Monday, July 26, 2010

Guest blog: the view from Travis County juror seats 30, 11 and 7

Yes, I'm still on vacation, but today you get a wonderful piece of insight into the jury process from regular reader and commenter "Mackie." He offered to write something after my request at the end of this post, a couple of weeks ago.

I'll intersperse my own comments within the body of his post, just to answer questions, address issues, and be generally disruptive.

So, who is this "Mackie," if that is, in fact, his real name? Which it isn't. Obviously.

I have pretty much lived in Austin since 1972 as a result of my father retiring from the United States Air Force. That places me as being here since my sophomore year in High School, and graduation from The University of Texas. As a result the first sixteen years of my life were spent in two year cycles at various military installations around the world as a dependent. I hold a middle management appointment at a major three letter Software and Services firm which I have worked for the last thirty years. I mention that as a brief piece of background yet it works it's way into what I will share as to serving as a member of two juries and not being selected for a third. I have been married slightly longer than my current employment and have three children in various fields ranging in age from 22 to 27. An initial comment is that none of my children have ever received a jury summons nor has my wife who obtained her United States citizenship after immigrating from Argentina with family social photos inclusive of people such as Peron, feel free to fill in the rest with your imagination although I mention this as her view of the United States legal system is very positive I assure you.

As I transition from the discussion to my personal background I will leave the guest blog title to DAC to expand upon. It is one of perhaps subtle impact yet feel his view might be a better one as to that particular aspect and what it means as to which potential members are asked to remain or are excused from service.

The three times I have been asked to appear seem to be a bit out of the ordinary as I hear others discuss their summons. My first (which I was selected) was criminal in nature (a contested DWI charge). My second was a dispute as to rent and responsibilities of a landlord (which no one was selected, more later). The third was a civil case regarding an individual that had contracted mesothelioma and had less than a year to live (I was selected for that jury).

In terms of what amount of time was required on my part ranged from five days for the first, a morning for the second and ten days for the third. This has significance to those selected in ways that many might not imagine. As a professional of a Fortune 50 company that bites the bullet, I served with normal pay and benefits although someone back at the office had to pick up my duties to the extent possible. On the third there were some like myself, some retired, and some hourly employees. The impact on the hourly people was significant as when they were not working they were only receiving the very very small daily stipend from the County. I believe some had to take off shifts to pay their bills while giving up free and sleep time to participate. I did not get a warm fuzzy they were happy to have been chosen. In fact during selection there were many one-on-one conversations between those asked to be excused, some of which could be overheard. I have since read that there has been some discussion in the legal profession whether a jury composed of your peers can truly be selected in today's time and setting. What I mean is, if only people who are not put in financial hardship by serving are selected, then juries take on a certain personality, perhaps one of only college graduates or along those lines. I wonder as to the impact on the seeking of truth. Perhaps another opportunity for DAC to comment from the legal profession. I agree, it is a financial hardship for many and I wish we could pay better to counteract that negative impact on jurors. I really don't know what a good solution is, frankly.

On to the details of the three trials.

I will start with the second. As I recall only six members were being sought and about thirty minutes into the voir dire (I am not sure this was the term used in this situation unlike the others, maybe, yet do not recall hearing it) one of the parties requested that the parties be allowed to confer which was granted. They both left the room and were not seen by the candidate pool again. The Justice of the Peace stated our services would no longer be required and we were free to go. A number of those that had sacrificed a morning did not appreciate not being provided any information other than thank you for showing up. The assumption was that they settled in some form after they called each others bluff by showing up. I would bet good money that's exactly what happened. I have mixed emotions on how the 'system' appeared as to this encounter. The physical location was also different, it appeared to be just a room in a retail center and had suffered some wear-and-tear, as opposed to being a 'real courtroom' downtown, as the other two were. I felt a little like a pawn in a game after this encounter. I get the impression that this is a common feeling, at least until the individual is selected for the petit jury.

Let's chat about my first trial at this point. This one went pretty much as to script almost to the point of a television show with a few added points of interest. We were asked to show up relatively early in the morning (around 9am) yet there must have been two hundred people in the room. As I recall it was pretty much like airplane boarding, with groups of about 40 created with instructions as to when and where to show up. My covey proceeded to a court room and were seated in what I would call the spectator section although I am sure there is a better name. What I mean is that there were far more of us at this point than the twelve seats that were used in the trial. The questions came from both sides with topics from A to Z. Some that seem relevant to the trial to be conducted and some I have no idea why they would be asked. I was in seat 30 (a clue for those trying to decipher my guest blog title). I was not asked a single question in the three hours.

At the conclusion of what seemed to be a time limit, what I would refer to as an OJ Simpson like 'side bar' occurred and shortly thereafter twelve names were called and to my surprise I was one of them. If there were any alternates selected it was not handled in any manner I could figure out. We were told to be back the next morning and Monday was over. Off to the car with the parking ticket attached that was 'taken care of by the court' the next morning and each of the following days (we were not allowed to feed the meters, of course, and everyone had a ticket each morning).

The trial began the next day with what I would again describe as what you would expect from television, with each side presenting their required portions, counters and such. The State had just two or three people to question which as I recall included the police officer, a lab technician and one other that slips my mind at this point. The defense on the other hand had at least ten people take the stand. These ranged from employees of the bar that had been the place of the pre-party, the friend that had the after-party, and various guests and coworkers that had attended the gathering.

The only real notable point, which turned into a Perry Mason-type of event, was a slip of the tongue by the Executive Director who employed the defendant: she mentioned that the mixed drinks were wonderful and were known to cause a 'buzz' with only a single beverage. The prosecutor took the appropriate time to create a pregnant pause and asked her to repeat the comment which came out in an interesting 'wish I had not said that' tone.

During one of the early breaks we had been asked to be thinking about a foreperson to be designated for duties later in the trial. I was asked to be that person yet another juror wanted the role. No one seemed to know what to do and a vote was taken and I was selected by a vote of all but one. I have no idea why, other than I suppose the others in the room felt if someone was seeking the role they likely had a reason and thus should not be the person. Regardless, the duties simply turned out to be a facilitator of discussions during deliberations, a recorder of the vote and the person to stand and announce the findings of the jury. Again with no idea as to real process (which was not the case in the third trial which I will discuss next) the only issue that came up was that I had made a note that there had been mention of some type of document offered to the defendant as to refusal of a breath test although we were not told what happened in the court room setting. I asked if anyone else felt that was of interest and as a result asked for that document to be brought to the deliberation room. It took some time, but eventually was provided with the point of note that the defendant had not only refused a test had also refused to even acknowledge the refusal. We found the defendant guilty and returned to the court and I was called upon to state our findings. There were some procedural items discussed, the jury was asked if they had truly come to the conclusion I had announced as the defense attorney asked for a poll.

At the end of trial each team of attorneys came to have a chat with us along the lines of DACs comment of not having a chance to do that in his most recent trial. I wondered if it was a chat or gathering of intelligence data to be smarter in the next trial, or a trolling to look for a reason to have the verdict thrown out on appeal of some type. Probably a combination of those things, actually. Minds do wonder in situations that are foreign. In hindsight I also wonder why the big fight on behalf of the defendant as this never was exposed to us. Perhaps this was not his first DWI, perhaps his employment was at risk, perhaps he just was in denial or had what I envision a lot of money to fight the case or liked the drama. No idea.

On to the civil case.

This one started much like the encounter I just described although no platooning of panels. It did however have about fifty to sixty potential candidates on day one. We were presented a high level overview of what the case would be about and how much time it would take (remember my earlier comments). We were then provided a set of documents to fill out overnight that had in excess of 150 questions. The questions ranged from education level to personal medical history and family medical history. I am not sure how this would be handled today in light of HIPAA. As to my personal responsibilities I would likely to need to consult one of my Corporate attorneys as to how to answer some of the questions in light of SOX although perhaps this is handled in another manner should this trial had been held today. We were sent home to fill these forms out, returned the next morning to turn them in and then sat for a couple of hours as I assume they were reviewed. Seems a bit arcane in the times of the Internet yet I am sure there are complexities beyond belief if these were to be filled out by those with computers and broadband and those without, the list would go on and on.

Eventually the legal teams returned to conduct voir dire. I estimate maybe 25% of the potential jurors were excused as a result of something in their written submissions. An interesting point that popped up on day two was a team of four or five people sitting in the juror box taking notes during the truth telling. We learned after the trial they were making notes of candidates as they answered questions, awaited their turn or stared out the window thinking about lunch or their dinner plans.

Another point of note, perhaps coming from my background, was the use of Powerpoint and other technology by the complainant legal team. Although initially impressed that these guys were not relics of the Stone Age it also hinted at the amount of money being thrown at winning this action. The real reason I mention this however is that there must not be much training on the use of these tools in Law School as it was near comical to the point of distraction with them not being able to navigate their own set of slides, make the audio visual equipment show us what they intended instead of their notes or email and such. Hopefully there are actions in play to address these items in the court today. The action I take to address those matters is to avoid technology as far as possible, and practice before trial when I have to!

The process eventually resulted in the panel although more than one alternate was selected. If I recall correctly we had fifteen people seated as jurors and only when we were sent to deliberate were the three alternates informed. I assume this was so that they paid attention as no one knew who was ending up voting. It was interesting to see two of the three sitting as spectators when the results were announced yet I can see how after sitting for two weeks they sought closure.

As part of the questioning it had come up that I had been a foreperson on a criminal case and the early days of the trial was approached by my peers if I would do that again, to which I said yes. I also explained that it had been a criminal trial and had no idea if the duties would be the same here. It turned out they were nearly identical, except that a finding for the complainant would require calculating financial damages, which would not have been an easy task with such a variety of backgrounds on the jury.

As you can likely infer we found against the plaintiff and thus did not get to that part. The legal teams chat were of a similar theme although questions were thrown to us as to when in the trial we took a dislike to the New Jersey accent of one of the complainants legal team which no one had said anything about! Perhaps again a place for DAC to comment here as the chat terminated almost immediately after the question. You'd be amazed about the assumptions lawyers make about jurors. We try and read faces, body language, looks. We are so desperate to know what you are thinking that we have to make stuff up, like not liking an accent. Then when we ask jurors about that, they look at us like we're mad!

As to the details of this trial it was a parade of expert witness after expert witness. Corporate executive after corporate executive along with their handlers and entourages. University researchers, doctors, other legal teams as to who knew what and when. Microbiologists, mining engineers from other countries, and we learned later that many of these people had testified in virtually the same case in various jurisdictions and the complainant had won many judgments already.

I will mention however the gentlemen was genuinely ill as his obituary was in the Statesman within a year of the Travis County case. The chat with the lawyers also revealed that Travis County had been selected with the belief that a finding for the complainant was more likely here, as opposed to other parts of the State. I have no idea how many different trials occurred, clearly a great many: it was evident that each team had a very good feel as to what was going to come up, and as to what had worked and not worked in previous trials.

As I mentioned, there was a tremendous amount of material presented and some jurors asked to keep notes and were provided notebooks. They had to be surrendered at the end of the trial and had to be left at the court house overnight. By the end of the trial I am not sure how much use they were as this was a very complex set of events and data points, some of which were clearly played for emotional appeal in my opinion as a two week dipping into this level of medical cause and effect seemed to almost become a non-issue and the jury really made the decision as to if the complainant could actually prove he was exposed to asbestos by the company being sued in excess of an event alleged thirty years previous. Obviously a high bar to hurdle.

I will conclude with what I am guessing might bring up more questions than answers, although am happy to share what I experienced and subject to counsel by DAC will take questions on anything you might want my view of as a result of the post.

In summary I found the experiences to be very rewarding. I learned many things, was exposed to many practices in real life as opposed to television or second-hand, and felt I contributed to society by doing the best I could to support the system. Not that a juror has much say whether they on a civil or criminal matter. Also, my thoughts drift to aspects of personal safety should one be selected for a high profile case, perhaps involving drugs, as opposed to more civil proceedings. I felt the people on the jury did the best they could although clearly a huge financial burden for some that needs to be addressed in my opinion, budget be damned. I would encourage anyone asked to participate to stop, take a deep breath and participate. I think it would be a positive experience with life-long benefits.

1 comment:

  1. I have also served several times on a jury, with similar sentiments afterward. Important duty, and interesting to be involved. Financial impact for others, though, is extreme and a six or seven month trial would destroy, or at least completely rearrange, anyone's life. Would be interested in DAC's opinions on this.


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