So, finally, we arrive at the point in jury duty where the lawyers start talking. And talking and talking and talking until you could grab your hair and slowly pull it to see if you can split your scalp in half and peel your face down to your collarbone.
Because that would be less painful.
I’m not a big fan of attorneys, unless they’re being played by James Spader on “Boston Legal,” which qualifies as soft porn in my book (I’ve told my husband I’d leave him for James, and he’s cool with that), and here I was, held hostage with two. And, they were going to talk me to death. Worse yet, I couldn’t just space out and pretend it was the world’s longest pap smear exam or fantasize about strangling myself with the court reporter’s power cord, because I needed to pay attention. A person’s life hung in the balance.
Much as I am loathe to admit it, I was actually quite impressed with the prosecutor, Yolo County deputy district attorney Amanda Zambor. Smart as a whip, that one. No nonsense, well-prepared, and able to stride powerfully through that courtroom on stiletto heels. Me, I’d have broken both ankles just standing up. I heard one juror ask during a break, “How does she do that?”
“What, put up with the defense attorney’s endless objections?”
“No, walk on those shoes!”
Folks, those shoes are made for the same kind of walkin’ as Nancy Sinatra’s boots. That said, the defense attorney (who shall remain nameless because attorneys sue people for recreation) did everything he could to trip her. A master of obfuscation with a penchant for drama, in his attempt to manipulate emotions and stupefy with repetitive, pointless micro-examination of irrelevant minutiae, he unwittingly took 12 disparate people and melded them into one.
When we went into deliberations and were finally released from our restriction on discussing the trial, collective exasperation burst out over the colossal amount of time wasted by the defense attorney, as well as his transparent attempts to manipulate us. A mere 10 minutes in, and we’d reached our first unanimous decision: The defense attorney was guilty of timeslaughter in the first degree.
As we dug into the case, I anticipated endless whirlpools of inanity, but discovered that my bitterness over having my life forcibly upended for two weeks had contaminated my opinion of the other jurors. They were actually pretty cool. Probably because they were just like me: not interested in — or persuaded by — drama. Just the facts. Discarding all the distractions, we methodically lined up the evidence on the chalkboard.
We didn’t have much to work with, however, because the witnesses were evasive and pathetically dishonest, rendering much of their testimony useless. In the end, one tiny piece of evidence became the key: a particular bandana that only someone at the scene of the crime could have described, and apparently a detail so minor, the witnesses didn’t think to lie about it.
Having placed the defendant at the scene of the crime, the question remained: was he the one holding the gun? In our deliberations packet was a section on “aiding and abetting,” where a person can be guilty of a crime whether or not she or he performed the actual act. She or he only had to assist in some fashion. So, he was there, and it didn’t matter if he was holding the gun or driving the getaway car. Under “aiding and abetting,” he was guilty.
We were in agreement on that, but wanted to be sure we weren’t misunderstanding “aiding and abetting,” and asked for clarification. The response was “read the section on aiding and abetting.” Which we’d done, several times. So, we agreed, point by point, that the defendant was guilty. But there was palpable uneasiness in the air. A person’s life was about to be hugely impacted by our decision. What if we’d misinterpreted the law?
As we returned to the courtroom with our verdict, I thought about the circumstances of the incident. All involved — plaintiff, defendant and witnesses — live in an economically depressed, crime-ridden, hopeless world. Their life experiences are not the same as mine, or most anyone I know, quite frankly. I have not walked a mile in their shoes. Was this jury truly “of one’s peers”? This mostly white, middle class, well-educated and relatively privileged bunch? Hardly. Yet, I believe we were fair and diligent, and accurate in the “what” of the crime. But the “how” and the “why.” That’s a much thornier topic.
For one thing, the plaintiff wasn’t an innocent victim. If he hadn’t been selling pot, he wouldn’t have gotten shot. Were this a car accident, the insurance company would divvy up responsibility between the drivers. But that doesn’t happen in a courtroom.
All involved were teenagers at the time of the crime — young, stupid and impulsive. Add to that an environment that never gave them a break or a reason to hope or to aim high in life. They did what people do in their world to get by: buy and sell drugs. On the surface, they were nice-looking, average kids. Had those same kids grown up in Davis, none of us would even be there.
Yes, on close examination, the defendant was guilty. But when I pulled back to consider the larger panorama, like when you zoom out of Google maps, the picture looked quite different. Can you really be guilty when life hasn’t taught you anything else?
As the judge ticked through the counts, with each proclamation of “Guilty,” the defendant’s mother choked out a soft, weepy gasp. What was her world like? Not like mine, for sure. And all for sheer luck of the draw. Her emotion and the weight of the decision pinched me. I found myself stifling tears. I knew we’d made the best decision we could with what we had to work with. Justice had been served. So, why did it feel so awful?