Saturday, August 26, 2006

About that Trial ...

I promised when last I wrote to write about my jury duty experience, but I'll warn you now, it isn't very dramatic. At best, I can offer that it was a criminal trial, but it was a lowly misdemeanor, albeit one that falls in the pet peeves department. It's a long story, which I'll trim to the important parts.

This Story is About Taking Responsibility

The accused was charged with leaving the scene of an accident, and I was one of seven jurors chosen to hear the case. The trial started at about 9 AM Wednesday morning, and the opening statements from both sides left me about neutral, a good place to be as a juror.

The first witness for the prosecution was the victim, a young black man who just happened to be an auto body mechanic. Bad luck for the defendant, there. The witness first advised us he was there because he was ordered to be there; he had no particular animosity against the defendant. The reason for this came clear a little while later.

The victim had been stopped in traffic at a traffic light, and felt his car rear-ended. He looked in his mirror, saw the defendant, stepped out of his car and, looking the defendant in the eye, he signaled for the defendant to pull into a neighboring parking lot. The victim then returned to his car and pulled into the parking lot. Rather than follow, the defendant proceeded down the road.

The victim quickly re-entered traffic behind the defendant, called 911, and described the offending vehicle and the tag number. He was then told to return to the scene of the accident. The victim returned to meet with a state trooper.

Technology Makes the Job Easier

The trooper used his onboard computer to look up the car, and from that, the owner of the car. The computer displayed the driver's license picture of the owner, whom the victim identified as the driver of the car.

Of course, the defense had to have their say, and they went after the physical proof of damage: which was nonexistent. The victim had called the defendant's insurance company (number provided by the trooper), and an insurance adjuster came out to check the damage. The adjuster offered the victim $48 for the repair - about an hour's labor. As I mentioned, the victim was an auto body mechanic and knew the damage would cost more to repair, so he asked a co-worker to prepare an estimate. The estimate from his co-worker came to over $1,000... but he'd lost the estimate when he later left the employ of that company (he thought he might have thrown it out with other papers from the company).

Further, the victim had been in the process of trying to trade-in the vehicle for another, and succeeded to do so roughly a week after the accident. So, the victim did not have the car, or proof the accident had occurred - except for the testimony of the trooper, who came up next.

He Should Know, He Sees It Everyday
The trooper indicated he saw the damage, believed it to be new damage (no dirt or rust), then went on to describe how he apprehended the defendant. It appears the defendant wasn't home, but a neighbor indicated the defendant frequented a local bar, where the trooper caught up with him. The trooper brought the defendant outside and asked about the accident. He said the defendant denied being in an accident, and showed the trooper where no damage had existed on the car. The defendant persisted in denying involvement, claimed he'd been there a couple of hours (the accident had occurred maybe 1 and 3/4 hours earlier), and the trooper arrested him.

A third witness, a bartender at the bar, recognized the defendant as a regular patron who had been in the bar maybe an hour and a half before the trooper arrived.

Bad Move for the Defense

Next came the defense's turn, and they had only one witness: the defendant. He took the stand on his own behalf, and described the events of the day. What we found most important was that the defendant was very detailed about everything except his interview with the trooper, when he suddenly could not recall the specific events of the discussion. We also noticed that his activities would have put him at the scene of the accident at nearly the right time, if you allowed fudging with the timeline (and no one except the trooper had an accurate timeline of their events). Finally, the defense offered into evidence photos of the defendant's car, as the defendant boasted of its pristine condition (a nicely kept 15+ year old car).

After closing arguments, six of us were allowed to go to the jury room; the seventh was our mystery alternate, who was visibly disappointed at not getting to deliberate.

A Nice Way to Top Off a Nice Trial

Through fate, and maybe a little excitement, the jury decided to let me be the foreperson. Before we took our first vote, we passed around the pictures of the defendant's car. Then came the first ballot:

"All who believe the defendant's guilty, raise your hand!" No wimpy secret ballot for THIS jury. Five hands went in the air - and I was the lone holdout. "Convince me," I said.

They did. I had a crazy theory that it was possible the victim had setup the defendant, and without physical evidence, we couldn't convict. They saw it another way. My theory, while possible, wasn't plausible. The two had never met; there was no reason to believe the defendant had any money, or even insurance, at the time; and the rest of the story fit the victim's claim. I again looked at the pictures... and you know, that front bumper DID look out of alignment with the rest of the body. You couldn't tell at a casual glance, but that car HAD been in an accident at some point.

I gave in, and signed the paper. My first jury had convicted its first criminal.

We never did find out what the sentence was, but I wouldn't have passed on the experience for anything. Lunch time!

An Aside

By the way, a couple of notes: first, I have found a new job, which I'll write about a little later, and yes, I'm still collecting news at Your World News. I hope you'll come visiting.

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