By Bill Diller
Part 1 - Jury Selection.
It’s part of our civic responsibility, I know, but when the letter came my first reaction was, ‘Oh great, jury duty.’ This was the third time I’d received the letter. On two previous occasions I had a built-in excuse ─ I was doing double duty as a live-in care giver for an MS patient and working a seven-day a week job. I simply called, explained my situation, and was taken off their roster for that session. Neither of those excuses applied now. Guess it was time to do my civic duty.
My presence was requested in Circuit Court in Bad Axe at 8:45 a.m. on a Wednesday morning. When I arrived the parking lot at the Court House was nearly full. I found a spot, then asked for directions to the court room. As I entered, I was surprised to find about fifty people already seated. A lady I know recognized me and smiled. I nodded back and found a seat.
It was very quite, with only a few people conversing in hushed tones. A dozen or so people arrived after me, and as I glanced over my shoulder I saw some of them standing.
A woman and a man were seated at a table near the gallery. I found out later this was the prosecutor and a State Police detective.
A little before 9:00 a.m. the court clerk entered and took roll call of the prospective jurors. There were three or four people not in attendance. I hoped they had a good excuse.
Soon afterward two women entered ─ the defendant and her lawyer. They took seats at one of the vacant tables.
Promptly at 9:00 a.m. the judge entered. He began by welcoming everyone, and asked the people sitting to make room for those who were standing because we were going to be there for a while. The judge explained what was going to happen over the course of the next few days . . . that the trial was going to last at least a day and a half, and possibly longer.
He explained the process of jury selection. Since this was a criminal case, twelve jurors would be seated. All our names were entered into a drum. The clerk would spin the drum and pull out a name. That person was to leave the gallery and take a seat in the jury box.
Before the selection process began the judge read off a list of names of possible witnesses, and asked us to try and remember them.
The clerk began spinning the drum and calling names. Mine was the second one called. Great! I can’t win the lottery, but I won a seat on the jury. Well, at least the chairs looked more comfortable than the wooden benches in the gallery.
As more names were called the people left the gallery and filled the vacant seats. I was surprised. I knew two of them.
At this point the judge addressed us. He said he would be asking questions, and depending on our answers we would either stay seated or be dismissed and another person would take our place. I think we were all hoping to be dismissed.
One of the first things the judge asked was if anyone on the jury panel knew any of the people who were potential witnesses, the lawyers, or anyone else involved in the case. I raised my hand, along with a number of other people.
The judge interviewed each of us individually, asking who we knew, and in what context. One of the potential jurors was associated with the defendant, and was promptly dismissed. Others were dismissed for various reasons, such as having a prejudice against insurance companies, or animosity toward one of the potential witnesses. A few were dismissed because the said they may tend to be partial toward a witness.
As each juror was dismissed, another name was drawn from the drum, and someone else would take the long walk to the jury box. During this process they called someone else I know. It gave me a good feeling knowing I would be seeing some familiar faces over the course of the next couple of days.
As each new juror took their seat, the judge asked them the same questions. Now I understood why he wanted everyone seated for their comfort . . . this was a long, grueling process.
When he was satisfied that he’d seated twelve people that could and would perform their civic duty to his satisfaction, he asked one final question ─ Did anyone have any reason they felt they couldn’t serve conscientiously? One man raised his hand and said he didn’t believe in the system. He was dismissed and another person called. The questioning process was repeated. This person was accepted by the judge, and we were turned over to the lawyers.
In a process called voir dire (pronounced vwar deer) the prosecution and defense attorneys were allowed to ask a series of questions to determine whether or not they thought each juror was acceptable. They were trying to establish our personal prejudices, and determine whether or not it would affect what they were trying to accomplish ─ for the prosecution it meant proving their case, for the defense it meant trying to demonstrate reasonable doubt as to the defendant’s guilt.
After the prosecutor and defense lawyer finished their questioning, the judge explained to the jury that each attorney would be allowed to dismiss any juror, for one of two reasons ─ for ‘cause,’ which meant they felt there was some legal reason to do so, or by means of a peremptory challenge, which means they felt the juror didn’t suit them. They didn’t need to give a reason.
Neither attorney used ‘cause’ dismissal, but the prosecution used a peremptory challenge on one juror. Another name was called, a woman took the vacated seat, and the questioning process was repeated.
A light-hearted moment occurred when the judge completed his series of questions by asking the woman if there was any reason she couldn’t serve on this jury. She replied resignedly and matter-of-factly, ‘Can’t think of a one.’ Everyone laughed, and they had their jury.
The judge dismissed the remaining jury candidates, then addressed the twelve of us sitting in our comfortable chairs. He told us we would be retiring to the jury room for about ten minutes, then the trial would begin. He gave instructions that we were not to discuss the case with each other, or with anyone else, until deliberations began.
As we filed out of the courtroom, I glanced at the clock. It was almost 10:30 a.m. The process had taken an hour and a half.
Part 2 - The Trial
In the jury room we all congratulated each other on our success on being selected as jurors. Well, in a perfect world that’s what would have happened. As it was, we discussed places we’d rather be, and things we’d rather be doing. I expressed my concern that I wouldn’t be able to keep my mind from wandering while listening to the lawyers and witnesses. Others concurred. Some placed calls to let people know they’d be busy for a few days.
When the ten minutes were up, the clerk led us back into the courtroom and the trial began with the prosecutor giving her opening statement. She stated the burden of proof was on the State and they would prove their case via expert witness testimony, and by means of a great deal of circumstantial evidence.
This was a moral dilemma for me because I believe circumstances can be misleading. I’d always thought that if I was ever on a jury I’d need convincing proof before I could send someone to prison, and here I was in the position of being asked to judge not based wholly on facts, but on ‘reasonable inference.’ I wasn’t looking forward to the next few days.
When the prosecutor was finished, the defense attorney chose to save her opening statement for later. So the prosecution’s case began in earnest.
The trial concerned suspected arson and insurance fraud. Among the first witnesses called by the prosecution were the chief of the responding fire department, the Sheriff’s Deputy in charge of the initial investigation and people working in the vicinity who discovered the fire.
The prosecutor’s job was to try and make the jury realize that the defendant had intentionally set the fire, and then compounded the crime by filing a false insurance claim.
As each witness was questioned, the defense attorney occasionally objected. The judge would say ‘sustained’ or ‘over ruled,’ meaning the objection was accepted or rejected. If it was sustained, we were told to disregard that particular statement. Right, like I could remember what part of what I’d just heard I was not supposed to remember. You can’t un ring a bell.
The parade of witnesses continued throughout the day, with a break for lunch. At one point an objection was made by the defense attorney. Both lawyers were asked to approach the judge’s bench. They talked for a few minutes and both attorneys returned to their seats. The judge addressed the jury and said we were to go back to the jury room while they discussed some legal issues.
As we entered the jury room comments were made along the lines of, ‘It’s not like Law & Order, that gets over in an hour,’ and ‘I’ve seen this on TV.’ and ‘I wonder what we’re not allowed to hear?’
After a brief period of time we returned to the courtroom.
Witness after witness was called, questioned and turned over to the defense attorney who then tried to disprove everything the prosecution had just tried to prove. It was a fascinating process, but tedious.
About 5:30 p.m. a witness was dismissed and the judge said that rather than hear another witness he was calling an end to the day’s proceedings. We were to be back in the jury room at 9:00 a.m. on Thursday. Since the trial was moving slower than anticipated we should make plans to be available on Friday.
Thursday morning arrived bright, sunshiny and warm. A perfect day to be outside. But not for us. We’d be in an air-conditioned courtroom listening to testimony.
It was captivating watching the attorneys spar as they attempted to get their point of view across. We were shown reports, photographs, displays, drawings of the house that was burned, and subjected to expert testimony from insurance and police investigators who tried to convince us the fire was deliberately set. The prosecutor guided them through their investigation, and to the State’s conclusion that the fire was arson, and therefore the subsequent insurance claim was fraudulent. The defense attorney attempted to punch holes in their testimony, and give us viable reasons why her client wasn’t responsible for the fire.
The day progressed with a few breaks. During the long afternoon of testimony the judge declared a ten minute break between witnesses. Those chairs, which had looked so comfortable the previous day, were becoming hard to sit in for any length of time without squirming, a fact which I’m sure the judge noticed.
A little before 6:00 p.m. the prosecution rested its case. The judge dismissed us for the day, and we were told to be in the jury room at 9:00 a.m. on Friday. He also said the trial was still moving slowly, and we should begin making plans to be available the following Tuesday. Oh, great! Like I needed to be thinking about it all weekend.
Friday morning was a carbon copy of the previous day, except the defense was now presenting their point of view. Following the testimony of a few friends and acquaintances, an expert witness took the stand for the defense. He verified most of the prosecution expert’s opinions, except one vital point . . . he said the fire should be ruled undetermined instead of human origin.
The last witness of the day, and the last witness for the defense was the defendant. She broke down a couple of times under questioning. Her life was opened up for all to see. She admitted to some embarrassing unrelated mistakes, but maintained her innocence throughout the ordeal.
By the time her testimony was finished the judge called a break for the day. We were to return at 9:00 a.m. on Tuesday.
It was a long weekend. I’m sure it was worse for the defendant.
Nine o’clock on Tuesday saw all twelve members of the jury anxiously awaiting the start of proceedings. We were led into the courtroom where we heard final arguments from both sides, and then received our instructions.
Part 3 - Deliberations
A little after 10:00 a.m. we were sent into the jury room. We were both relieved to finally be able to talk about the case, and apprehensive about where to begin. Someone said the first thing we needed to do was select a jury foreman, a job no one wanted. Some kind soul nominated me. I really didn’t want to, but in the interest of getting to the issue at hand, I agreed.
Never having done this before, I had no idea where or how to begin, so I suggested we should take a vote and see where we stood.
The way the indictments were written we all agreed that if the defendant was not guilty on count one, deliberately starting the fire, she couldn’t be guilty of count two, insurance fraud. We each took a slip of paper and wrote ‘yes’ for guilty or ‘no’ for not guilty.
The count was eight to four for a guilty verdict.
Since I was one of the ‘no’s’ I figured we might be in for a long day. I was convinced the prosecution hadn’t provided me with enough information to say with an absolute certainty that she was guilty. With the burden of proof on the prosecution, and going by the instructions we’d received, that meant I was going to have to stick with not guilty.
Fortunately I wasn’t alone. Three other people were extremely strong advocates of a not guilty verdict. There were a number of others who voiced strong guilty opinions. A few were wavering. We talked back and forth, and each side made some valid points, but by noon we were getting nowhere. We were still split, with no verdict in sight.
We continued to discuss the matter over lunch, with no discernable progress. Fortunately the entire matter was done without animosity. We simply voiced our opinions, and gave our reasons.
By early afternoon it was apparent we weren’t making much headway. We took a hand vote, and it came out six to six. One of the jurors said he thought that some people delayed raising their hands to see how others were going to vote, so we repeated the process by secret ballet. Again it came out six to six, but one immediately said she was wavering, and finally said guilty. It was now seven to five for a guilty verdict.
Everyone agreed they would stick with their opinion.
After discussing what course to take, we wrote a note to the judge telling him we were deadlocked, and asking for instructions. A short time later we were once again in the courtroom. The judge essentially told us we needed to stick with it, and come to a decision.
So it was back to the jury room where we spent a few minutes simply looking at one another and wondering what to do next. Someone suggested asking for displays and expert witness reports. They were delivered a little while later and we began going over some points we disagreed on, such as whether or not the defendant actually had time to do what she was accused of, and what a certain witness had said.
We asked for clarification, and a while later were led back into the courtroom where some testimony was read. Upon returning to the jury room we all agreed that the information wasn’t helpful. It was incomplete, and that had been a sticking point for me throughout the proceedings ─ there simply wasn’t enough information . . . too many unanswered questions.
The time line was again addressed, and we agreed more information was needed. At this point one of the people who had been a very strong advocate for a guilty verdict said he was beginning to understand what was meant by the burden of proof being on the prosecution, and that they hadn’t provided enough information to be certain. We all sort of looked at each other, and someone suggested taking a vote. It turned out ten for not guilty and two for guilty.
One lady said she was one of the yeses because she had doubts about the defendant’s guilt, but wasn’t sure if it was a reasonable doubt. Another juror asked her if she was 100% sure of the defendant’s guilt. She replied no, and he said that meant she had doubt, and if she wasn’t 100% sure, she should vote not guilty.
Immediately we took another secret ballot, and everyone held their breath. All twelve were ‘no’ votes.
We had a verdict.
The verdict form was filled out, and we called for the clerk. A few minutes later we were led into the courtroom for the final time. Since I was the foreman, I read the verdict.
Part 4 - The Verdict
Not guilty. On both counts.
The prosecutor asked that the juror be polled. Each member was asked individually if their decision was not guilty. Each said yes.
The judge told the defendant she was free to go. He thanked us for our service, and told us we were free to go. It was 4:30 p.m., six and a half stressful hours since deliberations began.
I’m sure the prosecution team was disappointed with the verdict. They’d undoubtedly spent countless hours preparing for the trial, and most likely believed the defendant was guilty as charged.
Throughout the trial it was apparent both lawyers had devoted a great deal of time, energy and thought to presenting their case. It wasn’t until I was on my way home that I realized how vigorously the defense lawyer had performed her job. It suddenly came to me that she had worked so hard because she truly believed in her client’s innocence.
So did I.
Note; Text copyright Bill Diller 2010