Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Jury duty in NYC

So last year, I got called for jury duty. The Commission felt that because we were so understaffed and my boss was on maternity leave, I should postpone it.I get a one-time postponement for 90 days, so I did, for March 30 this year.

Bright and early Monday morning, I show up. I've been boasting about my Secure Pass since the day I got it. I love that thing. I can get into any court in the city without going through security and it is a Godsend. Especially when everyone is trying to get into the building at 111 Centre Street for 9 a.m. I just waltzed right in. Love it!

The night before, I called, as per the jury summons, to find out where I'm supposed to go. I find out that I can be there for at least 2 days. Wtf? Where did it say that on the summons? Nowhere, that's where! More about that to come.

At exactly 9a.m., the court officer opens the doors to this enormous room that could easily seat 300 people. There are 3 overflow rooms as well. It was a bit weird. I went right up in front, saw a plug, sat down and prepared to read for the day.

The court officer then announces who should leave the room: people in the wrong county had to leave; anyone who had a felony conviction cannot serve; anyone who was a student and was missing class to be there, and anyone who couldn't fully commit to serve for TWO FULL DAYS,  POSSIBLY THREE, had to go over to 60 Centre to reschedule. We would have to sit there for 2 days. TWO days! Did I mention we're understaffed at work?

I decided to stay. There was never going to be a good time for jury service and at least the work peeps were prepared for this week, in case I got picked for a case. I didn't want to reschedule for 90 days because I knew how things were at work this week, not 12 weeks from now. And after 2 days, I was done for 6 years. And I really doubted anyone in his right mind would pick an attorney to decide his case.

After some form filling, the court officer came back to announce that by being there we were committing to the minimum 2 days or the duration of a trial. She said a civil trial is normally 7-8 business days and a criminal trial normally 3-4 business days. I didn't think much of it because I was convinced that no one would want an attorney on a jury. Who would want some uppity Mrs. Know-it-all trying to influence other jurors by possibly misinterpreting the law? Not I, said me.

Then she called out about 40 names, and I was one. We were escorted from the 3rd floor to the 12th floor, Part 1234, a criminal court. I barely read a page of my book. It wasn't even 10 a.m.

We were escorted into the courtroom. The defendant was charged with attempted robbery in the first degree and criminal possession of a weapon in the third degree. The judge read the indictment and told us that she expected we'd be there all of Tuesday to hear the case and deliberate on Wednesday. Should it go longer, we wouldn't be back until Monday, April 6, as she had no court on Thursdays and Friday was Passover and Good Friday. The court clerk then called 18 names, and I was one.

Ooookkkkkk. As soon as I say I'm an attorney, and one who works for the city, the defense counsel would kick me out. She'd have to be crazy to pick me. I wasn't looking forward to heading back to the panel room to sit there for another 2 days, but I had a book, access to my email, and there was a vending machine. It could be worse.

Then the voir dire. We were given a list of about 15 questions: are you native New Yorker; what do you do; where do you work; what does your spouse/partner do; do you have kids; have you ever been in conflict or had negative experiences with a cop or know anyone who did; have you had any experience involving the NYPD or did someone close to you have one, whether as a victim, perp, or eyewitness; and what do you do in your spare time?

They didn't seem invasive, but they really were. Of the 18 people there, 15 of us had either been a victim of a violent crime or had a spouse/parent/child who did. I was the only person who had my situation resolved: a homeless man hit Derek on the street 8 years ago. He was arrested within minutes and eventually given 6 months plus time served. No one else got that kind of closure. Nearly all of them, except mine and 2 involving spousal abuse, were robberies with the threat of violence.

People were pretty brutally honest. It wasn't just the 18 of us plus the court (judge, clerk, lawyers) in the room. The rest of the pool that was initially called was still sitting there.

At first I thought we'd never get past the first seat. The judge excused the first person who felt she couldn't be impartial because she was the victim of a crime that was never resolved, and the second person who felt he couldn't put aside his and his friends' experiences with the cops to be fair. Finally, a dude got in the seat and we could move on to seat 2.

By the time they got to me, things were going smoothly as we knew what the judge was looking for in the answers. I had to recount Derek's incident, of which I was an eyewitness. I told them what I did and where I did it and how it involved the NYPD. Right. I going home. The attorneys asked some questions that could easily have not been asked. Can you find someone guilty of weapons possession if there was no weapon recovered? Things like that. They were just generally directed at the jury and no probing of the questions we answered was done.

When the voir dire was done, the room was asked to step outside for 10 minutes, and when we were called back in, they asked the 18 of us to go back into the jury box. The clerk said that if we heard our name called, to remain seated because that meant you got picked. They called 14 names, and I was one.


Oh dear. This was not supposed to happen. Both the prosecutor and the defense attorney looked pretty pleased with themselves, as if each picked the best jury ev-ah. But, there we were - 12 jurors and 2 alternates. Of the 12, there were 4 men and 8 women, and the alternates were a man and woman. We were sworn in and then ushered into the jury room to sign some stuff and be told not to talk about the case.

It was pretty surreal. And exciting. Work was pretty decent about the whole thing, and no one expected it to run more than 2 days.

So, Tuesday morning, we show up for 10 a.m. Well... 13 of us do. After waiting an hour, we all began to wonder aloud why we're still outside the courtroom. Maybe they're going to settle and we can go home. Maybe the defendant hadn't arrived as yet. Half hour later, we're told that we're waiting on a juror. WHAT? There are 2 alternates. Kick her off and pick one of them and let's get this show on the road!

Finally, at 11:40, we get called in. The judge is livid with the juror who kept us waiting and really reamed her out. She made her apologize to the room and told her that if she was even 5 minutes late for the duration of the case, she would be cited for contempt of court. Yikes!

So we finally start. The prosecution and defense make opening arguments and the prosecutor calls the victim, goes through the event, walks him through his 911 call and the video surveillance from the store. He was the manager of a store in SoHo. The defendant came in minutes after he opened the doors, walked around the store, threatened the manager, showed him a knife, told him he was going take merchandise, and tried to shove the manager to the back of the store. The phone rang and the manager instinctively went for it, the D cut him off and put the phone in his pocket. It stopped ringing and then immediately started again and the manager told the D that it was his corporate security calling to see if he opened and if he didn't answer it, they would call 911 immediately. The D tossed him the phone and ran out. The manager called 911, cops came within minutes, got a description, and picked up the D a couple of blocks away.

We break for lunch and then 3 cops testified to pretty much the same thing. It was just overkill. The defense attorney cross-examined the manager, but couldn't shake his story one bit. She looked unprepared and defeated. I'm sorry to say, it was pretty pathetic. The jury notices bad lawyering. If you're not convinced your client is innocent, how in hell are you supposed to make 12 strangers believe it?

The prosecutor was very prepared and thought quickly on her feet. I think 3 cops saying the same thing was a bit much but she wanted to put on 4, so I was grateful that we were spared. The defense attorney stared at her papers for so long between questions and took longhand notes whenever the manager answered a question, it was getting tough not to roll my eyes.

Today, Wednesday, the prosecution chose not to kill us with cop testimony and didn't put on the 4th officer, and rested. The defense did not call any witnesses. Defense made the first closing argument and put forward the dumbest alternate theory on the planet: it didn't happen. The manager lied. Um... as my cat says, what now?

The prosecutor shot that puppy down asap. Then we were re-read the charges, given jury instructions, and read the definitions and elements of the crimes.

Jury instructions are pretty much what you see on tv: defense doesn't have to put on a case; the burden is on the people all the time; verdict has to be beyond a reasonable doubt but not all doubt or to a mathematical certainty; cop testimony is not given more weight; judge's questions not to be given more weight; verdict must be unanimous.

The best bit was the description of the crimes and the elements the people had to prove. The prosecutor had to prove intent to commit robbery using a dangerous instrument for the first charge, and possession, knowledge, and intent to use the dangerous instrument for the second. Then 12 of us were sent off to deliberate and the two alternates were excused.

Our seats were chosen at random, so the man who got seat 1 was the default foreman. He seemed surprised. I guess we all thought we'd vote or something but it made sense for a day-long trial not to have to go through that, especially since it could be a lengthy process as we'd have to get to know one another a bit. The court officer escorted us into the tiny jury room, took our cell phones, and told us that we had to deliberate all together. If one if us went to the (en suite) bathroom or an officer stepped into the room, we had to cease deliberation.

So we took a straw poll and only one person thought he was not guilty on the attempted robbery and another was unsure. However, the split was bigger for the criminal possession of a weapon. I asked if we could get the elements read back to us because I wasn't sure the people made the case that the D intended to use the knife. Most people agreed with me: 7 not guilty, 4 voted guilty, and me unsure.

So the foreman made a list of the evidence we wanted to review. While no one actually believed the defense's alternate theory, she did raise a question in our minds about who was shoving whom on the tape. So we asked to see the video, hear the 911 call (again, just to hear the manager - the defense said that he fought with the D and called the police ... well, she never said exactly why he called the police), and have the descriptions and elements read back to us. We had to go back out to the jury box for that. As we walked back into the jury room, a court officer told us that they were working on getting water for us.

We started on the first charge. The unsure changed her vote after we came back in, so we just had to work on the 1 guy who didn't believe the manager and thought the D didn't come to rob the store. Here's where having a lawyer on the jury is debatable. I was constantly asking him, whenever someone raised a point in support of guilty, if he changed his mind. At first, he refused. He simply refused to even think about what the others were saying. And they were saying good stuff.

So I summed up all their arguments: the manager's testimony was credible and consistent, even where he made a mistake, he was consistent. The defense didn't shake him. The defense had the opportunity to raise her idiotic theory on cross and did not. The guy was clearly shaken during the 911 call. He forgot his address and almost gave the operator his cell number. He stammered and had to slow down. A cop testified that he was clearly shaking and sweaty. He also had no reason to lie. He was as disinterested as they come. He called 911 seconds after the D left the store, gave a description, and immediately showed the cops the video which corroborated the description.

But convincing him the manager was credible wasn't enough. So we went to work on whether the D had intent to rob. Man, those people were just great. It wasn't so much that we wore him down, but he seemed genuinely convinced by the reasoning. Again, Mrs. Esquire with the articulation. The D came into the store and moved to the most expensive merchandise; he called the manager over to him because the manager was always close to the door and by calling him closer, the D could control him; the situation was clearly unplanned and not going the way the D thought it would; the phone ringing really threw him, especially when the manager said it would be corporate security; and there was enough on the video to corroborate the manager's testimony. Plus, the D had come to the store before the manager had opened it. The manager was running late that morning, so the store was not open at 9 a.m. as usual, even though he was inside. He saw the D come to the door and try to open it, and leave after realizing it was locked. The D came back 20 minutes later. And the video showed that.

So, the holdout was convinced. 12 votes for guilty of attempted robbery in the first degree. On to the 2nd charge.

I changed my vote from unsure to not guilty. I said I wasn't convinced that the D intended to use the knife. I believed the manager that there was a knife and he saw it, but I didn't believe the D intended to use it. I said that I thought he felt he could strong arm the manager with threats (to break his jaw) and when the manager didn't believe him, the D showed him the knife to be more convincing. He took out a folding knife from his sweatshirt pocket, with the blade still inside, and when the manager put his hands up and took a step back saying that the merchandise was not worth his life, the D put the knife back in his pocket. He never took it out again. At some point, he chucked the knife in a sewer or garbage can and it was never found.

Two of the 3 guilty votes changed to not guilty after I made that little speech. The remaining holdout said she had doubts but she felt that he would have used the knife. The foreman asked her if she had equal doubt because if she did or had more doubt about him not using it, then she had to go with not guilty. She admitted that she had more doubts after hearing what the rest had to say and changed her vote.

The foreman recorded it and sent to the judge. And we finally got to chat. I said that it was very collegial and not at all like "12 Angry Men" and everyone laughed and someone said that was also about "where's the knife?" We all speculated on whether the defense would poll the jury, and if we'd have to go back to the panel room or not. We talked about the defense lawyer and they asked me what I thought. It was also unanimous that she really did a poor job of defending that guy, especially with such a well-prepared prosecutor. She did not have to put on a defense, but the prosecutor met her burden with the robbery charge that really hinged on the manager's testimony. When the defense cross-examined him, that was her only opportunity to advocate for her client and it was like watching paint dry. She was very lucky that we genuinely didn't believe the D intended to use the knife, because the prosecutor made a strong case for intent to use. Just not beyond a reasonable doubt.

Then we got called into the jury box and the clerk asked the foreman for the verdicts. Then the defense asked to poll the jury, which was just embarrassing. We were thanked and escorted out to a different elevator than the one the public uses and were told to go home. Yay!

So that's me for 6 years. I was very happy to do my civic duty and I think we were a very smart and fair jury. No personality clashes, no one made anyone roll her eyes at dumb comments, no one just wanted to get out of there, or just be contrary. Really a great experience with intelligent folks.

But we never got that water.