February 09, 2011

Jurors take their job seriously

I had jury duty yesterday. I spent all day at the County courthouse for a trial on a charge of 'failure to stop' (at a stop sign). It was more interesting than it probably should have been, and there were plenty of takeaways to share.

1. The jurists for this case (all 7 of them) appeared to be very dedicated to getting to the bottom of the matter and ensuring they followed their instructions as closely as possible. Because the case was such a simple one, I was surprised by the level of discussions in the jury room. I expected to be one of two or three dissenters, but found myself in the majority from the outset.

2. The Prosecution needs to ensure that they do their job. In presenting their case, they need to be extremely specific about focusing on the charge at hand and ensuring they present enough evidence to erase shadows of doubt. The jury takes very seriously the 'beyond reasonable doubt' clause. In our trial, most of the jury members were very adamant that they had not heard the officer testify that they saw the defendant approach the stop sign and roll through it without stopping. This planted seeds of doubt as to whether or not she had indeed watched him fail to stop, even though it was clear she saw him stop later on. The prosecution did not dwell on setting the scene and ensuring that the officer testified as to the fact that she actually knew that she saw him NOT STOP - a very specific event. Without this specificity, the jury was left to conjecture, which meant reasonable doubt (and ultimately an acquittal).

3. "You have the right to remain silent" - No better advice can be given anyone accused of a crime. The defendant did not make it easy on himself. Deliberations took hours for the jury merely because of the defendants behavior in the courtroom, introduction of unrelated evidence, disrespect, immaturity and even introduction of his own driving record (WITH MORE THAN 5 OFFENSES ON IT!!!) into evidence. [Oh yeah, and the prosecution didn't even provide the citation as evidence, which ended up being crucial in the deliberations room].

4. If you're going to represent yourself at a trial, ensure that you've prepared a logical argument and present ONLY THAT ARGUMENT. Had the defendant followed proceedings properly and taken the stand to state only the one crucial fact (his claim that he had stopped prior to the stop sign and then again after passing through the intersection to avoid hitting something else), it would have laid the reasonable doubt without prejudice. As it is, his rambling, his attacks on the character of the officer, and his other antics in the courtroom all detracted from his credibility.

4a. Oh yeah, and if you're going to represent yourself - CALM DOWN!!! You will be given an opportunity to refute testimony and present your own facts in due time. There is a structure for approaching the situation to come to a logical conclusion, and you will have adequate opportunity to address everything you need to. Take notes if you have an impetus and cannot address it in the current forum. Whatever you do, try not to sound like a stark-raving lunatic.

5. Interesting points on juries in Fairfax County - I was unaware that (at least in this court) you needed unanimity to reach a jury decision for non-felonies. I was unaware the jury sets the sentence in Virginia. I think that's an interesting point. We were given sentencing guidelines when we entered the jury room, and asked to provide a sentence in the case of a guilty verdict.

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