Notes From Inside Jury Room

So I picked my wife up from jury duty (she was thrilled when she got the initial invite in the mail; then nearly despondent when I pointed out that being summoned to Municipal Court meant it was “only” for a Class C) and took her to lunch. The entire trial had begun at 8:30 a.m. and finished before we ordered our midday meal at Polvo’s.

Of course, I asked her for the details, and as they got more interesting, started jotting notes on a tiny scrap of paper. The notes resurfaced from the bowels of a desk drawer recently – the trial was about a year ago – and here’s the gist of them.

Class C Failure to Signal Intent charge, pro se (unrepresented) defendant, and one witness: the citing cop. The officer testified that he saw the defendant change lanes without using his signal. On cross, the defendant grilled the officer about whether or not it was possible that he (the cop) had taken his eyes off of his(the defendant’s) vehicle, and perhaps this was when the signal came. The officer declined to agree that this was even a remote possibility.

The defendant didn’t testify, but when his turn came for closing, he asked the judge, “Can’t I tell them that I signaled? It’s obvious from my pleading Not Guilty that I’m saying I used my turn signal.” The judge simply replied no.

The jury retires. And here’s where nearly every worst fear a criminal defense lawyer has about deliberations is confirmed by my wife. Among other matters, the jury discussed the following issues:

Some defendants set cases for trial because they are hoping the cop won’t show up.

While this is true, it’s obviously not a legitimate (charge based) starting point for discussions about guilt/innocence. My notes are sketchy on the next point, but they seem to confirm that the conversation turned to “we only heard one side of the story” ergo, we gotta go with that. Quickly followed by a “why didn’t he just testify” / “if he had said he used his signal, we’d have something” debate.

Next comes my favorite:

I thought using your turn signal was “recommended”. I didn’t know it was against the law.

Perhaps this is the prosecutor’s fear, rather than mine. Essentially, there was a jury nullification argument. My wife didn’t start it, but she told me that she chimed in, something to the effect of, if you’re turning onto a street then yes it’s a law, but if you’re just changing lanes, it’s just something you’re supposed to do.

“Recommended”. I had a discussion with her at lunch about whether or not this was merely a recommendation, or an actual honest-to-goodness traffic violation. And remember, the trial was finished before the waiter brought us the queso and chips. She made it through the whole thing, but was still unsure that this was really, oh I don’t know, what would you call it, a “law”?

The “recommended” discussion is filed under “There but for the grace of God, go I”; I suppose that explains why it’s my favorite part. But moving forward to the punch line, someone else suggests:

I feel sorry for him, but he needs to learn a lesson, and if we find him Not Guilty, he won’t learn a lesson.

Now we’re in prosecutorial dream land deliberations. Let’s get those jurors focused on what might happen (gasp!) if a guilty defendant didn’t learn his lesson. Skip all of that BRD nonsense about the state proving their case, and concentrate on avoiding the worst of all possibilities: an unpunished guilty man. Doubt my thesis that prosecutors often have similar concerns? How about this comment from a recent D.A. Confidential post about DWIs:

What I do know is that many felony DWI-ers get away with acquittals or having their cases reduced to misdemeanors, which seems like positive reinforcement for their behavior.

That’s right, a not guilty verdict is simply a guilty man getting away with it. Can’t have that. Now let’s talk punishment (and back to my notes):

If we’re not sure, we could fine him $20.

Ahhhhh, the compromise verdict. Not a disaster when it comes to traffic offenses, but truly life changing when you’re talking about a felony. My wife gets kudos at this point for saying that she knows we (the jury) are not supposed to do that, to compromise on whether or not he is guilty, but balance it out by giving low punishment.

She didn’t want to tell them she “knew” that from her CDL husband, so she told them she knew that because……..

…she saw it once on Law and Order.

Awesome. Proof positive that Earle Stanley Gardner, et al., are irremovable from our jury rooms. (And remember, at least she was right, not supposed to have compromise verdicts.)

So how did it end up? Guilty, and a $20 fine.