Land of Distraction
After two days on a jury, I understand, sort of, why this country is a mess
What do you have when you get a room full of indulged, semieducated, distracted, media-addicted people? A jury pool.
The two days I sat on a Mecklenburg County jury were full of surprises, so as we sat in the jury deliberation room with floor-to-ceiling windows and a green-leafed view seemingly leading all the way to the beach, I should not have been shocked by my fellow jurors' verdicts.
But were these people listening to the same lawyers? To the same case, in the same courtroom? Or had they been secretly listening to their iPods? How could we come to such completely different conclusions? Were they basing their opinions solely on superficial observations and gut reactions, or was I missing something important, something obvious?
The last time I was this incredulous over other people's opinions was right after a 2000 presidential debate between Al Gore and George W. Bush. I watched an overeducated, experienced politician trounce a candidate who seemed to be in way over his head. But when the public was interviewed, most thought that Bush had won the debate. They said they'd feel comfortable talking with him over a beer. My jaw dropped. I don't know about you, but I want my president to be the best and brightest, a person with a brain so big he or she needs a custom brace to keep it aloft. A brain in which every fold is filled with important information, creative ideas, and solutions to problems so complex they'd make most people catatonic. I don't want my leader to remind me of the guy at The Home Depot.
It's my opinion, of course, but I'm convinced that simply by not paying attention, we Americans elected not once but twice the worst administration of my father's and my lifetime. After sitting in a room of eleven other jurors, six of whom obviously weren't paying attention, I'm beginning to understand how it happened.
This was my first time on jury duty. I admit that when the ominous government envelope arrived I tried to figure out some sort of excuse to use. But I knew it was my duty as a citizen to serve as a juror, just as I believe it is my duty to vote, as I do in every election, no matter how trivial. As I lined up with the crowd outside the jury pool office in the brand-new Mecklenburg County Courthouse at 7:45 on a Monday morning, the first thing that struck me was how much I felt like I was back in high school. We were told to line up and then bossed around with one order after another.
Of course, we needed to be. It's amazing how adults tend to act like children when there are no kids around. People were sharing their excuses with their neighbors. A guy next to me said he was shot five times while pumping gas late one night in Huntersville and left to die. He was sure this would get him excused. One woman threw a tantrum, screaming in a voice people use to berate waiters, saying she expected to be compensated for her valuable time. She would get $12 for the first day.
After filling out a form, we watched an old video narrated by the late Charles Kuralt. He instructed us to use our own life experience and common sense to come to a verdict based on the information presented by the lawyers. We all stood for the oath, one hand on the Bible, the other in the air. God Bless America, we are sworn jurors. Names were called, I heard mine, and we were herded into the corridor, where a pot-bellied bailiff lined us up and walked us into a dark-paneled courtroom. The judge listened to a few excuses for not being able to serve, but accepted only one. One by one lawyers questioned potential jurors. I became juror number five.
The assistant district attorney, a young, plain-spoken guy who looked like a quarterback, told us this would not take long because the case was simple and the evidence would find the defendant guilty of pointing a gun at the accuser. The defense attorney, a small, pale, quiet man sporting a 1960s Beach Boys-style haircut, said that it was a case of one person's word against another. It was up to us to judge who was telling the truth.
Both sides more or less agreed on the series of events, except for two key instances. This was the testimony we heard: The defendant, Mr. L, was an architect who owned a couple investment properties in northwest Charlotte. One of his tenants, Ms. H, was three months behind on her rent. After several attempts to contact her, Mr. L started the eviction process. He went to inform her in person, only to be met by her two teenage sons. He noticed some damage to the house, and, legally, if he wanted to recoup any damage, he had to document it before the tenants moved out. He wrote three letters requesting permission to inspect the property. Ms. H never responded.
The day before the eviction, at noon on a Sunday, Mr. L drove to the property with a licensed 9 mm Beretta pistol. Because he didn't have a permit for a concealed weapon, the gun was on the passenger seat. He parked in front of the property, and walked to the front door with the gun in his left hand, pointing to the ground. He knocked on the door. No answer. He knocked again. Finally he heard footsteps. The door opened a crack. It was Ms. H's seventeen-year-old son. Mr. L asked to inspect the house. The son said no and tried to shut the door, but Mr. L blocked it with his foot and shifted the gun from his left hand to his right and brought it up into view, then put his shoulder to the door and pushed it open. The prosecution claims he pointed the gun at the boy for ten minutes. The defense says he never pointed the gun. The landlord spent a few minutes downstairs looking around. He then walked to his car and drove home.
The son called his mother, who was at a friend's house. He told her that Mr. L had pointed a gun at his forehead. She called the police and drove home. The police took a report and contacted Mr. L, who admitted bringing a gun to the house but denied pointing it. The prosecution says Ms. H's son went downtown the next morning and swore out a warrant for Mr. L's arrest, charging him with pointing a gun. The defense says the son signed the warrant, but that his mother filled it out, as an act of revenge against the landlord who was evicting her.
The judge decided to adjourn around 4 p.m., instructing us not to formulate any opinions until after the closing arguments, and not to talk about the case. In the elevator one juror criticized the defense attorney's lack of charisma and bumbling demeanor. I didn't say anything, but I wanted to say: bumbling like Peter Falk in Columbo. Or Al Gore.
The next morning, after waiting for the cable customer-service rep juror who was thirty minutes late, we listened to an hour of closing arguments, and then we were sent into the jury deliberation room. Immediately, everybody started making fun of the defense attorney. "Did you see his shoes? They were old, all worn out." I hadn't noticed his shoes. I was busy listening to the facts. Maybe they were his lucky shoes. Comments flew around the table.
"He seemed real nervous. I'd never hire him as my attorney." I said I thought he did a great job because he methodically presented a defense that created a reasonable doubt. "He seemed like he didn't know what he was doing." He knew what he was doing. He did all his homework, and he presented the facts that should have forced us to disbelieve Ms. H's teenage son.
First was the warrant. The defense attorney had the teenager sign his name, then write it and his address. Then he asked him if he had filled out the warrant. Yes. Is this your handwriting on the warrant? Yes. Then he had us look at the writing sample and the warrant. The teenager had signed the warrant and written his name, but the rest was filled out in a big round feminine script that reminded me of a high school girlfriend's handwriting, except she'd dotted her i's with flowers.
Then the attorney asked Ms. H's son if the gun pointed at his head was a revolver or automatic. He didn't know. If somebody pointed a gun at my head and held it there for ten minutes, as the teen claimed, I'd have the serial numbers memorized. And with all the video games and movies chock full of guns, who wouldn't know a revolver from an automatic?
The defense also brought in the cop who took the report. His biceps were so big he had his sleeves rolled up to accommodate them. He described the neighborhood as rough, with a lot of drugs, and crimes committed by teenage gang members. The defense also called Mr. L. He never wavered from his story.
The defense attorney was a nerd, but he had done a thorough job convincing me that Mr. L—although stupid enough to take a gun into a volatile situation just to recoup a few bucks—was telling the truth.
We picked a jury foreman and went around the table. The foreman started: not guilty. The CMS bus operations manager: not guilty. Me: not guilty. The retired stewardess: not guilty. The CPCC student: not guilty. The CATS bus driver: guilty. The CPCC student then took his back, no, I say guilty. The retired grandmother: guilty. The bookkeeper: guilty. The mother of two: guilty. The financial auditor: not guilty. The heavy-machinery sales manager: not guilty. The cable customer-service rep: guilty.
I was shocked. Why did so many think he was guilty? The mother of two: "Just because he's an architect doesn't mean he can take a gun and go around waving it at people. He isn't any better than that family." The retired grandma: "He had the gun, he's guilty." The cable customer-service rep: "Oh, I can see him going in there with the gun. He had that look about him."
This is where jury duty is different from voting. If these people walked into the voting booth they would vote as they felt right then. But here in this room, with a group of other people who listened to the same information, we discussed and debated. I said we were instructed to judge based on the facts presented to us and find him guilty only beyond a reasonable doubt. I had doubt.
It all came down to who was telling the truth and who wasn't, and the defense had presented evidence that the teen had lied under oath about the warrant. So why should we believe anything he said? The retired grandmother got that; so did the bookkeeper. The CATS bus driver didn't believe that Mr. L was strong enough to get through the door without the gun. But the point wasn't whether he had the gun—he admitted that from the very beginning—it was whether he pointed it and kept it pointed, as the teen testified.
We all agreed that the teen had lied on the stand. "Yes, I don't care about that," the mother of two said. "I think the landlord is guilty. There's all kinds of people out there who seem like they're normal, but they're some sort of serial killer." Yes, but luckily nobody was killed. "Mmm, did you see the arms on that police officer? Mmm-hmm, we need to get him back up there," said the cable rep. "Mmm-hmm," said the retired grandmother. "I had a hard time focusing on the case, I thought his shirt was going to rip open," said the financial auditor. "I'm hungry, maybe we can stay in here long enough to get a pizza," said the heavy-equipment sales manager.
"You know," said the CMS bus operations manager, "I could see it going down either way, but the kid lied so we have to let [the defendant] go."
"Yeah, and did you see his mother crying yesterday? And why weren't they there today for the verdict?" said the cable rep.
"Yeah, he lied." She, the CATS bus driver, and the CPCC student finally got it. The mother of two was the last holdout.
"He's guilty, I just know it. I don't care if he's an architect. Just because the boy comes from a poor family and dresses the way he does, you don't believe him." Ms. H's son was wearing a big oversize white T-shirt tucked into baggy shorts. He was confident and respectful. I would have believed him if he'd been telling the truth. "Something isn't right. I can feel it. He's guilty." She wouldn't give in.
We don't believe him because we all agree that he didn't write the warrant, we said. Do you think that he wrote it? No. Then why did he say he did? I don't know; he's just protecting his mother. Well, then, you admit he wasn't telling the truth. OK. She voted not guilty. We called the bailiff. Mr. L was free to go.
Watching these lawyers talk to the jury made me understand that politics was born in the courts. Making an argument to a jury or panel of judges is the original form of debating. Politics today might benefit if the candidates had to stand in front of a stern judge and make their case. It would also be nice if voting were mandatory like jury duty—with judges at every polling station to give voters some guidelines, such as you cannot vote for a person because you like their haircut. It would also be nice to have a room where small groups of voters have to sit in a circle and talk about the candidates and issues. This might help people understand the importance of their vote and weed out the people who just go in and treat the ballot like the high school multiple-choice tests they never studied for anyway. It would also be nice if I were rich and good looking.