Monday, July 09, 2012

Three Days on a Jury: Day One

Recently I had the wonderful (for a mystery author) experience of serving on a jury for a criminal trial. The three-day experience gave me an inside look at the Summit County, Colorado, criminal justice system, and at the lives and tribulations of what my mother would call "not our kind of people." I'm going to blog about my experience today and the next two days, so I can share some of what I learned with other mystery authors and with mystery readers. I hope you find my experience as interesting as I did!

The trial was a case of domestic abuse (the local newspaper article--if you want to read the verdict now--is HERE). About three weeks prior, I received a jury summons to show up at the Summit County Justice Center on Tuesday June 26th, at 9:30 AM. After checking in and waiting for another twenty minutes or so, those of us who responded to the summons were all ushered into a courtroom. The judge informed us that 90 people had been summoned and 37 had shown up. She was not pleased.

Then she went through a list of reasons why someone could be excused--doesn't live in the county anymore (a few college students who were still away for summer classes fit this category), taking care of a disabled person, etc. Then she said the case involved domestic abuse and asked if anyone felt they could not be impartial in such a case. A few hands went up, mostly women, and she asked those people to discuss why with her privately in her chambers. Most were excused. That left just over thirty of us in the room.

Then twenty-two names were called for people to come forward and sit in the jury box. I was thrilled when I was one of them, and I began thinking that maybe I would actually get a chance to serve. The prosecution and defense could each choose five jurors to dismiss, and the remaining twelve would serve. Next, each juror answered a standard set of questions, such as which town we lived in and for how long, if we were married or had children, our occupation and those of our spouse, children and parents, if we knew anyone in law enforcement, our hobbies, sports and interests, what we liked to read and watch on TV, and what sites we visited on the Internet. The judge usually had at least one clarification question for each juror, expounding on anything that might show a preconceived bias.

Then the prosecution (two Assistant District Attorneys working together) and defense (a paid versus court-appointed lawyer) had about a half hour each to question the jury as a whole on issues or jury members in particular about their background or views. One of the Asst. DAs knew my name and about my RM Outdoor Adventure mystery series, but he was surprised that Beth Groundwater was my real name, not a pen name. I was asked WHY I wrote mystery novels, probably to see if I had any bias for or against cops or criminals or if I had preconceived notions of justice. I answered that I had tried other genres, but that mystery felt most comfortable for me, probably because I was a puzzle person.

When one man, who had previous experience with domestic abuse, said he was very interested in serving on the jury, one of the Asst. DAs asked almost in jest if anyone else really wanted to serve. I deliberately did not raise my hand, because I did not want to appear overeager. That man was dismissed from the jury, but I was not. One interesting question we were asked by the Asst. DAs was what our reaction would be if they brought forward a witness that they were pretty sure would lie to us.  There were some "Huh?" looks from some jurors at that point, as we wondered why they would call a witness they expected to lie on the stand. We found out later!

Since we're a low-population county, quite a few people knew law enforcement personnel or members of the court system. Also, one man's sister had been a victim of domestic abuse. As I listened to these other jurors, I thought, okay that person will be dismissed over me. And that proved to be the case. The defense and prosecution had more compelling reasons to dismiss ten other jurors, and at the end of the voir dire (jury selection) process, I was still in the box!

We were sworn in, admonished not to discuss the case with each other or other people, not to do any research related to the case, and dismissed for lunch. After lunch, the trial began and the prosecution presented their opening statement. There was no opening statement from the defense, and the judge instructed us that the defense is not required to provide an opening or closing statement, or call any witnesses or present any evidence. Nor is the defendant required to testify. The onus of proof is on the prosecution (the defendant is presumed innocent before proven guilty), and the defense doesn't have to prove anything.

We heard testimony first from the police officer who arrived on the scene after 911 was called by two of the victim's housemates who came home one night in December, 2011 to find her laying in a fetal position on the sofa. The story that the victim told her roommates and the officer was that she and her boyfriend were drinking at a bar and got into an argument there. He returned to her place and waited for her while she finished her beer. When she got home, the argument began again and got physical. He punched her in the face and repeatedly kicked her, threw a skateboard through her bedroom window, broke her laptop computer, and stole her cell phone and winter coat so she could not call or go for help (the house had no land-line). The police officer had taken photos of the victim's bruised face, the broken window, etc. and these were entered as evidence.

Then, the victim got on the stand and told a completely different story. She couldn't remember what she said to the police officer, claimed that she bruised her own face by tripping and falling on the stairs, and that during the argument she threw her own laptop computer through the window. Even when pressured by the prosecutor, who repeated statements she made to the police officer and which he recorded in his report, the victim stuck with her story. When asked by the prosecution if she still loved the defendant, she said that yes, she still cared for him and wanted to be with him, but was prevented from being with him (we later found out, by court order).

I went home that afternoon thinking, well THAT was interesting! I had many, many unanswered questions from the conflicting accounts of what happened.


Mario Acevedo said...

Wow, proof that life is stranger than fiction. Can't wait to read the rest.

Beth Groundwater said...

It's hard to believe that any life is stranger than yours, Mario! ;-)

Barb Goffman said...

The victim in this case wouldn't be the first victim of domestic violence who feels badly for her abuser soon after reporting him to the police and decides to lie on the stand and claim she caused her own injuries so he could get off and they could resume their wonderful lives together. It's an unfortunate part of the cycle of violence.

In other news, Beth, I was interested in this: "Next, each juror answered a standard set of questions, such as which town we lived in and for how long, if we were married or had children, our occupation and those of our spouse, children and parents, if we knew anyone in law enforcement, our hobbies, sports and interests, what we liked to read and watch on TV, and what sites we visited on the Internet."

Did you answer these questions on paper, with the answers only seen by the attorneys and judge, or did you answer them orally in open court? If it's the former, I'd feel very uncomfortable being asked to reveal so much personal information in a public forum.

Mary E. Trimble said...

What an interesting experience, Beth. I, too, had the honor of being picked as a juror. This invlved a murder of a deputy sheriff, but really a "criminally insane" case. It was a change of venue, but the jury went there, so we stayed in a hotel for 3 weeks, but were able to come home for the weekends. It was a most interesting experience. I felt honored to serve.

Liz Milliron said...

Well, now you know why the prosecution asked how comfortable with a witness that was expected to lie to you. I'll be following this with interest. I was only called for jury duty once in my life and I never made it to the selection process. I find that surprising given it's been 20 years since I became eligible to serve and I've lived in Allegheny County since 1996.

Julie Golden said...

Thanks for this post, Beth. So far, my sympathies are with the prosecution. It's a "crime" for the victim to change her story and make their job so difficult. I'm hooked, and looking forward to your next post.

Patricia Stoltey said...

Isn't it amazing what people will say on the witness stand? I'll bet the defense attorney was annoyed, to say the least.

Beth Groundwater said...

Hi Barb,
The questions were listed on a writing pad on an easel in front of the jury box, and we each answered them orally in front of the judge, attorneys, defendant, and everyone else in the courtroom.

Hi Mary T,
I WISH I'd been able to be a juror for a murder trial! We were not sequestered, but were able to leave for lunch and the evening and could stay in our own homes.

Hi Mary S,
The whole time I lived in Colorado Springs, I was only called for jury duty once and never made it into the courtroom. But here in Summit County, CO, I received the call just six months after I moved into the county! And someone else who was called also received it just 6 months after moving in.

Thanks, Julie! I hope you come back to read all 3 parts of the story.

Hi Pat,
It wasn't the defense attorney who was annoyed, but the Asst. DAs who were prosecuting the case. When the judge came in to talk to us after the trial, she said this was the most blatant case of lying on the stand that she had seen. She said she would carefully consider whether or not to charge the victim with contempt of court. The problem with doing that, though, is the victim would be punished even more than she already has been by this horrible experience.

GBPool said...

Real cases are always so sad and often pathetic. It's seldom like what we read in a book or see in a movie. I prefer the fictionalized versions as an escape from that harsh reality. And I can punish the bad guy when they might get off otherwise. Sometimes that is the only justice. But your story is intriguing and am looking forward to the conclusion.

Beth Groundwater said...

From C.C. Harrison:

I’ve been called for jury duty twice within the last couple of years, but the cases were dismissed before the day to report. I am one of those overeager jurors, and would probably have been dismissed because of it, so thanks for the tip. As a side note, I used to live in Summit County, lived and worked at Keystone. Those were good, fun years.!!

Patricia Stoltey said...

Don't know where my mind went with my comment...the defense attorney was probably overjoyed.

Deborah Sharp said...

Very interesting experience, Beth. The victim recanting her original statement sounds sadly accurate. Abuse is so psychologically traumatizing as well as physically.

Leemarie said...

Fascinating, Beth. I went through voir dire but was dismissed. Hmph! Wonder what I said to make the defense attorney give me the boot. One thing the judge emphasized during voir dire was the the meaning of "reasonable doubt." I wondered if your judge or the attorneys spent any time clarifying this point.

Beth Groundwater said...

Yes, GB and Deb, the story was a sad one, and as you'll see in my report tomorrow on the second day of the trial, the domestic abuse expert also said that the victim recanting is very common.

Pat, you're excused! ;-)

Yes, during voir dire there was a lot of discussion about what reasonable doubt meant. We were also given a written definition in our jury instructions.

Life After Death said...

I've read your article & thanks for sharing this kind of unknown info.

Heather said...

Thanks for sharing your experience, Beth. I look forward to reading the rest.

carl brookins said...

Interesting series here, Beth. I've been on two murder juries and am very interested in the parallels with your experience.

Beth Groundwater said...

Thanks for your comments, Carl, Heather, and Life After Death! I hope you'll come back tomorrow to read Day 3.