Friday, April 29, 2005

About the Jury

Thanks to all Galley Slaves readers who sent in their comments and emails about their own jury experiences as well as a few other thoughts. To answer one reader: The question of where I work never came up. There were questions during the voir dire about our experience, if any, with homelessness and even if we did have something to do with it, the question posed was "Would you find yourself unable to be fair?" One of my colleagues at TWS was almost selected for the Travelgate jury, despite his having worked at the American Spectator, which broke a number of stories on it. Again, in his situation, the question posed was, Could you still be fair? Few people under oath and in front of a judge can say "No, I will be unfair." (A common exception is the victim of a violent crime unable to serve in a criminal case.)

With regard to my jury, I may very well have been the only conservative. During deliberations, several jurors brought up their own participation in protests, such as with the SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) in the 1960s. One congressional staffer called himself "a bleeding heart liberal." And yet despite these leanings and despite a case involving activists trying to feed the homeless over Thanksgiving, these jurors put emotion aside and focused strictly on the law at hand. We had one holdout and it was unclear exactly what stopped him from deciding the defendants were guilty. After convincing him in one instance, he would find some other element that bothered him. And on it went for about two hours. One woman thought that adding pressure would help (it didn't--she was clearly the Jack Ward of the group). In the end, the "bleeding heart liberal" and a professor from a local university (who was a SNCC member) approached the holdout directly, asking him, "What is it you are having a problem with?" and "Here is why I think they are guilty." Carefully and conscientiously, both men, without seeming to add pressure, clarified their positions and after a few moments of silence, the holdout changed his mind. (We then asked him if he was sure he believed this and was not feeling any pressure. He said no.)

To the very end, Mr. Bleeding Heart Liberal felt terrible for voting guilty even though he knew it was the right thing to do. ("These kids just don't seem to take the law seriously," he added.) One of the elders in the group who protested in the 60s said, "They knew what they were getting into... There's a right way and a wrong way to protest." But perhaps the professor's sentiments were best: "When we protested in the 60s, we knew we could get arrested. We knew we were going to break the law. These [defendants] knew what would happen and now they claim to be ignorant of the law? And now they want to represent themselves in court because they think they know the law?" They couldn't have it both ways, he thought.

No word on the sentencing, though one lawyer tells me at a minimum, there will be a fine. At maximum, they could face jail time. (I invite any Galley Slaves readers with law degreees to share his or her thoughts on possible sentencing.) Ten days in the slammer might not sound like much, but ten days in the DC County Jail could feel like an eternity.

Incidentally, one of the alternates on my jury called to ask about the verdict. He too is a self-described liberal and a former lawyer in the Clinton Justice Department. When I told him about our deliberations, he replied, "I would have thought it would have taken you guys ten minutes to convict them. This was a clear-cut case!"

2 comments:

Liz said...

I rather envy your jury duty time spent. I've lived in Orange County, California most of my life and I've been registered to vote for 23 consecutive years, but I've only been called for jury duty once. Even then, I didn't have to go to a courthouse, but simply needed to check in by phone about three times to see if I needed to show up. I recently just got my second summons, but will out of state during the time stated. It's very strange, I have acquaintences who have been summoned multiple times. How come some people constantly get selected and others don't? Can't fiture it out.

Bookworm said...

I've been a lawyer for almost twenty years, but have never served on a jury. Very interesting to get your perspective on the experience.

It was also interesting to read that the protester from the 60s who was on the jury with you disparaged the defendants' attempt to avoid the penalty by claiming ignorance of the law. Aside from the fact that "ignorance of the law is no excuse," it is a fascinating insight into modern political protest to see defendants arrested for activism try to avoid the law.

The essence of civil disobedience (see Ghandi and King) is to accept the martyrdom of jail precisely to prove how bad the laws are. Someone who protests without accepting the consequences is not advancing the cause. If you genuinely believe in the righteousness of what you're doing, the best way to do it is to shame society by being a good citizen forced into jail for doing what is manifestly the right thing.