Friday, June 22, 2007

Jury duty

Earlier this week, I was called for jury duty and ended up being selected to serve on a jury for a DWI case. As it was a misdemeanor, the jury I served on was comprised of six persons (as opposed to the twelve-member juries required for felony cases).

This was the second time I have been called for jury duty in Harris County. The process is fairly straightforward: you go to the jury assembly room downtown, and after some administrative procedures you are selected to be included in a jury pool. From there, you are led to a courtroom and the jury selection process, known as voir dire, begins. There is a lot of sitting and waiting involved because criminal court dockets are full and a lot of activity occurring in the courtroom is completely unrelated to the trial at hand. Harris County's suggestion that you bring along reading material or something else to keep you occupied while you wait is good advice. Even after the jury selection process was over and the six of us were empaneled, other business taking place within the courtroom meant that the trial itself didn't begin until late in the afternoon.

The defendant was a young lady who was pulled over after a police officer observed her break a couple of traffic laws. He pulled her over, determined that she had been drinking, administered a field sobriety test, and decided to take her downtown. There, they performed a breath test on her and gave her another field sobriety test in a special room with markings on the floor and a video camera that records the test. The arresting officer, the station supervisor, and HPD's breath test expert all testified on behalf of the prosecution (the defense called no witnesses of their own). This last witness is a young lady with extensive training and knowledge of the testing equipment being used as well as the manner in which alcohol is processed in the body. Her job is essentially to calibrate the equipment and to testify as to its accuracy in court.

The defense attorney's strategy seemed to be the "spaghetti defense," i.e. throw everything you can at the wall and see if anything sticks. I guess it made sense, seeing that he was facing an uphill battle, but overall his performance was wearisome and weak.

The trial only lasted an hour and a half the first day, and was subject to constant interruptions the next day; we (the jurors) spent most of the time locked in the jury deliberation room, chatting about baseball and summer travel plans and what books we had read. Finally, however, the trial itself ended and we returned to the deliberation room one last time to decide the case. Nobody really wanted to be jury foreman; I finally agreed to do so. We discussed the case.

I was not prepared to convict the defendant based on the field sobriety tests alone. The officer's testimony of the defendant's performance on the scene was not fully convincing (there was no camera in his cruiser to record the tests) and the defendant seemed to perform well during the second videotaped test at the station. The fact that the defendant's breath alcohol sample was well above the 0.08 limit, however, was a fact that none of us could get around.

I'm sure that there are plausible arguments against the validity of breath tests. I don't know how much stock I would put into them, but I was at least hoping to hear something substantive in that regard from the defense attorney. That simply didn't happen; his cross-examination of the breath-test expert was as feeble as it was tedious and he did nothing to give me or any of the other jurors a reasonable doubt as to the validity of HPD's breath-testing equipment or the results it produced.

So we all agreed that the defendant was guilty of driving while intoxicated. We went back into the courtroom and rendered our verdict.

After the verdict was read, the judge told us what her sentence would likely be. As a first offender, she would be sentenced to probation, a fine, community service and alcohol counseling. The judge noted that this punishment was essentially the same as what she would have received had she agreed to a deal with the prosecutors prior to the trial. In that regard, I really can't fault her for exercising her right to a trial by jury because she really didn't have anything to lose and everything to gain.

Hopefully, the defendant will learn from this experience and will be more judicious the next time she goes out to a bar. Fortunately, nobody was hurt or killed due to this person's actions and, most likely, the only long-term consequence she will face as a result of this trial is an extremely high auto insurance rate. As somebody who frequents a couple of bars in Midtown myself, this experience has given me a new perspective as to my decisions and their possible consequences, as well.

After the trial, the prosecutor and the defense attorney had the opportunity to meet with the jury, on a voluntary basis, to find out why we reached the verdict that we did. The prosecutor took advantage of this opportunity; we gave her suggestions as to her courtroom demeanor and the evidence she produced. The defense attorney chose not to meet with us, which is unfortunate because there was a lot I wanted to say to him. We were then sent home; our duties as jurors had come to an end.

All in all, it was an interesting experience.

As it turns out, I was not the only local blogger that served on a jury this week. John recounts his experiences as a juror for a drug possession case here and here. My misgivings about the number of people who begged out of jury service during voir dire are not as pronounced as his, although that might be because my prospective jury pool for this case was much smaller than his (20 people as opposed to 60) and so there simply weren't as many opportunities for people to weasel out of service.

There were, to be fair, a couple of people who had legitimate reasons as to why they couldn't serve on the jury. One man explained that he would have been able to serve on a jury that day, but a two-day trial would be problematic because the other supervisor at the shop where he works would be gone the following day and, if he had to serve, it would have left his shop's employees without any supervision. Another person, by the questions he asked and answered, clearly seemed to be confused about the purpose and process of jury service. But there were also two or three other people who simply claimed that they didn't think that they, for whatever reason, could be impartial jurors. Perhaps they were being honest; perhaps they were lying just to get excused.

The system only works when citizens do their duties. Sometimes these duties involve a hardship or inconvenience. The alternatives to said hardship or convenience, however, are unacceptably worse. This is something everybody should consider before they try to shirk off their next jury summons.

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