Saturday, February 27, 2010

Not Guilty

No, not a Beatles post. I've been serving on a jury (off and on) for the last three weeks (!), and "not guilty" was the final verdict. I've been summoned for jury duty multiple times, but this was the first time I was actually called into the courthouse and then picked for service. As a fan of the Law & Order shows, I've always been curious to experience the process "for real," so unlike several of my other jurors, I didn't try to get tossed off the panel by expressing especially vehement anti-anything views. But I did get some good pointers. Saying you believe the police never make mistakes and if someone's arrested they are assuredly guilty will definitely get you kicked off the panel.

The first thing that struck me, as jurors were asked basic questions like "have you ever been the victim of a crime", was how many people in Los Angeles have been the victims of SERIOUS crimes. One after another, "my Mom was murdered," "my brother was kidnapped," "I was raped"... it was an awful litany of remarkable terrible things. On a slightly less dramatic note, I was also surprised at how many folks on the jury had been arrested for DUI.

Then the case started. It involved a sting operation conducted by the State's Contractor's Licensing Board, and an English-as-a-second language fellow accusing of doing contracting without a license. These were misdemeanor charges, so my first thought was, "really? A jury trial for this?" My other thought, frankly, was that the guy probably did it. The prosecution and defense stipulated early on that the guy didn't have a license, so that fact wasn't even being challenged. The real issue at hand was simple: was the defendant an employee when he entered the sting location and made a bid (which was what he was claiming, and would have been legal), or was he operating his own business?

The prosecution brought out the two investigators who handled the sting and also provided a tape recording of the "crime." This is where the State's case started falling apart, because frankly, the investigators were a little shaky. Evidence had been lost, they forgot a lot of stuff, and they seemed prone to mis-characterize comments that we were able to hear for ourselves on the tape.

That said, I was still wavering, but the defendant's public defender gave a passionate closing statement that pretty much sealed the deal for me. This falls under the rubric of "style" and didn't really influence my decision, but by contrast, the prosecutor closed with a frightening condescending argument that left me scratching my chin. At one point, the prosecutor was explaining the legal issues involved in making a bid, and that contractors can't ask for more than 10% of the estimated cost. This was caveated with an exhaustive apology for the "complicated, boring mathematics that I know we all hate." Umm, 10% of $4K is $400. It ain't exactly quantum physics.

Anyhow, it's still innocent until proven guilty in this country, and that means "proven" within a reasonable doubt. And when all was said and done, the State hadn't proved that this guy wasn't working for someone else when he came to the site, or that a contract had even been agreed to when the guy asked for a down payment. (Some of this was due to the language issues). I was worried I would be the sole civil libertarian nut-job when we started deliberations, but to my surprise, we were all on virtually the same page. Nobody really thought the State had proved their case. 70 minutes later, not guilty!

And so the wheels o' justice have turned... I'm $60 richer and off the hook, jury-wise, for a full calendar year!