Deliberated On A Jury

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“There is no such thing as an impartial jury because there are no impartial people. There are people that argue on the web for hours about who their favorite character on ‘Friends’ is.”
  --
John Stewart

This process actually started in February when I was supposed to be summoned to court for jury duty at the Hall of Justice (850 Bryant Street).  I had it pinned to our door at home, and I still totally forgot.  The court sent me a notice telling me that I failed to appear and that I needed to call them to reschedule.

My new date for reporting was April 12.  I’m not sure how other jury procedures go, but in San Francisco, they give you a phone number or website to check whether or not you have to report the next day.  I did not have to report on the 12th...  or the 13th...  or the 14th.  On Thursday the 15th, I was asked to come in.

After entering the Hall of Justice, I went to the Jury Assembly Room where all the reporting potential jurors are supposed to be at 8:45am.
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They called groups of people at a time, and I was called up in the second section announced that day.  We were instructed to report to Department 16. 
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I apologize in advance for the lack of pictures or media from this point on because taking pictures was not permitted in court.

Jury Selection:
Initially, they called twenty-four people to be asked general questions to see if there were any biases that might make it difficult for them to make decisions on the case. 
  • -The charge on the case was petty theft, so one of the questions was about being a victim of theft.  They wanted to know if people would have a bias based on their experiences with theft.
  • -Some of the testimony shared in the court would be from police officers.  Was a police officer’s testimony going to hold more weight than any other testimony?

The judge excused a few people based on their answers.  After that, the District Attorney and the Public Defender got their opportunity to excuse jurors for any reason they wanted.  Enough jurors were excused here to call another group of people to be asked questions.  I was in this second group.

One of the more memorable parts of this line of questioning was when the defense attorney asked if we thought prior convictions would color our opinion of a person, even if those convictions were over a decade old.  After one guy said it would for him, I was asked whether a 29 year old man should be judged by what he did when he was 19. 

Public Defender: “What do you think, Mr. Woo?”
Me: “I don’t think it has anything to do with who you are now.”
PD: “And why is that?”
Me: “Because I did a lot of stupid things when I was 19.”
(everyone in the courthouse is laughing.)
PD (smiling): “You know we have you on record now?”

Another round of the lawyers excusing people went, and I ended up being the last person selected to be in the jury box.  After this, they picked two alternate jurors in the event that one of the twelve had an emergency.  This concluded jury selection.

The Trial:
We were asked to come back the next Tuesday.  The courthouse was closed Friday and Monday because of California budget cuts.  The trial began with the opening statements.  The district attorney went first, followed by the public defender.  This is when we actually learned what the case was.

It was a petty theft case where a woman left her jacket on a table in a club and when she went back to the table, her jacket was gone.  The jacket had her wallet (including credit cards and $80 in cash), her car keys, and her cell phone.  The defendant was found inside her vehicle shortly afterwards.  He handed her back her keys and after her friend called 911, he was later arrested for having her credit card in his possession.

We heard testimony from quite a few people in the case on the first day:
  • -the victim
  • -the victim’s friend that was with her that night
  • -the police officer that searched the defendant
  • -a woman that works for the San Francisco 911 dispatch
  • -a private investigator for the public defender’s office

On the second day, we heard from the defendant, who gave up his constitutional right to remain silent to give his testimony.  We also heard from another officer on the scene and from the victim a second time.

At the end of the second day, we heard the closing arguments, the judge read us the jury instructions, and finally, we received the case for deliberation.

Deliberation:
We were escorted to a room through a hallway nearby.  Only the twelve of us were allowed to be in the room unless we had a request, in which case, we would call the bailiff. 

There were two charges we were asked to deliberate on.  One was petty theft and the other was receipt of stolen property.  If we convicted on petty theft, we could not convict on receipt of stolen property.  The defendant couldn’t be found guilty of both charges.

Starting with the more serious petty theft charge, we debated the plausibility and the reliability of the witnesses.  We listened to the friend’s 911 call a few times.  We looked at map locations and police dispatch logs.  We came to a consensus fairly quickly that there was enough reasonable doubt about the petty theft charge that we agreed that we had to say he was not guilty.

As for the second charge of receipt of stolen property, it was a bit more complicated.  To convict for this charge, we had to know that he knew he had the credit card on him.  It took several hours of discussion to agree on this as well.  We even requested that part of the court reporter’s record be read back to us.  I thought it was really interesting that they could not give us a copy of the transcript, and she actually could only read it to us once.

It came down to whether we believed the police officer’s testimony on what he found in the defendant’s pockets that night.  The officer was so sure about the credit card, however, he was so unsure about the other contents of the defendant’s pants.  He also did not create a log of his items nor did he write the police report on this case.  This left enough doubt about his reliability that we felt we had to find the defendant not guilty on this charge as well.

Once we had reached our verdict, we waited to be called back into the courtroom.  When both lawyers and the judge were ready, the clerk read our decision to the court.  The judge thanked us for our service and sent us on our way.

Postmortem:
I was selected to be on a jury one other time that did not make it to the deliberation stage.  It felt strange that I was part of a decision that could have sent someone to jail.  In the end, I believe we made the right decision.  I don’t believe the defendant was guilty, but if he was, the police should’ve done a better job on the scene than they did.

Overall, this was a really different opportunity for me to be a part of the criminal justice system, and I’m glad I participated.

Links About The Case:
San Francisco Police Lose In MatrixFillmore Club Case
Jury Acquits Man In Marina Club Theft
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