Thoughts on jury duty

Living in the city of St. Louis, the odds are that you’re going to be called for jury duty pretty frequently. From most of the folks I’ve talked to, it’s about every two years, if not more often.

I moved back to Missouri in June of 2010, and got my first summons for jury duty for July or August of 2012, so… that sounds about right. Because of work, I had to postpone jury duty, and wound up serving this past week. Here’s how it went. Trigger Warning I was assigned to a jury for a sexual assault case, so if discussion of the circumstances of a sexual assault are likely to upset you, you’ll want to skip this post.

Monday morning I reported to the courthouse for jury selection. This involved sitting in a huge room with, I’m guessing, upwards of 500 people.

I don’t know how other jurisdictions handle jury selection, but the City of St. Louis seems to have an insidiously inefficient process that is maximized for the convenience of the court rather than the jurors that serve. You are required to show up at 8 a.m., but nothing really happens until 9:30 or so.

Then they start calling groups of about 50 people by number. If you’re not picked, you just continue sitting. I sat through three waves of prospective jurors before my number was called for the fourth pool of jurors. I think it was about 10:30 or 11:00 when we were called. Another half hour of shuffling paper and commotion ensued before we were finally guided off into a courtroom to begin voir dire.

If you’re not familiar with the term, this is when the attorneys whittle down the pool of jurors to the number required for the trial – plus alternates. This took a few hours, and involved a lot of questions and a lot of inefficiency. Several prospective jurors that would obviously be passed over were left in the room and continued volunteering answers to questions, which probably added an hour to the process.

What’s particularly annoying about this is that the process could have been handled with a series of questions on a form. Doubly annoying were the people (one lady in particular) who were obviously gaming the process to be let out of jury duty. While I wasn’t exactly thrilled to be there, I do view jury duty as something that we have to do as a price of citizenship. Despite being dissatisfied with the process, I still feel it’s a responsibility that should be willingly shouldered and taken very seriously.

The highlight of voir dire was the judge. We drew Judge Dennis Schaumann, and I was impressed with how he ran his court and his personality. He displayed a good sense of humor and took the proceedings seriously without being unpleasant. Later in the trial, two jurors had their cell phones go off (at different times) and he handled it without skipping a beat and without losing his temper.

At voir dire we learned that we had been selected for a rape trial, and some very general outlines of what the case would be. Once the selection was finished, we were seated as the jury and given instructions.

Trial

At several points in the process jurors are reminded that they shouldn’t expect a trial to be what you see on television courtroom dramas. In that the surroundings of the St. Louis Civil Courts building in St. Louis is a lot grungier than you see on television, the people in the court are not necessarily as attractive as they’d be on a show, and the language is a lot less polished – this is true. But a lot of the proceedings were pretty familiar if you’ve watched way too much Law and Order.

The first witness was the woman who had filed the rape charge. Her testimony was less wrenching than you might imagine, but she could barely verbalize the actual events of the rape. As soon as either the prosecutor or defense attorney touched on that, she began crying. During other parts of her testimony, she was very composed. During deliberations, some of the jurors found this to be less than credible.

As it turns out, the young woman happens to be trained in Tae Kwon Do, at some level of expertise. The defense attorney spent a very long time pursuing this fact. However, according to her testimony – which was not contradicted – her training did not involve contact at any point and she was not actually trained to fight. (Rather, she was trained for “forms” and her sparring and such did not involve actual contact.)

The gist of this, of course, was that the jury was supposed to believe that she couldn’t have been “raped” because she could have fought off the plaintiff (who happened to be much larger, and someone she had dated previously).

The situation was, though the term was not used during trial, a date rape. The woman knew the plaintiff, and the events were muddy because – of course – the alleged rape happened when they were alone.

I found the defense attorney’s line of questioning to be offensive, honestly. He spent a lot of time attacking her character and trying to convince the jury that this 5’4” young woman was capable and responsible for fighting off the plaintiff. However, the facts were that she reported a rape, a rape kit showed signs of sex and positively identified the plaintiff as the other party, and she showed up at the ER with a black eye, bruised knees, marks on her hips, and a contusion on the back of her head that all seemed consistent with a forcible rape rather than consensual sex.

Another part of the testimony was to establish the chain of events from the afternoon of the day before the alleged rape, up to and beyond the alleged rape in the early morning hours the next day. The testimony of the young woman and the testimony of the defendant were wildly divergent. Naturally, the defense testimony paints the young woman in a more questionable light and there was very little in evidence to validate or challenge either person’s account of events. The only other witness on behalf of the prosecution corroborated the young woman’s testimony, but that’s to be expected since the other witness was a long-time friend. The account of the evening leaves it likely that several dozen people could have witnessed some of the story and could have verified one or the other person’s account of the event. In short – the jury was left with a very hard choice of trying to decide whether one or neither of the people involved were credible.

This included a story from the defendant that the young woman was “making out” with him previously in the evening (denied by the accuser and her friend), that she was performing oral sex on him in the car on the way to a strip club on the East side (denied), and that she performed during an “amateur night” contest at the strip club at around 3 a.m. (denied) on a Saturday morning. I find it incredulous that neither the defense or prosecution supplied any witnesses that could have simply verified that yes (or no) any of these things happened.

Here’s an interesting an unfortunate point about jury service: You’re forbidden from doing outside research on the case. The jury is supposed to deliberate solely on the evidence presented by the attorneys and not do outside research, and is forced to site mute while both sides present evidence and testimony, without asking questions. I found this infuriating at times, because both attorneys glossed over a lot of things that would have drawn a more accurate picture of the case.

Also – had we been able to do independent research, I would have been able to show the other jurors statistics on date rape that might have changed the outcome. (Note: I did not do any research during the trial, as much as I wanted to. However, I have read enough prior to the trial to know that it is not a reason to discount rape simply because a woman does not fight off a known attacker. I’m getting ahead of myself here, though.) I do understand why this is disallowed, but it’s frustrating.

We also heard testimony from the defendant’s mother, the friend of the accuser, two police officers, the nurse who performed the exam, the gas station attendant who called 911, and two lab technicians who ran the results for the rape kit and processed other evidence.

During the testimony of the police officers, the defense attorney spent a lot of time attacking the police procedures, trying to demonstrate that their techniques for interviewing (taking notes rather than getting written testimony or recording the testimony) were shoddy. It was fairly well apparent that it is not standard procedure for the police to take written testimony from witnesses, so I felt that the defense attorney was being quite dishonest with the jury in trying to set this up as a basis for reasonable doubt. (As it turns out, this was not particularly effective.)

The nurse, and the technicians, were fantastic witnesses. In particular, the first lab technician was an excellent witness who answered questions precisely, handled evidence in a precise manner, and so on. Unfortunately? Aside from the introduction of evidence during their testimony, the technicians were not central to the case at all. No one disputed that sex occurred on the night in question – only whether it was consensual or forced. The evidence didn’t really offer much to prove or disprove guilt or innocence.

After the prosecution rested its case, the defense chose to put the defendant on the stand. It was never explained how the defendant’s story was so wildly divergent from the prosecution’s. I found the defendant to be less credible for a couple of reasons. First, for someone that’s been “falsely” accused of rape, the defendant displayed zero anger towards the accuser. I don’t see how that’s possible. His demeanor was of someone trying to ingratiate himself with the jury, and he clearly seemed to be pausing frequently while watching the jury as if to say “did you buy that?”

But the account he supplied to explain the woman’s bruising and black eye (oddly, neither the defense or prosecution really touched on the contusion on the back of her head) didn’t make sense. According to the defendant, the accuser got angry with him after consensual sex because he told her he “wasn’t ready for a relationship” and attacked him by choking. A woman facing from the passenger seat choking him while he was driving, prompted him to “backhand” her with his right hand – but somehow gave her a bruise on her left eye. This seemed entirely improbable.

The explanation of her “attack” also seemed improbable. His mother had testified that she thought they were dating, and that her son wanted a relationship with the woman. Yet, somehow, he was suddenly the one that didn’t want a relationship.

The closing remarks from the defense and prosecution followed. The defense pulled out all the stops, calling the accuser a “party girl” and basically stopping just short of calling her whore. But not very short of it. The prosecution re-iterated her case and the evidence phase was done.

In the end, we got a jumbled mess to sort through as jurors. And we tried.

Deliberations

The trial took two days, and closing arguments were held on Thursday morning. (Jury selection basically consumed all of Monday. I can’t recall whether we heard opening arguments Monday or not, but I think that was Tuesday morning.)

We started deliberating around 10:30 or 11:00 Thursday. At this point, our cell phones and other electronics were taken away and we were no longer allowed to leave the jury room.

Let me paint a picture of the jury. We had 12 jurors, two alternates. One juror was dismissed for a cause unknown to us, so an alternate was selected. The other alternate was dismissed after the defense and prosecution rested.

We had a pretty even mix of women and men, four jurors were Black, there were two fairly young jurors, most were north of 50 or 60. One lady was a retired nurse, another woman seemed to have worked in health care as a receptionist or in billing, but not actually as a medical professional. One fellow was a lawyer, but not a criminal attorney.

A lot of the jurors expressed the opinion that both of the people involved were (my word) unsavory characters and (their word) liars. So it was a matter of deciding which “liar” was more believable or what the evidence showed.

Some of the older folks clearly believed that the sex was consensual simply because the young woman was “wild” and they had been in a sexual relationship previously. The two youngest jurors discounted the injuries saying that most of the injuries could be explained by rough but consensual sex and the black eye might have happened during sex or that neither of the people testified as to the “real” reason and they couldn’t “beyond a reasonable doubt” determine whether it was a rape.

In short – about half of the jurors had a reaction that every woman who thinks about reporting a date rape is fearful of. Because she didn’t fight hard enough, or knew and maybe previously had a sexual relationship with her attacker, because she isn’t perceived as “squeaky clean” enough, she’ll be disbelieved.

And that is exactly what happened in the jury room. Half of the jurors were simply convinced that they could not vote guilty to the two charges and refused to budge. And half of us were convinced that we could not budge from a guilty verdict.

During deliberations we sent several requests for evidence and questions to the judge. After several hours of being deadlocked we asked what we should do, and the judge responded that we should continue deliberations. After another two hours, we asked again and the judge summoned us to the courtroom.

As luck would have it, I was selected to be the foreman of the jury. This meant that the judge called on me in court to answer whether the jury was deadlocked and if it was likely that we could come to a verdict. I responded it was not likely, we were evenly split and no one was budging. At that point, a mistrial was declared and we were released from service with the thanks of the court. Once again, I was pleased with the way the judge handled the case.

On the way out, I spoke with the prosecuting attorney and explained some of the reasons we were deadlocked. I also explained that we could have had a lot more evidence, and some things (like cell phone records) could have clearly determined whose account of events was accurate and whose was not.

Take Notes

If you are ever selected for jury service, take copious notes. Note every piece of evidence, especially. Memories are unreliable, and the jurors all had different recollections of the testimony and few could specifically remember what was entered into evidence and what was merely discussed.

The judge denied a request for the evidence list itself, because it was not actually evidence and he was not allowed to supply anything that was not evidence.

This means that the depositions that are taken before trial are not available to the jurors, though they may be referred to during trial.

Take notes. A lot of notes. Specific notes.

Reaction

As I said, the jury was deadlocked. We did not actually come to a verdict, and I am disappointed that we did not find the defendant guilty. It’s my belief that the woman was sexually assaulted, and she’s not getting justice because – as with many cases of this kind – there were no witnesses that could testify about the actual alleged assault and it was largely a “he said/she said” when it came down to it.

I am disappointed in the opinions I heard in the juror’s room, though. While I do feel that all the jurors were trying to be fair, I feel a lot of prejudice about lifestyle was on display. The young woman was judged harshly for being sexually active, the young man was not. The prior sexual relationship was used as a reason why the young woman must have consented. The fact that the young woman willingly went to a strip club was used to discredit her, when it obviously should not have any bearing on whether she consented to sex and does not explain how she was bruised up. Nor does the flimsy motive assigned by the defense explain why a young woman would continue to pursue a rape charge for two-plus years.

But in the end, we were split and the case will be left to yet another jury to decide.

After all this, I feel terrible for the woman involved. I am troubled by the opinions I heard in the jury room that fell just very short of “she was asking for it.” I’m troubled that it seems an almost insurmountable obstacle for a woman who is raped to actually make the case beyond a reasonable doubt when almost all the cards are stacked in favor of a defendant. By definition, it is very hard to prove whether sex was or wasn’t consensual given that the evidence can not demonstrate consent, only the presence of substances that confirm sex (or not).

And I feel guilty because I’m glad it’s over for me, but it goes on for her.

Editor, writer, communications expert, former community manager, open source enthusiast, music nut, and cat guy. Not necessarily in that order.

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