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.
Thank you, Beth, for doing these three blogs. I found your information informative and useful as every writer will. It was a interesting case and I’m glad you had cooperative and understanding peers.
I join Pat in thanking Beth for sharing her experience. We all should be grateful to our neighbors for their jury service. I have always come away, after a trial, impressed with the jurors’ attentiveness and determination to listen and make the best decision they can — even if I don’t agree with it!
Thanks, Beth and Leslie, for sharing this educational series.
I never knew juries could question the judge and attorneys afterward about why certain evidence was missing/withheld. That must have answered many of your nagging questions, but fortunately didn’t change the verdict.
That concept gave me an idea for a story–what if jury members were not allowed to hear certain evidence until after the verdict? Then they learned about inadmissible evidence that would have changed their verdict, had they known about it. In a murder case, the ramifications could be huge. Leslie, I’m guessing that’s where the appeal process comes into play?
Thanks again, ladies, for a fascinating look behind the scenes.
Debbie, the state (the prosecution) can’t appeal an acquittal by itself, but can appeal an evidentiary ruling — that is, the judge’s decision to exclude evidence. If the appeals court finds “reversible error,” the case could be sent back for retrial, with the trial judge ordered to admit the evidence, or in some cases, to re-evaluate whether it should be excluded or admitted. So, yes, there’s the possibility of a retrial with the previously excluded evidence. Of course, a 2d jury might not view it the same way as your hypothetical jurors. Another story option: a juror joins a crime victim or a victim’s family in some kind of revenge or vigilante justice … .
Lawyers routinely talk to jurors after the trial as well — although most judges do tell the jurors they don’t have to talk to us if they’d prefer not to.
Thanks for your comments, Pat and Debbie, and thanks for having me, Leslie! Debbie, I hope you’ll pursue your story idea–could be interesting.
Thanks to YOU, Beth!