Thursday, July 18, 2013

Have a cup of coffee and settle in for a story...

The defendant wants to hide the truth because he's generally guilty. The defense attorney's job is to make sure the jury does not arrive at that truth.

Alan Dershowitz

This week, I had first-hand knowledge of that idea.  I served three days on a Petit Jury in a criminal case that could have just as easily been decided by a team of monkeys.  But, it's our system and I'm proud of it.

Even though I have been a registered voter for 37 years, this week was only the second time I have been selected to serve on a jury. Like many others, my immediate thought was, "How do I get out of this?"  However, my inner voice said, "If you were on trial, wouldn't you want someone like me on the jury?"  My answer was, "yes," and so I proceeded to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

The selection process was interesting.  Approximately 75 of us gathered in the courtroom, and the judge randomly called numbers corresponding to our assigned positions.  One by one, my fellow selectees filled the 14 jury chairs.

The case was over bad checks.  The amount of $1,875 seemed insignificant enough to not warrant criminal case treatment, but there it was. We were given a questionnaire of some 25 items that we were asked to circle "yes" answers.  Prospective jurors were quickly dispensed once they were determined to have done business with the prosecuting bank.  Others seemed to have gathered that being associated with this bank would get them off jury duty, so they (in my opinion) made a point of being associated with that bank - to the end of being dismissed.  One prospective juror claimed to be ADHD and would have trouble concentrating on the trial.  He was not dismissed until he later admitted to believing a police officer's testimony over another.  His first attempt failed, but he ultimately achieved his goal of being eliminated.

After a few prospective jurors had been dismissed, my name was called.  I took my seat as Juror Number Six and answered the judge's questions:

What kind of work do you do?
I work for South Jersey Gas Company with our leak surveyors.
What is your educational background?
I have a Bachelor's Degree in Accounting from Widener University.
What are your favorite TV shows? (yes, they asked us that)
"Parks and Recreation" and "The Late, Late Show with Craig Ferguson."
Do you belong to any clubs or organizations?
Yes. I am a member at River Winds Community Center in West Deptford.
How do you get your news?
I read The Philadelphia Inquirer every day.
Would you believe the opinion of a police officer over another witness?
Did you circle "yes" to any of the questions?
Yes.  I circled yes to question 18.  (Question 18 was if I had been convicted of anything more than a minor traffic offense)  I have been convicted of a DUI in 2001.
Would that sway your opinion in this case?
No - I was guilty.
Do you think you would make a good juror?
Because I am open-minded and I think I would work well with my fellow jurors when we went into deliberation.
What is your opinion of the idea that a defendant is presumed innocent until proven guilty?
We are entitled to face our accuser and have proof of those accusations presented before we are convicted.

OK - in fairness, I had heard that last question asked several times before and had formulated an answer - but it is nonetheless true.
I guessed they asked us our favorite TV shows because they wanted to know about or attitudes.  Many prospective jurors said their favorites were law-based shows, CSI and those who said they received their news from Fox News were also dismissed.

So, there I was - in Juror Seat 6.  As other prospective jurors were admitted and dismissed (either by the defense attorney or the State) I waited for my liberal viewpoint to be viewed as a detriment to the case and hear my number called as "Juror number six is thanked and dismissed," but I never heard it.  One who said he was a member of the NRA was dismissed and others who said that a police officer's opinion should be valued over others were - but there I sat.  And there I would sit, through several dismissals - seemingly for color, race or some other obscure reason that either attorney found to be relevant, or just for spite.  Eventually (after a few hours) we had assembled a 14-member jury of the defendant's peers.  Lucky for him, I guessed.

The state had their case that he had passed $2,475 worth of bad checks and the defendant had his case that was supposed to cast reasonable doubt in our minds.

The case (in brief) involved the defendant opening a checking account with 5 dollars (in August 2011) and subsequently cashing two checks in the amount of $2,475 two days later, one of which was drawn from an account of his with another financial institution, and subesquently withdrawing $100 and later, another $1,875.  Our job as jurors was to determine whether the defendant cashed those checks knowing that there was insufficient funds, after withdrawing the money within a 2-day period.  One of them was drawn from a Merrill Lynch account in his name.  I don't know about you, but I know how much money is in every one of my accounts (usually near zero) and I wouldn't try to cash a check for more than I knew was in the account.

In the jury's opinion, he took advantage of the bank's "float" period and deposited and withdrew money within the two-day float period knowing that there was insufficent funds in the account.  In a way, it's creative accounting, but in the legal sense, it's fraud.  He got high marks from me for being thoughful, at least.

The smoking gun was an agreement that he signed with the bank to repay the money in January 2013 (why it took so long was undisclosed).  As of today, only $100 was repaid to the bank.  The agreement was for $400 a month to be repaid until the balance was reconciled.  Who has $400 every month to repay?  There is no crime in being poor - but there is a crime in being dishonest.

Circumstantial, as well as direct evidence pointed to his guilt.

We had checks made out to him in his handwriting, signed by him and bank deposit slips and coordinated bank photos of his activities. In addition, a letter of inquiry to his address had been returned un-delivered and a call to his phone had gone un-answered. The bank had attempted to contact him on two separate occasions.  Only after it appeared that he would be facing criminal charges did he accept a repayment agreement.  That agreement was left unpaid after January 2013. Everything pointed to outright fraud and the defendant willingly cashing checks on bad accounts.  Oh - did I mention that both checks that were deposited were on closed accounts?  Yes.

And, who opens a checking account with five dollars?  Somebody who intends to use that account for something besides checking, I'd think. There were no other transactions other than the 2 checks deposited.  For the record, I was the only juror who found that to be odd behavior, but I digress.

The trial itself was an interesting experience.  For those of you who enjoy legal TV shows, I'd have to guess that there is a lot of stuff that is cut out.  This was not a high-profile case, and it was interrupted several times by objections, sidebars and motions.  The motions kept us in the jury deliberation room for the better part of a half day.  My guess is that the witnesses for the prosecution were being debated, and eventually disallowed, since the State did not present any material witnesses.

So, there it was.  The case before us.  The defense attorney (who I thought was a Court-appointed attorney due to her apparent inexperience) tried to cast the reasonable doubt specter over us, because that's all she had - and the State's attorney (who I also suspected to be a rookie due to the monetary amount) presented a flawed but yet air-tight case that left something to the imagination.  In the end, we were left with no other verdict to arrive at, given the evidence presented.

Guilty.  None of the members of the jury disagreed in a private vote.

I felt badly for the guy.  First, because I was one of 12 jurors (2 alternates) who had no reasonable doubt as to his guilt, and partly because I was partly responsible for him either being sent to jail or made to make restitution plus damages.  The case seemed, from a monetary standpoint, to be minor; but even though it was less than $2,000, banks have to protect their deposits, or else the whole system goes down the drain.

In the end, the system worked.  They assembled twelve people at random, screened-out the ones who did not want to be there (I wouldn't want them either) and wound up with jurors who were genuinely concerned with justice.  That's how it is supposed to work.
Regardless of the necessity of the attorney's motions or the delays involved, our relative inconvenience was minor compared to that of the defendant.  This was the most important thing going on in his life at this time, and we were entitled to treat it as such.  That fact should not be overlooked.  It is his time that we should consider - which is why I never think that "It could be worse" when I read about someone with some problem.  Their problems are their problems, and it is the focus of their life.  (Maybe that should have been my answer as to why I would make a good juror?)

We spent about an hour deliberating - mostly because we had nothing to deliberate, and partly because the case deserved some discussion.  In criminal cases, we are only allowed to consider "reasonable doubt," and the case did not allow us to consider that, as much as the defense attorney tried to place reasonable doubt in our minds.  Was the bank's witness credible?  Were the photos relevant? (they were not) Did the defendant know how much was in each account? (One was in his name, so yes) She objected and side barred every possible point that would point to the defendant's guilt. (Oh my God - the side bar's)  I'd guess that TV shows that depict legal proceedings eliminate the sidebars.  Some of them disrupt the flow of the argument - which I suppose is the point.  Others just dismiss us for a few hours until the "adults" can discuss the case without the children (jurors) present.

A matter of less than $2,000 that could have easily been settled out of court had now been settled by a jury.  Either because the defendant believed that a jury of his peers would find him not guilty or because the defendant did not have the ability to repay the money.  Either way, he is probably facing some jail time.  I have no way of knowing that, since we were dismissed before the judge passed sentence.

Somehow, I feel unfulfilled.

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