Friday, March 27, 2009

12 not-so-angry men (and women)

"We have a criminal jury system which is superior to any in the world; and its efficiency is only marred by the difficulty of finding twelve men every day who don't know anything and can't read" -- Mark Twain

"Jury: A group of 12 people, who, having lied to the judge about their health, hearing, and business engagements, have failed to fool him." -- Henry Louis Mencken

I just got finished serving on a jury (6 total days). It was a case where a guy was riding his bicycle without lights or reflectors, drinking a beer, and going down the middle of Central Ave (a busy street normally) in south Phoenix at 1 in the morning. For those of you that haven't been there, south central Phoenix is not unlike "south central" in any other major city ... a place that you don't want to be at 1 in the morning.

An unmarked Tahoe with 3 gang enforcement police tried to get him off the roadway for his own safety and that of traffic, he ignores them, chucks a beer at their vehicle and continues on. This goes on for awhile, the cops get out, there's a scuffle and a couple of the cops got hurt.

Once they got him in cuffs, he said that they better arrest him because he was going to "fucking kill them" and then he starts saying that he is Sur Trece and a Sereno (Latino gangs). Interesting case. 8 total counts including aggravated assault and resisting arrest but they also tagged on several gang-related charges.

We ended up convicting him on the assault and resisting arrest charges because they were all evidence-based. But the gang charges just didn't stick for many reasons. The guy was 36 (kinda old for a gang banger) and riding a bicycle. He was certainly a moron and probably was involved with a gang when he was younger but it just seemed like the police were trying to tag on some extra charges because they were gang-enforcement police. There were no witnesses besides the cops to his proclamation. Most of us felt that he did make the threats but he didn't do it until he was already in cuffs. He had a zillion opportunities to flash gang signs or say something before then, but didn't. He was just spouting shit once he got caught. Trying to puff himself up. He had no weapons of any kind and no normal gang paraphernalia or clothing. Gang-enforcement police have a vested interest in making it into a "gang" case.

The guy was definitely not a brain surgeon but these were all serious charges and you really have to make sure. It's a weird feeling having someone's fate in your hands. Someone who has 3 young children. Being on a jury is an experience I'd recommend for anybody that gets the chance. Seeing the court system's workings from the inside definitely paints a different picture than what you see on TV.

As it was, he had some previous convictions on unrelated stuff and the 3 guilty charges that we gave him ended up in a sentence of 25 years on top of whatever else he had. I wonder if he's thinking he should have handled that situation that night a little differently. If he'd have just stopped, he'd have probably been sent home with a warning or, at worst, a charge for an open container. But a series of boneheaded decisions will keep him locked up for a long time, away from his family. Crazy stuff. I now know more about Latino gang culture that I ever did before.

"I'm no idealist to believe firmly in the integrity of our courts and in the jury system -- that is no ideal to me, it is a living, working reality. Gentlemen, a court is no better than each man of you sitting before me on this jury. A court is only as sound as its jury, and a jury is only as sound as the men who make it up." -- Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird


CyberKitten said...


Jeff said...

It's amazing how much you can learn about criminal culture from just sitting on on a jury or being involved with certain cases.

dbackdad said...

I learned a lot about the legal culture as well. After the trial is over, they allow the attorneys and judge to come back to the jury room and ask questions of us and we can ask questions of them. We were amazed that the defense attorney put his client on the stand ... and we told him that. He was a young guy and he admitted that if he had to do it over, he wouldn't have.