

     /  March 23, 2010

    Quoting your comment (again out of context, but the full comment is right above): (a) Obviously, my comment does not equate your interpretation. I started with the premise that the defendant is guilty because sometimes I see blood results suppressed (properly, I might add) and the result is a lesser plea.

    While I applaud your making “the case against” forcible blood draws in the original post, in the paragraph starting “It’s a violation of civil rights”, you do go on to predict that no constitutional challenges will ultimately be successful, and you may well be right about that. At least once the police have all the kinks worked out in their pre-printed warrant applications.

    Also, I read the part I quoted in the context of your back and forth with Grits about the deterrent effect, but to the extent you were thinking that ole .23 test result had already been supressed, your comment makes more sense.

    Either way, I’ll stand by my original point: jurors who rank letting the guilty go unpunished as their highest avoid-at-all-costs priority are State’s (and decidedly not Defense) jurors.

    Finally, tone of voice doesn’t always carry well in emails/blogs; I’ll accept the characterization of snarkiness, as long as you know it’s snarkiness with love. And please feel free to jump in whether I’m being fair or not.

    Reply
  3. Great post. I think every trial lawyer would like to be a fly on the wall in the jury room. This is further confimation of many of my suspicions. All the more reason to really hammer the standard/burden of proof during voir dire and closing.

    Reply
  4. Ishmael

     /  March 23, 2010

    Hammer it all youse wants, there, B.Dubya. It ain’t like they gonna care anyway. They watch that TV law, and they knows who’s who’s and what’s what’s.

    You can’t fool them jurors with yer defense sweet talk when they got someone who needs a damn good lesson. After all, if they jury don’t make ‘em pay, who will?

    Reply
  5. Good post, I’d love to get on a jury just once to see exactly how it goes down. Your wife should have been the holdout for a hung jury!

    Reply
  6. Jamie Spencer

     /  March 30, 2010

    Maybe, Blondie, but then, that would have delayed my lunch, now wouldn’t it…

    Reply

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