Don’t ignore that jury summons!

medium_5938168933A judge in western Montana got a little annoyed last week when twelve of 48 potential jurors summoned for a trial failed to show up or contact the court to explain why they should be excused. Another dozen did contact the court, leaving only 24 potential jurors. As the Missoulian reports, Judge Jim Manley then ordered the twelve to contact the court, provide their explanations, and write letters of apology. Five complied immediately; seven presented their excuses in person—he accepted three, but held the other four in contempt, with their $100 fines waived if they write an apology.

The judge’s comments—he’s a personal friend whose work as a lawyer I admired long before he took the bench last year—focus on the importance of jury trials, how revolutionary our system was when established over 200 years ago, and how it depends on each of us to function in a way that serves and protects each of us. Worth reading—for your fiction and your role as a citizen.

Three Days on a Jury — Beth Groundwater: Day Three

Mystery writer Beth Groundwater continues her report on serving on a jury in Colorado. Here’s Day One and Day Two. 

Three Days on a Jury: Day Three

Yesterday and the day before, I described the first two days of my recent wonderful (for a mystery author) experience of serving on a jury for a three-day criminal trial. I’ll finish that story today by describing the last day, including jury deliberation.

Throughout the three days, I had a chance to get to know the other members of the jury, which consisted of six women and six men. There were many times during the trial when were waiting in the jury room to be called into the courtroom. Since we were not allowed to discuss the case, we talked about other things, including the Waldo Canyon fire that was in the process of destroying the homes of three of my friends in Colorado Springs. Jury members ranged from young people just out of college or still in college to retirees. Many were missing work to serve, but all seemed to take the responsibility very seriously. Many asked me what being an author was like. One of the retirees who was an avid mystery reader even ended up buying one of my mystery novels from me!

We had one of those long delays when we showed up the third morning, spending over an hour in the jury room while the judge and attorneys wrangled over motions and the wording of the jury instructions, which had to be reprinted and copied for us. Finally, we were led into the courtroom by the bailiff, and the judge apologized to us for keeping us waiting so long. We heard the prosecution’s closing statement, the defense’s closing statement, and the prosecution’s rebuttal.

Then, the judge read the jury instructions to us as we followed along with our copies. Each of the six counts was explained, with the elements that needed to be proven to show guilt. Also, we were reminded to disregard any testimony that had been objected to and sustained. We were reminded by the judge to not use the prior victim’s testimony to judge the defendant’s character or to prove guilt in the current case, and to only to look for similar patterns of behavior. There were more instructions, some of which I think were related to rulings made prior to or during the case in response to motions made by the defense attorney.

We finally were dismissed to the jury room about 11:30 AM and were told by the bailiff that if we thought we would be deliberating for awhile, we could order lunch. We briefly discussed who should be foreman and chose one of the three people (including me) who had managerial experience–who happened to be in the bathroom at the time. 🙂 We gave him the opportunity to back out, but he didn’t mind taking on the responsibility. Then he led us into making our first unanimous decision–we wanted lunch brought in!

We spent a total of three hours in deliberation, discussing and voting on each charge. The only charge in which the first vote was unanimous was the marijuana possession charge, because it was so clear-cut. However, we all felt we were missing some pieces of evidence for the other charges. Where was the medical record of the victim’s treatment at the emergency room that night? Where was the victim’s cell phone record, which would have had the times of her text messages to her roommates from the bar, and most importantly from the bus on her way home from the bar? Where was the missing broken laptop and why wasn’t it photographed that night?

Ultimately, we voted guilty on the charges of assault, theft, and marijuana possession. We voted guilty to a step-down charge of criminal mischief, choosing the charge of under $1,000 of damage versus between $1,000 and $20,000. This was because we had a clear record of the window replacement cost (under $1,000), but no idea of the computer cost or if it indeed had actually been broken. We voted innocent on the false imprisonment charge, because we felt that even though the victim’s coat was stolen, there were blankets and other clothes in the house and other homes were nearby that she could have stumbled to. And, in the victim’s statement to the police, she never specifically said she tried to get away during the assault and he prevented her.

We couldn’t decide on one charge, disruption of telephone service, which in all likelihood was the least important one. We discussed it for well over an hour. Some people thought the cell phone could have easily been left by the drunk victim at the bar or on the bus, and since it was never found on the defendant, there was no clear case that it was stolen. Even though she said “he took my phone” to the police and her roommates, she may have assumed it was in a pocket of the coat that he took (and he may have assumed that, too).

We sent a question to the judge through the bailiff asking what would happen if we could make up our mind on five counts but were hung on one. The judge had us brought back into the courtroom to tell us that we were to try our best to reach unanimous agreement on all the charges. She read us our job description as a jury, then sent us back into the jury room to try harder. She did explain that the whole case would not be thrown out, only that one charge, and that the DA would have the option of retrying the defendant on that one charge.

After further discussion, we all agreed to remain hung on that charge, then the foreman filled out all the paperwork. We filed back into the courtroom, the foreman gave the paperwork to the bailiff, and the judge read out our decisions. Needless to say, neither the defendant nor the victim, who was in the courtroom, was happy with the outcome. But, everyone on the jury felt satisfied that we had reached a just and fair decision.

We were dismissed to the jury room while the judge set a sentencing date, then she came in to thank us for our service and hand out certificates. She also said she would try to answer any questions we had. Of course, we asked about the missing evidence we would like to have seen. She said that she had ruled that the medical record was inadmissible because the DA’s office didn’t get a copy from the hospital in time for the defense attorney to study it and prepare a proper defense. But, juries can’t be told why they aren’t seeing certain evidence. They have to make their decision just on what’s presented in the trial.

Later, when the attorneys from both sides came in to speak to us, we asked one of the Asst. DA’s about the missing phone record. She said that those are often only kept for a month, and they hadn’t gotten the request in on time. They are busy preparing for two murder trials (murder is a very rare occurrence in Summit County), and their resources are stretched thin as a result. They never know what minor cases are going to go to trial, so they often don’t start investigations right away, waiting first to see if the accused will plead guilty or take a deal.

I understand that the police and members of the DA’s office are people and people make mistakes, so no case is going to be perfectly open-and-shut. And this one did have some holes. However, I have no reasonable doubt that the defendant assaulted his girlfriend.

Being able to ask the judge and the attorneys any questions we wanted made the experience much more valuable for me, and I think it helped all of the jury members understand the legal process much better. I was gratified that there were no “poison personalities” on the jury and that we all respected each others’ opinions and were able to discuss our views openly. This was a case of the process working!

***

Beth Groundwater writes the Claire Hanover gift basket designer series (A REAL BASKET CASE, a Best First Novel Agatha Award finalist, and TO HELL IN A HANDBASKET) and the Rocky Mountain Outdoor Adventures series starring whitewater river ranger Mandy Tanner (DEADLY CURRENTS and WICKED EDDIES). The third books in both series will appear in 2013. Beth enjoys Colorado’s many outdoor activities, including skiing and whitewater rafting, and loves talking to book clubs.

Three Days on a Jury — Beth Groundwater: Day Two

Today, my guest mystery writer Beth Groundwater continues her report on serving on a jury in Colorado. Here’s her account of Day One.  

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Three Days on Jury: Day Two

Yesterday, I began telling the story of my recent wonderful (for a mystery author) experience of serving on a jury for a criminal trial. I’ll continue that story with a description of the second day of the trial today, then conclude tomorrow with the last day of the trial, including the jury deliberation. The six charges we were to decide on included: assault in the third degree, criminal mischief (vandalism), theft, disruption of telephone service, false imprisonment, and marijuana possession.

Over the course of the second day of the trial, we heard from the prosecution’s remaining witnesses. These included the victim’s two housemates who found her and called for police and an ambulance. Both of their stories supported the responding police officer’s version of events. Also, the officers who arrested the defendant the day after the alleged assault were called to testify that they found marijuana and a pipe in his backpack. They also said the defendant claimed that the victim hit him on the head with a wine bottle and attacked him with a staple gun during the fight. And, we heard from the owner of the house how much it cost to fix the window.

One witness was a woman who had been attacked by the defendant in the past. We were instructed by the judge to not use her testimony to judge the defendant’s character or to prove guilt in the current case. We were only to look for similar patterns of behavior. And the pattern was eerily similar, both in the method of attack (punching her in the face to get her on the floor and repeatedly kicking her) and taking away the means to call or go for help (in this other case, by throwing the victim’s cell phone, car keys, and winter coat onto the roof of the condo complex). We were not told during the trial that the defendant served a three year prison term for this attack, but we learned that later after the trial from the judge.

The last witness was a psychologist who is an expert in domestic abuse. She testified for a very long time after her expertise was established. She did not know the details of this case, but she discussed domestic abuse cases in general. Domestic abuse can only occurs between two people who have an intimate (sexual) relationship, so does not include abuse between people who may be related or share a home, but don’t have an intimate relationship.

The expert explained the cycle of domestic abuse (four stages: escalating tension, attack, honeymoon period, relative calm) that repeats over and over again. She also said that victims often recant their story because they want the abuse to end, not the relationship. And, she said that victims who are under stress and in pain right after the attack are likely telling the truth then because they’ve had neither the wits nor time to construct a plausible story.

Throughout the second day, the defense attorney poked away at the prosecution’s case, showing where evidence was not collected (eg. the broken laptop, which disappeared later), where police records were incomplete or confusing (the amount of marijuana was recorded in grams in one place and ounces in another), etc. She also chipped away at the reliability of the witnesses, particularly the victim, and of the housemates, who later had arguments with the victim and were no longer friends of hers.

The prosecution rested their case late in the afternoon, and the defense called no witnesses. Again, the judge told us this was not required or needed. We were dismissed for the day, admonished again not to discuss or research the case, and told to report back the next morning for closing statements and deliberation.

***

Beth Groundwater writes the Claire Hanover gift basket designer series (A REAL BASKET CASE, a Best First Novel Agatha Award finalist, and TO HELL IN A HANDBASKET) and the Rocky Mountain Outdoor Adventures series starring whitewater river ranger Mandy Tanner (DEADLY CURRENTS and WICKED EDDIES). The third books in both series will appear in 2013. Beth enjoys Colorado’s many outdoor activities, including skiing and whitewater rafting, and loves talking to book clubs.  TO HELL IN A HANDBASKET will be re-released in trade pb and ebook on November 8th. You can find Beth online here.

(These posts originally appeared on Beth’s own blog.)

Three Days on a Jury — Beth Groundwater reports

My guest today, and for the next two weeks, is mystery writer Beth Groundwater. Earlier this year, Beth served on a jury in Colorado–an experience I’m not likely to have, at least while I’m still practicing–and shares her experience with us. 

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Three Days on a Jury: Day One

Recently I had the wonderful (for a mystery author) experience of serving on a jury for a criminal trial. The three-day experience gave me an inside look at the Summit County, Colorado, criminal justice system, and at the lives and tribulations of what my mother would call “not our kind of people.” I’m going to blog about my experience today and the next two days, so I can share some of what I learned with other mystery authors and with mystery readers. I hope you find my experience as interesting as I did!

The trial was a case of domestic abuse (the local newspaper article if you want to read the verdict now is here.) About three weeks prior, I received a jury summons to show up at the Summit County Justice Center on Tuesday June 26th, at 9:30 AM. After checking in and waiting for another twenty minutes or so, those of us who responded to the summons were all ushered into a courtroom. The judge informed us that 90 people had been summoned and 37 had shown up. She was not pleased.

Then she went through a list of reasons why someone could be excused–doesn’t live in the county anymore (a few college students who were still away for summer classes fit this category), taking care of a disabled person, etc. Then she said the case involved domestic abuse and asked if anyone felt they could not be impartial in such a case. A few hands went up, mostly women, and she asked those people to discuss why with her privately in her chambers. Most were excused. That left just over thirty of us in the room.

Then twenty-two names were called for people to come forward and sit in the jury box. I was thrilled when I was one of them, and I began thinking that maybe I would actually get a chance to serve. The prosecution and defense could each choose five jurors to dismiss, and the remaining twelve would serve. Next, each juror answered a standard set of questions, such as which town we lived in and for how long, if we were married or had children, our occupation and those of our spouse, children and parents, if we knew anyone in law enforcement, our hobbies, sports and interests, what we liked to read and watch on TV, and what sites we visited on the Internet. The judge usually had at least one clarification question for each juror, expounding on anything that might show a preconceived bias.

Then the prosecution (two Assistant District Attorneys working together) and defense (a paid versus court-appointed lawyer) had about a half hour each to question the jury as a whole on issues or jury members in particular about their background or views. One of the Asst. DAs knew my name and about my RM Outdoor Adventure mystery series, but he was surprised that Beth Groundwater was my real name, not a pen name. I was asked WHY I wrote mystery novels, probably to see if I had any bias for or against cops or criminals or if I had preconceived notions of justice. I answered that I had tried other genres, but that mystery felt most comfortable for me, probably because I was a puzzle person.

When one man, who had previous experience with domestic abuse, said he was very interested in serving on the jury, one of the Asst. DAs asked almost in jest if anyone else really wanted to serve. I deliberately did not raise my hand, because I did not want to appear overeager. That man was dismissed from the jury, but I was not. One interesting question we were asked by the Asst. DAs was what our reaction would be if they brought forward a witness that they were pretty sure would lie to us.  There were some “Huh?” looks from some jurors at that point, as we wondered why they would call a witness they expected to lie on the stand. We found out later!

Since we’re a low-population county, quite a few people knew law enforcement personnel or members of the court system. Also, one man’s sister had been a victim of domestic abuse. As I listened to these other jurors, I thought, okay that person will be dismissed over me. And that proved to be the case. The defense and prosecution had more compelling reasons to dismiss ten other jurors, and at the end of the voir dire (jury selection) process, I was still in the box!

We were sworn in, admonished not to discuss the case with each other or other people, not to do any research related to the case, and dismissed for lunch. After lunch, the trial began and the prosecution presented their opening statement. There was no opening statement from the defense, and the judge instructed us that the defense is not required to provide an opening or closing statement, or call any witnesses or present any evidence. Nor is the defendant required to testify. The onus of proof is on the prosecution (the defendant is presumed innocent before proven guilty), and the defense doesn’t have to prove anything.

We heard testimony first from the police officer who arrived on the scene after 911 was called by two of the victim’s housemates who came home one night in December, 2011 to find her laying in a fetal position on the sofa. The story that the victim told her roommates and the officer was that she and her boyfriend were drinking at a bar and got into an argument there. He returned to her place and waited for her while she finished her beer. When she got home, the argument began again and got physical. He punched her in the face and repeatedly kicked her, threw a skateboard through her bedroom window, broke her laptop computer, and stole her cell phone and winter coat so she could not call or go for help (the house had no land-line). The police officer had taken photos of the victim’s bruised face, the broken window, etc. and these were entered as evidence.

Then, the victim got on the stand and told a completely different story. She couldn’t remember what she said to the police officer, claimed that she bruised her own face by tripping and falling on the stairs, and that during the argument she threw her own laptop computer through the window. Even when pressured by the prosecutor, who repeated statements she made to the police officer and which he recorded in his report, the victim stuck with her story. When asked by the prosecution if she still loved the defendant, she said that yes, she still cared for him and wanted to be with him, but was prevented from being with him (we later found out, by court order).

I went home that afternoon thinking, well THAT was interesting! I had many, many unanswered questions from the conflicting accounts of what happened.

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Beth Groundwater writes the Claire Hanover gift basket designer series (A REAL BASKET CASE, a Best First Novel Agatha Award finalist, and TO HELL IN A HANDBASKET) and the Rocky Mountain Outdoor Adventures series starring whitewater river ranger Mandy Tanner (DEADLY CURRENTS and WICKED EDDIES). The third books in both series will appear in 2013. Beth enjoys Colorado’s many outdoor activities, including skiing and whitewater rafting, and loves talking to book clubs.  TO HELL IN A HANDBASKET will be re-released in trade pb and ebook on November 8th. You can find Beth online here.

(These posts originally appeared on Beth’s own blog.)