The Justice System at Work

I’m going to continue with my (hopefully brief) departure from my life story, by sharing about something that’s been happening in the here and now.

sgt-guilbault-taser-x2A month ago or so, I received a summons from the Pierce County court system, my fourth in 20 years, to report for jury duty. I reported to the courthouse in Tacoma, as summoned, last Tuesday (as Monday was the MLK holiday).

Though this is my fourth summons, until now I had never yet been actually selected to sit on a jury. The way the system works is that the county sends a summons to about 3,500 people (according to what a staffer told another juror), and from that about 10% responded to the summons by showing up. (Many others, like my wife, I’m sure give valid reasons why they can’t come, and others yet probably don’t respond at all. Others have asked whether there is a penalty for not responding. I’ve never not responded, so I don’t know from personal experience; but based on what I’ve heard the staff say, I doubt it. I think this is mostly a matter of your citizen duty and personal conscience.)

So on Tuesday we had about 350 potential jurors assembled, in or near a space designed to hold half that many. At times they overflowed us to the hallway or to courtrooms, while we received instructions or waited to be assigned to a jury pool.

This many jurors is obviously way too many for the number of court cases on hand (I’d say they might actually require the services of about 80 or 90 jurors), so this means a lot of people don’t get placed either on a jury pool, or if they make it to a pool, they don’t get selected for whatever reasons. This has happened each time I’ve been summoned, which leads me to believe there is a little inefficiency in the system … they are paying potential or assigned jurors $10 per day plus mileage, and also wasting a lot of time for potential jurors who do not get called. But perhaps the safety margin is worth the waste, I’m not sure.

The Selection Process

Twice in my past experience I’ve been dismissed before I made it onto a jury pool. On the experience before this week’s, about a year ago, I got seated on two pools. The lawyers eliminated me for one criminal trial (during the “du joir” interview process), I think either because I support (as a gun owner) the second amendment, or else because I am married to a school employee. The case involved a gun rights enthusiast who shot at some public school employees, supposedly mistaking them for a woman who he said had stolen a firearm from him. Actually I think he was probably just crazy.

I was eliminated from the other case because I had a high number. They will select 60 or 70 potential jurors, then typically draw their jury from among the first 30 candidates.

This is also what happened last week, for the first pool I was assigned to. It was a civil case involving a young woman and her brother. She was crossing in a school crosswalk at night when she was struck by a vehicle driven by a woman who admitted negligence but blamed the county for inadequate lighting. The woman struck was severely injured (her hair got caught in the axle and her scalp torn off … ouch!) and her brother also claimed to be traumatized by seeing the accident. Both were asking for millions of dollars, suing both the woman who ran them over and Kitsap County. I was potential juror #37. No jurors higher than #26 were selected, and so back to the jury waiting room the rest of us went. (I was glad, because that particular trial was supposed to last for several weeks, and we were warned we would be presented with evidence that might be disturbing.)

The next pool I was assigned to, I had a lower number, #20. Ten of the potential jurors before me were eliminated during the interview process, which made me juror #10 out of 12. I actually wanted to be on this criminal case, mainly because I had spent all this time waiting and had never had a jury experience before. Some before me I think wanted (and tried hard to be) eliminated.

The Trial

So our jury was comprised of 12 jurors (8 women and 4 men) and two alternates (both women). After concluding remarks (after three days), the two alternates were dismissed, so it was just the 12 of us who ended up deliberating together.

Two of the 12 jurors were African American women. After getting to know them, my admiration for both of them was quite high, so I nominated one of them to be the spokesperson for the jury (the “presiding juror”), and the others agreed. She did a great job.

The defendant in our case was a black male, probably late 20s in age, a large, muscular and physically intimidating individual. A Pierce County Sheriff’s Deputy, who was working at the time when the crime occurred (during June of last year) as a transit officer, was on patrol in his vehicle when he heard a woman screaming. He stopped the car and got out to try and determine where the screaming was coming from. He saw the defendant in “an apparent struggle” with a white woman. He testified that she was resisting as he was pulling on her arm, and screaming, “Stop hitting me! Help me! Please help me!”

The officer turned on the emergency lights on his vehicle and approached the pair. He ordered the man to separate himself from the woman and sit on the curb while he talked to each of them in turn.

But the man refused, screaming obscenities at the officer and saying things like, “F-you, you want a piece of me? What are you going to do, shoot me?” Etc. (Dumb, right?) And the deputy testified that the man kept trying to close the distance and “make contact with” the woman, even as the deputy inserted himself physically between the two.

After about the third such approach and multiple warnings to back off, the officer pushed the man squarely in the chest to move him back. The man staggered two or three steps backward, then when he had regained his balance, removed his backpack, jacket, and shirt, and assumed what the officer called a “bladed stance,” which I learned means a fighting stance. He basically faced the officer and put his dukes up. With balled fists, he screamed, “I’m going to kick your ass!”

Dumb and Dumber

The deputy had served combat in the Middle East and was no pansy, but the man was obviously larger than he, and possibly stronger. He had radioed for backup, but it hadn’t arrived yet. So rather than allow the confrontation to come to blows, he decided to employ his taser. He pulled it out, aimed it at the man’s bare torso, and fired.

As he did so (and I learned it takes a moment for the taser to actually cycle up and launch its darts), the man spun defensively. The two probes, which are basically little darts with wires dangling behind, entered his back about 18 inches apart, and the taser “cycled” for its designated 5 seconds, indicating there should have been current flowing through the man’s body.

The man claimed the deputy had tased him in the back as he walked away, and his attorney had tried to challenge the deputy in this regard, but the deputy showed pretty clearly and convincingly exactly what had happened and why.

Tasers, if the darts actually make contact, normally have the effect of involuntarily contracting most of the muscles in your body, and in most cases the tazed person goes into a state something like a seizure and falls to the ground. But even though it apparently made contact, this taser had no apparent effect on the defendant. He turned and looked over his shoulder and screamed at the deputy, “Is that it? Is that all you F-ing got?” and remained in his fighting stance, fists raised.

It was about this time when backup arrived. (We also heard testimony from two of the three officers who arrived as backup, one of whom interviewed the woman in question, separately from the deputy.) The first Tacoma Police officer to arrive shouted and got the man’s attention away from the deputy, who then rushed the man and grabbed him from behind, his arm scissored across the sides of his neck in what was I believe was called a “Lateral Vascular Hold.” This isn’t actually a chokehold, we were told, as its intent is to restrict bloodflood to the brain and cause the assailant to temporarily pass out so he can be cuffed, without actually choking his airway.

The defendant then went down on the ground, with the deputy on top of him. But he was still conscious and struggled for some time longer, screaming and refusing to comply with officers’ orders to present his hands to be handcuffed. It took four officers some length of time to actually get him handcuffed and subdued.

(The defendant was taken to jail by the arresting officer, the deputy who tazed him. I think I would have paid money to be a mouse in that car and witness their conversation, but if there was any, it wasn’t entered into the record.)

Upon interview, the woman, who was determined to be the defendant’s wife, initially told the deputy that the man had been hitting her. (The deputy testified she told him this, but that he hadn’t included it in his report.) But he did testify and include in his report that he had seen the man grabbing and pulling at her left arm, and also that her shirt was wet. (She said the defendant had thrown water in her face.)

They had gone to Wendy’s at or near the transit center that morning, where she said they had argued and that she had sought refuge for an hour from her husband in the woman’s restroom. She said he had accused her of texting another man.

The defendant said they had an appointment at the Tacoma Mission and had missed their bus, which was why he was angry and arguing with her. He said their voices were never raised. When he first took the stand (which was a mistake by his attorney, I believe, to allow him to do so) he testified that he was trying to pull her toward the bus. She obviously didn’t want to go with him.

He then changed his story and said he was trying to get his dog from her. The officer said she was clutching a small dog in her right arm, but that he was pulling at her left.

The officers had also found what the woman said was her cellphone, which she said he had taken from her, in his possession. The man claimed it was his.

And About Those Attorneys …

There was a significant number of discrepancies in his story, and in my opinion his attorney didn’t do the defendant any favors by letting him speak. Also, the attorney seemed to spend most of his time trying to discredit or cast dispersion upon the testimony of the three officers, which I think backfired because they were all substantially more credible than the defendant. (Only one thing they testified to created a slight discrepancy, between two officers, but it was a minor detail and since more than six months had elapsed I think it was understandable.)

The state’s prosecuting attorney, on the other hand, also did not seem (to me) to be a member of the state’s A-team. She was young, seemed nervous, and on her first day she made a few mistakes for which she was chastised by the judge. But as the trial drew on she did much better. And I think the prosecuting attorney eventually drew the judge’s ire by seriously overusing the phrase “I object!” and also by wasting court time on insignificant issues. (The trial did end up going a day longer than originally anticipated.)

I confess that at one point (as the defending attorney was grilling the arresting officer ad nauseum on minute details related to possible harmful effects of using a taser, and his awareness of what those might or might not be), I had a fantasy about the deputy standing up in the witness box and saying calmly, “Here, let me show you!” … then tazing the defense attorney where he stood. Really childish of me, I know. I also had a serious toothache while I was serving jury duty, and I think that was a low point!

The Deliberation

There were three charges and one special circumstance. The charges were: 1) Harassing an officer of the peace; 2) Assault in the 4th degree (against the woman); and 3) Resisting arrest. The special circumstance was whether or not the woman the defendant was accused of assaulting was a family member (which I think probably made it domestic violence if he were to be found guilty).

We took the three charges one at a time. Charges one and three were a piece of cake. It was obvious that he had threatened the arresting deputy, and also that he had clearly resisted arrest.

The second charge, however, was I think more troublesome to everyone. I myself had questioned (to myself, during the trial) whether a charge of “assault” was justified. The woman was not physically harmed, as far as we knew. She had said he was hitting her, but there were no witnesses to this, so it was basically hearsay, her word against his. The arresting officer witnessed him pulling her, but for all we knew the pulling wasn’t malicious in intent; he might have just been urging her along lest they miss their bus (which is what he claimed).

However, I discovered (as I carefully read the judge’s instructions as to the law) that harassment in the fourth degree didn’t have to cause injury. It was any striking OR TOUCHING that was objectionable to a normal person not unduly sensitive, and was done with an intent of committing a crime.

We asked each other, if the defendant had done to us what he himself testified he had done to the woman, pulling her against her will to board a bus, would it have been offensive? And the answer of course was “yes.”

Now, you can’t know a person’s intent, per se, but it seemed clear to me that the defendant was an abusive person who was used to physically asserting his will on a less powerful woman who in this case didn’t want to do what he wanted her to do, and was earnestly seeking to get away from him. (Even if, as the defendant later changed his story and claimed, he was merely trying to retrieve his dog, doing so by force would not be the lawful thing to do.)

And why do you suppose this man’s wife was trying so hard to get away from him? We had to judge based on the evidence, and not speculation; but honestly, one wonders.

So, while I was initially concerned about the assault charge, based on the law and evidence I decided it was appropriate. So did nine of the other 12 jurors. But one of the men was initially undecided (mainly because he was struggling with the intent issue), and one of the women said, “There is no way I am voting guilty on this charge. It’s just the officer’s word against the man’s, and I don’t think we can say it was assault beyond a reasonable doubt.” She dug in her heels.

On criminal cases, all 12 jurors must be unanimous in order for a defendant to be found guilty, and so at that point I thought we might be hung. Or that at least we might be in for a very long deliberation! We all took a break, and deep cleansing breaths (after a fairly vigorous discussion … which I won’t call an argument!) and started again on count two. At my suggestion and the presiding juror’s agreement, we all went around the table again and summarized in turn our positions and our rationale (this time without interruption), before we started discussing anew. Both disagreeing jurors had not changed their mind during the break.

I think we had maybe two more hours of discussion before we began to see “progress” toward unanimity. I mentioned there were two Black jurors, including our Presiding Juror. She was very good as a moderator, extending respect to all regardless of their views and making sure everyone had an opportunity to be heard.

But the other Black juror I think was the one who turned the tide. A senior chief in the Navy, she was simultaneously respectful but very persuasive and rationale, arguing that she had been ready to let the defendant go on Count 2, but when he testified (that he was trying to pull her against her will toward the bus), BEFORE he changed his story (and said he had never touched her), he basically made the fourth-degree assault case open-and-shut. (Prior to that, we had been debating intent, but she persuaded everyone that he made his intent clear by his own testimony. He basically incriminated himself! As well as demonstrating that he was a liar, which made the officers all the more credible.) Also, she had a very sharp memory and power of observation, which didn’t hurt!

As an officer in the Navy, she also shed convincing light on the training and apparent mindset of the arresting officer. He was obviously VERY patient and through his quick thinking succeeded in keeping this situation in a crowded bus terminal from escalating seriously out of control, both to protect himself, and the woman, and bystanders, and the defendant all from serious harm. (The paramedics had checked the defendant out, as a matter of routine in such incidents, but he was fine.) The deputy did exactly what law enforcement officers are trained to do in such situations, and deserved commendation for his courage and his actions in the face of great adversity.

At that point it was clear that our male juror friend had changed his mind and began leaning toward a conviction on the assault charge. Which left just the woman who had objected — but still enough to hang the jury, unfortunately.

But at that point I think our friend in the Navy did something which completely changed the situation. She began to calmly rehearse what the four levels of assault charge meant. “Fourth degree is the lowest level. It doesn’t require harm to the victim, just an offensive touching from the perpetrator with the intent to commit a crime. And that crime here is obvious, she wanted to get away from the man, and he didn’t want her to. You can, legally, physically force your dependent children to get on a bus with you, but not another adult.” She also mentioned that because it was the least serious crime of assault, there was a “lower burden of proof.” (I’m not actually sure this is technically accurate, but I think everyone understood what she meant.)

Suddenly the objecting female juror changed her mind completely. “Oh, I didn’t realize that was the case. I was thinking assault always involved harm, and was a much more serious charge, and I didn’t feel like we could go there without more evidence.”

To myself, of course, I thought: Not everyone, apparently, reads and follows the judge’s instructions! It’s amazing how we let our own personal biases and assumptions get in the way. I wonder how often this is the case with other hung juries!

But, like the other jurors, I was grateful and relieved that we had finally come to a unanimous decision on all three counts, and also on the special circumstance. Once we were ushered back into the courtroom, the presiding juror handed our decision to the judge, who read it, and asked for her verbal assent that what she read was accurate, which was readily given. The defendant was found guilty on all three counts, and the jury was dismissed with the court’s thanks (and even a nice little certificate signed by the judge).

As far as his sentence, we were not privileged to be in on that part of the trial. But I’m sure some jail time will be involved. And I’m hopeful his attorney will be tazed. (No, not really, I’m just kidding!)

Conclusion

In discussion afterward, several jurors remarked, “This was a really interesting case, and I’m encouraged to know that the justice system actually works, at least most of the time.” And I agree with that sentiment completely. I am thankful for the experience … to get to know my fellow jurors, to observe their shared commitment to justice and their careful attention to detail, to observe the professionalism of the judge and her staff, and to see how the system defends the rights of the accused. I was also very thankful to witness the professionalism of the law enforcement officers involved in this case.

If I am ever accused of a crime, wrongly or rightly, I think this experience will help reassure me that the justice system is working for all of us! I am thankful to be a citizen of this country and hope others feel the same way. Your thoughts?

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