Thursday, September 27, 2012

Even better than Law & Order

It's time for a work story.

As some background, this was a criminal case. The two defendants are brothers (who I have affectionately nicknamed The Dumbass Brothers). They allegedly beat the crap out of some guy and stole a girl's purse. They also don't appear to have any sort of defense to these charges, but seem to be going with the "the other guy with us did it all" defense (never mind the whole concept of complicity...). They're represented by an attorney who...won't be winning any lawyer of the year awards anytime soon, if you know what I mean. He is also representing both of them, which is generally frowned upon in criminal cases due to the potential for conflicts of interest. This case is fairly old and has been running into delays for the past year. It finally (and shockingly) got to trial on Tuesday.

First of all, the defense attorney is not the type to go to trial, but he also wasn't accepting any plea deals. We don't plead on the day of trial. It costs a lot of money and ends up with a lot of pissed off jurors. Despite that, we all figured the defendants would walk in on Tuesday morning and take the prosecutor's latest offer. To their credit they didn't try to pull that.

The whole trial started to head south by about 8:00 A.M. Normally, jurors are a fairly timely bunch. By 8:00, we generally have around 10 people checked in. On Tuesday we had two. We also had three cops, three people with criminal convictions, five people who didn't return questionnaires, and a friend of the defense attorney on our list. This became a problem because we needed a minimum of 36 jurors to ensure we could get a panel with two alternates and still let both sides exercise the number of challenges they're allowed. We ended up with 32. I was in a tizzy about the jurors because a) they're my responsibility and b) my judge is a big-time stickler for punctuality on trial day, and with the lack of jurors, we were running late.Eventually, we realized we had no option but to go ahead with 32 and see what happened.

While jurors are filtering in, the attorneys took care of  some pretrial business. The defense attorney had never tried a case in front of my judge, and couldn't seem to grasp the way the judge does voir dire. The prosecutor mentioned a motion filed by the defense, which the defense attorney started arguing against. Which is usually fine, but in this case, the prosecutor agreed with what the defense said and was just bringing it to the judge's attention. The defense attorney asked about using a witness's criminal convictions. Like, he asked permission to do so. There is an evidence rule that explicitly allows what the attorney was asking for, and it's sort of a basic one you should know before trial. Based on what was going on in chambers, I was dreading how things were going to go in the courtroom.

Early on in voir dire, the judge has the attorneys introduce themselves and their clients, and read their witness lists. He then asks if anyone on the panel knows any of them. The number of hands that shot up on Tuesday almost gave me a heart attack (we're already short of jurors! We can't afford to strike six because they know people!). When the judge called on one younger guy, the day really fell to pieces.

This guy stands up and says, "Is one of you [the defendants] called [Ridiculous Nickname]?" Brother One says he is. The juror continues, "Ok. Well, my brother got this phone call the other day..." - at this point, I'm mentally screaming at the judge, "Shut him up. Shut him up! SHUT HIM UP!" but the judge didn't shut him up - "...and the guy who called said he knew I was going to be on this jury and that I'd better find [Ridiculous Nickname] not guilty or else... [I missed the actual threat. I was too busy yelling at the judge in my head]. He said he was a friend of [Ridiculous Nickname], and..." At this point, the judge finally stopped him. This guy just stood up in front of the whole entire jury pool and implicated the defendants in a jury tampering scheme. In front of the jury pool that was supposed to be fairly and impartially trying them on assault and robbery charges. Not cool.

After stopping the juror, everybody goes to sidebar where the juror talks a little bit more about this phone call his brother got, and the defense attorney asks for a mistrial because the jurors can't be fair and impartial now that they think the defendants are threatening other jurors to avoid a conviction. The prosecutor asked for individual voir dire instead, to see whether the juror's story had affected anyone else. The judge agrees.

I'd never done an individual voir dire before. It was a bit of a cluster, but not too big a deal. The judge would bring each person in individually and ask them if they heard was the juror said and if they thought they could disregard it and be impartial anyway. Then the attorneys got to ask questions. The prosecutor generally passed. For the first few, the defense attorney got up and said, "You heard [other juror] say..." and then recounted the guy's whole statement. This is bad because if the juror being questioned didn't hear or understand what the guy said, they've now been tainted by that information. After a couple, the judge put a stop to that. So instead, the defense attorney asks the juror what they heard, and then went into a line of questioning that started, "You agree with me that, if true, the things [other juror] said are a fairly serious matter, don't you?" Again with the reinforcing of the information and (probably) creating prejudice where there was none. After juror #13, the prosecutor finally asked for a mistrial. To be fair, we were getting to the point where we werent' going to have enough jurors to make up a complete panel. But no one wanted this trial continued. We were all ready to get it done and over with. That was not to be.

The judge then asked the defense attorney if he still wanted his motion for a mistrial, since it hadn't been ruled on yet. And the defense attorney decides he needs to go talk to his clients for 20 minutes before he answers. No one knows why. He came out and said he still wanted a mistrial, so the judge granted it. He and I then had to face a crowd of bored, listless jurors who had been waiting around for no reason. Sending a panel home without selecting a jury is always painful. The majority of the jurors get really pissed that they had to waste their time when the trial didn't even go forward. This was no exception.

I don't think my story really conveys the level of WTF-ness in the courtroom that day. I have never been involved in a trial like that before. It was just bizarre from beginning to (untimely) end. I was absolutely flabbergasted by the shenanigans. The worst part is, we have to try to do it all over again in a couple of months. At least it made for a memorable experience.

3 comments:

Tracy said...

Too funny (well, funny for me because this wasn't my day!)! At least there was no vigilante justice like there often is during Law and Order.

PinkieBling said...

This story is insane! I'm dying to know how the defendants and their buddies knew that guy had jury duty in the first place!

Doing My Best said...

Wow. I just...wow.