What was that jury thinking?
February 25, 2009 3:04 PM   Subscribe

Have you been on a jury? How do you come to your decisions?

I'm a prosecutor recently out of law school and I've started to try misdemeanor cases.

Sometimes after a trial, I get a chance to ask jurors a question or two, about how they came to their decision. However, most of the time, people are bolt as soon as the case is over.

I think it's important to add that I've never been on a jury so I don't really know what goes on in there other than what I've seen in movies like "12 Angry Jurors".

What are your experiences serving on a criminal jury? Or even just the voire dire process?

What can I do as a prosecutor to more effectively gain your participation in voire dire and to present the case to you in trial? For what it's worth, most of the cases I do are generally shoplifting, assaults, driving while intoxicated and drug possession cases.
posted by abdulf to Law & Government (28 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Don't use terms like "voire dire" for one. (mods don't delete, not being snarky) Use of legal terms and jargon is going to turn jurors off, or confuse them. If you must use such a term, immediately follow it with a non-patronizing explanation of what it is.

Serving on a jury is one of the most terrifying things I've ever done. But what I have seen is that there are people who are into the power this gives them over someone's life, and people (like me) who find that horrifying. As far as reaching a verdict, it was actually really civil, thoughtful, excellent questions and discussion and true cordiality in reaching the verdict.

(I've been on 3 juries, they ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS pick me, despite my being a religion-hating, former hippie, commie weirdo with pink hair. I have jury duty next week; send a MeMail next Thursday and if they've put me on one, once the trial's done I'll give you my story while it's fresh.)
posted by nax at 3:31 PM on February 25, 2009

I was on an attempted shoplifting case jury once.
It was not a scene from "12 Angry Men"...
I remember listening to the instructions from the judge, then listening to the testimony.
The deliberation was quick and sure. The jury spokesperson said a little thing about having to decide the case... some jurors said a few things... we voted and came up with a decision.

We convicted the woman on trial for attempted shoplifting.

The judge, defense, and prosecuting attorneys came back and told us we did a good job.
She had 14 prior convictions for shoplifting and was serving time for it too.
posted by Drasher at 3:37 PM on February 25, 2009

After our trial, the bailiff announced that the attorneys (plural) would like to chat with us. This encouraged people to stick around and discuss things. Just announcing your desire may make a big difference. The prosecutor and defense attorney came into the deliberation room and we chatted for a few minutes.

Our case was kind of messy to decide - big penalties, legal gray areas, conflicting stories, moderately unsympathetic defendant - so the discussions weren't particularly fun. We talked about it for perhaps a day, with it becoming clear where people stood, and how they were unlikely to change their minds after a certain point. Then the foreman decided it was time to drive us to a compromise conviction - somewhere between involuntary manslaughter and first-degree murder, which we eventually, grudgingly, accepted. I suppose the biggest difference between this and "Twelve Angry Men" was that there was not a lot of flip-flopping in our opinions.

One of the most important things to me as a juror is trusting the attorneys to be honest. I felt that the prosecutor reached too far in his charges, and the defense attorney was slightly histrionic at a couple of points. But they were very experienced and didn't make any big mistakes in that area.
posted by yath at 3:37 PM on February 25, 2009

I've been a juror twice. Once for a half-day DUI case, and once for a civil case regarding defamation that lasted 5 very, very long days (we started voir dire on Monday morning, and turned in the verdict on Friday around midnight). After the civil case, I happily met with the plaintiff's attorney for a couple of hours to talk about how we came to the decision. For that, they called me the next Monday, offered to take me to lunch (which I declined), and asked if I'd be willing to talk about the case.

But I think I'm really weird. I don't try to get out of jury duty, because I think that if I ever, heavens forbid, needed something decided for me by a jury, I would really hope that the intelligent, analytical folks wouldn't use those skills to get out of it. Most of the other jurors griped constantly (except for the retired folks, who didn't seem to mind at all).

Being on a jury is really, really boring for a lot of the time. In my experiences there was a lot of time being sent out of the courtroom to sit and wait while the lawyers argue procedural (I assumed) things out in front of the judge. In Indiana, which is where my most recent experience was, jurors aren't even allowed to discuss the case until deliberations have ended, which makes for some really awkward interactions.

Deliberation, however, was really fun. Again, though, I'm pretty sure I'm weird. I'm a scientist, so thinking over the data (evidence) and seeing how it fit, or didn't fit, the instructions was a really interesting analytical exercise. It was interesting to watch the mediation between the folks who really cared about making the right decision, and the folks who really just wanted to get out of there.

Feel free to MeMail me if you want to hear more.
posted by amelioration at 3:37 PM on February 25, 2009

Yeah, we got chatted with after our case too.

In the case I was on, it basically boiled down to "we can't prove with 100% certainty that this gangster kid put the gun in the seat of his car," even though it also seemed unlikely that the old guy he'd bought the car from did. Nobody was terribly thrilled at this, but it was pretty much unanimous in the jury room.

The prosecution guy was all, "Yeah, we knew that. Couldn't be helped."
posted by jenfullmoon at 3:40 PM on February 25, 2009

I was just on a jury. I had to leave so I did not get to make the decision, but it was definitely an experience that made me wary of the process. Here are some of my thoughts, I hope they help you. This is just my experience, I do not mean to offend anyone.

My case was a murder trial. The jury selection perplexed me. It seemed that the lawyers went for the less educated. I don't know why they did this because the case had a lot of technical details and a witness that was unclear how far away she was from the shooting, a discrepancy of 15 feet which I figured out on my own. In the stew room there was a sort of party atmosphere and I found myself embarassed when I would interject what I thought was an interesting fact about what someone might be talking about. I had one conversation where I had to explain that second hand smoke existed to one man. All this to say that, one, social dynamics are a facor in juries that are put together for days. I think lawyers should really think carefully about that.

Two, I think that having a lower intelligence level is not a good idea. Being on a jury is like class, you need people who can pay attention, discern and connect facts, and focus easily. So for example for the second hand smoke guy I had to say like 5 times that part of it was the smoke coming out of the end of the cigarette that is unfiltered for him to begin to get it. In court things were not repeated 5 times. And, we were not able to take notes which bothered me. This was not so much for myself since I got used to it, but many jurors were saying that they were having troube paying attention for long periods of time and keeping all the information straight. It's not Law & Order so the prosecutor could not narrate what was going on in the evidence and people were having a hard time just seeing the point of each witness. I could tell some were perplexed about the ballistics witness. It was a lot of technical talk, all of which simply meant that the man who was shot was not shot with his own gun. That's it, but it was hard for some to see.

We were not allowed to talk about the case to each other until instructed to but many of the jurors thought that meant whispering quieter, keeping it from those of us who wanted to follow the rules. Talking about the case prematurely creates groupthink where you want independent thought until the end and I thought that was dangerous. Also after reading "Blink" I was conscious of the assumption of seeing a young black man on trial may mean automatically to me that he was guilty. So I really suspended judgement, but I don't know how many of the other jurors did. I really wished that we never saw the man accused or the witnesses, that there was more separation, even between the jurors themselves.

I do know that the annoyingness of the defense lawyer was grating hard on some of us. His only tactic seemed to confuse and misstate the facts to try and deliberately confuse the jury. It frustrated witnesses and wasted time. That was not serving justice or his client well.

My main points are these: the higher educated might be better suited to jury duty; try to minimize recess time/stew room time/try to keep things tight to prevent social dynamic wierdness as much as possible; be a clear and respectful lawyer; somehow encourage independent thought over and over and over. Try to get the jury rules to be repeated, explained, clearly, as much as possible.

My comments about my fellow jurors may not even matter since I can't find the verdict posted anywhere. Maybe they came to the right decision anyway, despite what I see as flaws.

As for voire dire (by which you mean jury selection?) I remember one woman who did feel bad for the young man on trial but when asked if there was any reason she felt she couldn't be a fair juror, she still said she could be impartial. She has misunderstood the question, but she said she'd put her feelings aside. Somehow it needs to be more open. Right now it feels like competing, you're onstage, and everyone wants to win. Generally the people who speak up intelligently were not chosen, and those who hid their biases were. It needs to be more open, more like a conversation, less like a test. It feels like you're on trial. This is another situation where I think jurors should be interviewed separately, away from an audience and a judge on a pedestal. It's all too intimidating. Maybe start by putting the jury at ease, saying, despite your surroundings, you are not on trial. This is just a conversation, you are not being judged, this is not a competition.
posted by scazza at 3:47 PM on February 25, 2009 [6 favorites]

I was recently on a jury: weapons-possession case. It was frustrating for two reasons: the defense attorney was horrible. She was disorganized, mind-boggling boring, and irrelevant. (Jurors were audibly sighing every time she spoke.)

The prosecution had no case, and since the defense isn't required to do anything (NY Criminal Court), she should have just said, "Your honor, I feel the prosecuting attorney hasn't proven beyond a reasonable doubt that my client is guilty. Therefor we request the jury find him not guilty. THE END."

Instead, she forced us to sit through five days of hell. Her client almost got sent to jail because she wasted our time. In the jury room, we had to constantly remind ourselves that her performance should not sway us. The prosecuting attorney (who was fantastic, but who just didn't have a case) didn't prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. That's all we should care about. In the end, we decided to find the defendant was not guilty IN SPITE OF his lawyer's shoddy work, not because of it.

The other irritation was ONE jury member.

Basically, the case against the guy was the the cops found a gun in his mother's house. It wasn't even really his mother's house; it was a building in which she was renting a room. Many other people lived there, and the gun was found in a common area. Many people went in and out all the time. For whatever reason, the cops decided to arrest the defendant for gun possession. The gun was never found on his person. It was found in the building. There were no prints on it, etc.

Clearly, there was no case against the defendant. In the jury room, after twenty minutes of bitching about the defense lawyer, we all came to the same conclusion: there was no compelling evidence that the defendant ever possessed the gun. Not guilty. The end.

Except ONE fucking juror insisted on making us all go back into court and having the court reporter read us a transcript of all kinds of irrelevant stuff. We asked the juror whether she thought the stuff she wanted to know would possibly change her mind about possession. She said no, "but I'm just the kind of person who wants answers." Basically, she agreed with the rest of us, but she was either insane or playing some kind of power game. She kept us all there for a couple of hours longer than necessary, and made the poor defendant suffer longer than was necessary.

After the reporter read us back the irrelevant testimony, the stupid juror smiled and said, "Okay, I agree with all of you. Not guilty."
posted by grumblebee at 4:02 PM on February 25, 2009

Been a juror twice. I always get picked for juries—attorneys always circle something on their legal pads as soon as they hear "programmer." Two years ago I was not just a juror, but a foreman in a domestic battery case. I was elected foreman because I was the last one to enter the room, and no one else wanted the big chair.

We ended with a hung jury because juror 8—who was otherwise a nice, cool guy—insisted repeatedly, without any evidential justification, beyond a reasonable doubt and against the letter of the law that no battery had taken place. Our alternates had been dismissed due to their misconduct, and every vote was 11 G to 1 NG until the rest of us gave up. See you at the murder trial, dude!

I don't know what might have changed that guy's mind. But one thing the prosecutor did in his closing argument was make very clear the concept of reasonable doubt using Wheel of Fortune letter tiles. It was cheesy, sure, but it worked.

After the trial was over, I stayed around and both attorneys asked me why we had a hung jury. I mentioned juror 8 being unreasonable. Both the public defender and the prosecutor looked at me unbelievingly. The prosecutor said "But he used to be a cop!" I said, "Maybe there's a reason he is no longer." Don't be content with the jury questionnaire. Pry a little during jury selection, but do it in a way that doesn't seem like prying. Ditch the idea that people in certain professions or of certain backgrounds will always vote this way or that way. Especially the DVD programmers... please.
posted by infinitewindow at 4:10 PM on February 25, 2009

1. Jurors get to spend a lot, lot, lot of time waiting around. Some days they would ask us to arrive for a 9 o'clock start, then keep us waiting around for several hours before we actually started. We would be given no information whatsoever on the cause of the delays. In one instance we went to lunch an hour early to give time for a police statement to be photocopied. Another time we adjourned half an hour early rather than starting a speech so that the speaker didn't have to be interrupted.

Now, it's understandable that some delays are unavoidable, but if both sides made an effort to ensure their side wasn't responsible for the delays, things could have gone a lot quicker.

2. Some of my time I spent reading a book on eyewitness testimony and cross-examination techniques; I figured that, as I was going to have to evaluate eyewitness testimony, I ought to be up-to-date on the science in that area. When the defence gave a summing-up speech about how important it was that every single juror act as if it was one of their family members on trial, and I had read a very similar template speech in a book, it lost a lot of its impact.

3. The argument that a small mistake in eyewitness testimony, indicates the entire testimony is suspect, is not a convincing argument.

4. If you every find yourself about to utter the words "you, the jurors, are the most important people in this courtroom" bear in mind that we get nothing except a $10-a-day stipend with which to buy shitty vending machine coffee, and the court thinks nothing of wasting hours of our time sitting around in the jury assembly room. So, flattery about my importance in the process rings hollow.

5. The prosecution could have helped in my trial by producing some evidence that wasn't testimony by the victim, the victim's wife, or the accused. You know, some CSI-style scientific evidence. Something to refute the argument that the victims are "fitting up" the accused.

6. There's a style of questioning, which my book called "safety in small admissions", where if a witness says "asdf" but their police statement said "qwer", the lawyer doesn't say "but your police statement said qwer", instead they say "Were you given an opportunity to review your police statement before you took the stand? Do you have a copy of that statement? No, can we get the witness a copy of his police statement please? Can you turn to page two of the statement? Now if you read the second paragraph..."

If you want to frustrate people by doing everything really slowly, this is a great idea. Otherwise, not so much.

7. My fellow jurors really liked all the eyewitness testimony from non-impartial parties. It's just as well, because that's all there was. They were of the opinion that, for example, you could infer things from the way the defendant's wife scowled at him when he talked about his children.

I'm not sure what I think of that, but my fellow jurors "ate it up".

8. For all the talk of "proof beyond a reasonable doubt" I eventually accepted that I had to settle for a level of proof that it was feasible to attain. In my case, the accused turns up at the victim's house in the middle of the night, rings the doorbell, and when the victim answers, punches him in the face. Defendant says "No I didn't, I was in bed".

At first I thought "well, contradictory eyewitness testimony doesn't really *prove* anything. Later, though, I realised in a crime such as that there isn't likely to be any other evidence. It's not like people have CCTV cameras in their homes. So, I adjusted my standards of proof downwards on the basis of what evidence it was reasonable to require.
posted by Mike1024 at 4:10 PM on February 25, 2009

I was on a jury for an assault case. We found the defendant not guilty. There was enough objective, factual evidence to prove this person's innocence. But one thing that came up in our deliberations was the "slimy" and "shifty" and "condescending" air we all got from the prosecutor. The defendant's lawyer wasn't much better, but at least he had the grace not to grimace at the witnesses.

Unlike on TV, I think the facts of the case should be the star of the show, not the histrionics of the lawyers. It's like a baseball game - you shouldn't even notice the umpires if they are doing their jobs correctly.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 4:14 PM on February 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

I've spent almost eight weeks on two criminal juries in the last two years (I was called up again almost a year to the day after the first one ended).

In both cases the jurors took it all quite seriously, listened attentively during the trial, followed the instructions of the judge and deliberated carefully, if that is what you want to know. Basically, we did our jobs.

I had NO interest in talking to the attorneys after the trials were over (although there seem to always be a couple chatty jurors who want to). Serving is my civic duty and in that sense I am glad to do it, but it is also a huge, HUGE hassle. Waiting in airport-like security lines every single day to get into a courthouse where almost everyone there would rather be anywhere else, then sit in windowless rooms and spend half the day waiting around for when you are actually needed so that you can listen to allegations violent or otherwise indecent behavior that people commit against each other = not wanting to spend a single minute there that I don't have to.

As soon as I am dismissed, I am out of there unless you are going to give me some compelling reason to enjoy more quality time in the courthouse. And if you had something compelling, hopefully you already figured out how to use it during the trial itself.
posted by quarterframer at 4:18 PM on February 25, 2009

The deliberation was quick and sure. The jury spokesperson said a little thing about having to decide the case... some jurors said a few things... we voted and came up with a decision.

Oh, right, the question. The first thing we did in our deliberations was take a vote, which turned out 9-3. Then there was some talking until the 3 joined the 9, which in a sense was a foregone conclusion from the start but nobody minded spending an hour or so on it.
posted by Mike1024 at 4:25 PM on February 25, 2009

Ooh, one thing I forgot. Here in Indiana, in civil cases at least, jurors are allowed to ask questions of the witnesses. I never expected that, and there was one witness (out of 30 or so) that a number of us submitted questions for. The information that I got from those questions felt really pivotal. It may have just been because we got to be more actively involved. I think it also got a lot more of us to pay serious attention throughout the trial. If juror's submission of questions for the witness is something that is permissible where you are, I really recommend using it. It might waste some time, but it'll keep your jury from zoning out.
posted by amelioration at 4:33 PM on February 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

I was on a civil case several years ago and the attorneys from both sides asked to talk to us after. I and a few other stayed.

I know (from the utter shock on the plaintiff's attorney's face) that our decision shocked him deeply. What I didn't tell him was that I was the instigator behind the decision to award only hospital costs to the plaintiff.

During the three-day trial I realized that these cases often hinge on one single point of fact. Find that point and you find the fastest route to the right decision.

In this personal injury case it was the complete lack of interest or urgency on the part of the parents of the injured woman (who lived at home). They talked about how concerned they were but they didn't do anything about it.

When I pointed that out (most of the jurors were parents) they all agreed. Two jurors still wanted to award something so we settled on actual expenses and called it done.

What I'm getting at is there is probably one person on the jury (likely not the foreman) who will make the group swing one way or the other. This person 'gets' the key points of the evidence and arguments and will distill it down to the essentials that everyone else can grasp. That is the person you have to convince.

I can't help you in identifying that person, however. I'd bet my annual salary that a jury consultant would not have suspected me to be that guy.
posted by trinity8-director at 4:38 PM on February 25, 2009 [2 favorites]

I was going to answer, but my only experience is in the Scottish system - no voir dire (jurors are selected by lottery, with no objections save knowledge of the accused allowed), 15 jurors, majority verdict - so memail me if interested.

My abiding memory is of the defence so overplaying to the jury that it pretty much cemented the verdict there and then.
posted by scruss at 4:49 PM on February 25, 2009

In the two juries I served on, both cases came down to our understanding (or lack thereof) of the actual rules and jury instructions. For example, in the first case, we had several hours of discussions and back-and-forth, all very cliche stuff ... before the woman that took the role of jury foreman actually read the rules, and we collectively realized that our several hours of discussion were effectively moot. It was a fraud case, and we were arguing about who said what to whom, when one of the first questions to ask was, "Is there an actual damage involved?" And the answer was no, a damage was never proven.

So, my advice would be to ensure the jury fully understands the basics and what it is being asked to determine -- like, in order to get to C, one must first pass A and B, and until such time that A and B are passed, any concern about C is utterly irrelevant.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 4:54 PM on February 25, 2009

You should read the book The American Jury by Hans Zeisel, written as a result of the Chicago Jury Project, in which researchers from the University of Chicago surreptitiously (with court and party permission) surreptitiously (without the juries' knowledge) audio recorded jury deliberations in five civil cases. It was the largest field study of jury trials ever attempted in the United States. The book is fantastic, and will answer many of your questions. As a result of the study (and partway through it), it was made illegal in the United States to surreptitiously record jury deliberations.

Read this section on Google Book search regarding the study (it is from the book We The Jury, which I have not read and upon which I cannot comment, as I am not familiar with it).
posted by The World Famous at 5:06 PM on February 25, 2009 [5 favorites]

I was a juror on an eviction case - a civil matter. It was short, and fascinating. The judge allowed us to take notes, and also to write questions which the bailiff would pass to him, and which he would at his discretion share with the attorneys.

All of the jurors were very frustrated with both attorneys. Basically, we had to decide whether the eviction was a valid owner move-in, or whether it was in retaliation for the tenant's recent complaints to the rent board. There was a great muddle of dates, times, facts, and allegations. Neither of the attorneys managed the testimony in such a way that their side's story came through clearly. Many of the "dots" were missing, and no one succeeded in connecting them in a way that made sense. It seemed like each attorney was concentrating on getting the jury's sympathy and on the personal appeal of their client - which I guess is usually a good strategy, but there was not enough focus on more important things.

The judge actually suggested to the attorneys that all the juror questions he was seeing indicated weaknesses in their cases that further testimony from the witnesses might address. But we still didn't get satisfactory answers. In the end we decided for the tenant, because that was the stronger case. But it was not easy.

I don't know if narrative leads to the right jury decisions, but it seems to me that if you can get your factual evidence and your witness testimony all lined up so the story of the crime you're prosecuting seems natural and inevitable, you'll get a conviction. For a defense, disrupting the prosecution's narrative and suggesting plausible alternate stories should succeed in getting an acquittal or a conviction on a lesser charge.
posted by expialidocious at 5:31 PM on February 25, 2009

A lot of my experience on the one Jury I served on has already been stated above, but I will briefly echo it to stress its importance.

* Don't be annoying to the Jurors. I understood it was my duty, and paid full attention, but that doesn't mean I don't mind having my time wasted or being treated like a child. Failure to be prepared, appearing sloppy or like you don't care, or otherwise unprofessional will mean the jurors will pay less attention to what you say.

* Don't be a rabble-rouser in the courtroom. While on TV it makes you look like a hero and a rebel, it triggers #1 above when antics keep interrupting the proceedings.

* Make sure you know what you are doing when you question a witness. Often, the Defense attorney in my case would ask a series of questions that only reinforced the Prosecution's case. In one case, the Defense brought in an Expert Witness on DNA analysis that he fubared the examination so bad, his own witness reinforced the Prosecution.

* I know that you have to chain a string of questions to reach a conclusion - you can't just ask the big one without setting up how you got there. Make the path, but do it quickly so as not to bore or patronize the Jury. Avoid asking questions that are not relevant to the point, or it looks like you are struggling and grasping at ideas without a solid plan.
posted by GJSchaller at 5:48 PM on February 25, 2009

I was on a jury for a breaking and entering/malicious destruction of property case.

The first thing we did in our deliberation was to go around the room and get a sense of where each juror stood. It wasn't a guilty/not guilty vote but more along the lines of each person saying something like "the prosecutor convinced me of X, but the defense's sequence of events seemed more plausible". That gave us a feeling for what facts were agreed upon, what facts were in clearly in dispute, what facts were just misinterpreted by a juror. We quickly cleared up the small discrepancies and moved onto the larger problems. As we worked through the larger issues we took a couple of votes. The sentiments weren't near unanimous and swung in both directions through the day.

The problem was while the defendant clearly had motive and opportunity there wasn't any clear evidence that he did what he was accused of doing. Then came my eureka moment.

The victim and defendant knew each other and commuted to work together. The prosecution said the defendant entered the victim's house by smashing through a window. He showed fingerprints as evidence (as in "look, we found fingerprints on the window"). The defendant made the plausible claim that when the victim was late for work he, the defendant, would knock on the victim's window and that his fingerprints were bound to be all over the window.

Broken glass from the window, and the tapes of the lifted fingerprints were presented as evidence and they got passed around the jury room on our second day of deliberation. I was curious about the thin line on the fingerprint tapes and soon realized the line on one piece of tape traced the outline of broken glass. The line on the other piece of tape was more frustrating as it did not follow the glass. Then I flipped the tape over. It was a perfect fit for someone who would have been pulling broken glass out of a window so he could crawl inside a house. I didn't shout "Aha!" but our guilty verdict was delivered a few minutes later.

Had I not made that discovery we might have deliberated for several more hours and may not have found the guy guilty. On the other hand, and this is the point of the story, we could have swiftly reached a decision had the prosecutor presented the evidence less ambiguously. If he had said "The fingerprints we collected were on both sides of the glass, consistent with someone removing a piece of broken glass" the defense wouldn't have had ground to make their claim and the deliberations would have only taken a few minutes. So, if you've got good evidence present it as clearly and unambiguously as you can so that the jury knows it is good evidence.
posted by plastic_animals at 6:57 PM on February 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

I was on a jury for a drug possession and dealing case in DC. The thing that struck me the most was just how serious all of the jurors took their roles. We were all very cognizant of the fact that a man's fate was in our hands and we deliberated for about 3 days and ended up with a hung jury.

As for the actual deliberation, it was all fairly civil for the most part, although people did get a little worked up at a few points. But, I do feel like everyone had a say and they participated. We did several votes, with the first ones being anonymous. At many points along the way, people's biases would come out, as well as speculation. Although this was not completely unexpected, I (and other jurors) had to point out that that was NOT our role and that we could only judge based on the evidence presented in the case (and remind them that circumstantial evidence is equivalent to direct evidence).

As for your role as a lawyer, I don't think think any of us were very impressed with either of the lawyers. I don't think it would have changed my opinion, but I would have preferred if the lawyers were more prepared and organized, and they engaged more with the jury.
posted by kookaburra at 7:45 PM on February 25, 2009

I was on a jury, we couldn't decide on a verdict and it was declared a mistrial.

One juror kept snoring until I'd elbow him, our foreperson thought that "you should be considered guilty until proven innocent" and the one guy who wouldn't convict in the end was of the opinion that the absence of video or forensic evidence equaled reasonable doubt.

I've wondered if my disgust with the process would keep from being seated again.
posted by codswallop at 11:07 PM on February 25, 2009

My jury case was fairly simple because even though we were all sure the guy was guilty, there just wasn't enough evidence to make us convict him of it. It was more a matter of what the prosecution couldn't/didn't do, than what the defense did do.

I actually hoped to serve and see what the process was like first-hand, but if the process had lingered on for days, my opinion might've soured. A few of us did stick around afterwards to chat with the prosecutor.

The main thing we pointed out was there seemed to be an inconsistency in their case... I think it had to do with timeline details. While in the deliberating room, a lot of us expressed a feeling of "Yeah, I didn't get that either."

So I guess the main key is seeing the case from the jurors' points of view. As someone directly involved in the procedures, it might be easy to be too close to the forest to see the trees. So while you might convince other lawyer-types that you have a sound argument, it might get lost in translation once it makes its way to the jury. Sort of the way that the smartest people don't always make the best teachers.

Hopefully you'll find your share of civics geeks who would love to extend their experience a little more by having a post-game talk with you.
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 2:05 AM on February 26, 2009

Quick story. Was in a big pool from which jurors were selected/not selected. Judge asks anyone if they have a problem w. serving on one case w. a Mexican-American defendant. Guy raises his hand, stands up in a room of about 150 people, more than a few Mexican-Americans, says, "I can't be partial because I don't like Mexicans."

Served on a jury for a slip-and-fall case, brought by a man roughly 60-65. I was late-30s, a few in my age range, a couple in their early 20s, some retirees or close. Was interested to see if the different ages might be a factor, older people more sympathetic to/understanding of the man's age-related realities, if anyone would want to stick it to the corporation, a grocery chain.

Turns out we all thought the case was nonsense. As someone said, we got in the room, went around and everyone said, "He gets nothing."

A couple thoughts: Everyone was frustrated with the "expert witnesses." Both sides trotted out the completely predicable perspectives.

I will now confess to juror misconduct. Courthouse/county offfices was a hideous place to park, a huge parking lot. Found a spot at the very outer edge of the lot, it was getting late. People often tell me I walk too fast at my normal pace and I ramped it up because of the time. I'm really hustling. I notice someone walking faster than me--the plaintiff!! He was flying. In court, when he's called to testify, he slooowly limps up there like he's been shot in the leg and wolverines gnawed on it.

It felt impossible to not consider that. Honestly, I did consider it, thought, "Screw this guy wasting a lot of people's time, clogging up the court with a big lie." And I am the furthest thing from a corporate apologist. I was dreading the prospect of other jurors wanting to give this guy money--and his lawyer was batting around figures of $250,000!!

Oh, both attorneys were interested in juror feedback, which most of us were glad to share. I s'pose we all like to get some feedback on our work. Was also interesting to learn from the defendant's attorney that the guy had a few other eyelash-thin cases/efforts to get money from someone like the one we decided.

One other thing; the guy defending the grocery store had this fantastic way of saying, "mkay," with a subtle, not-nasty tone of "we all know that's nonsense."
posted by ambient2 at 4:41 AM on February 26, 2009

Thinking back on my time on the jury of a civil trial, the biggest difference between the plaintiff's lawyer and the defendent's lawyers--both of them very competent--was that the defendent's lawyer spoke to us in a very straightforward, no nonsense way. His case for his client was simple and elegant. He presented the case with a convincing confidence that his client was not at fault. This sounds simple but it was such a contrast to the plaintiff's lawyers' huffy, at times borderline whiny, low level outrage-that-this-even-*happened*-to-my-client kind of presentation.

I believe more in the jury process since having served. It was fascinating to see 12 people with wildly varying backgrounds, educations, experiences and prejudices come together and recount, with uncanny accuracy of recall, the facts that just didn't add up. Once we were able to talk about it in the deliberation phase we all came to the exact same conclusion within 5 minutes. The next time I'm back in the jury pool it may be fraught with conflict, but it's my sincerest hope I'm never tapped again. Blech.
posted by hecho de la basura at 7:17 AM on February 26, 2009

You might also want to check out Deliberations, which is a fantastic jury blog. It often links to accounts from jurors from blogs, livejournal, etc, and it has a lot of analysis as well.

(And I'm looking forward to my first jury duty in May - crossing my fingers that I'll get picked because I think it'll be interesting)
posted by marginaliana at 7:57 AM on February 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

Once I sat through 5 days of excruciating testimony about a car wreck at a railroad crossing, only to have my name drawn to be excused as the alternate before the jury went into deliberations.

Once I was called to voire dire, only to have one of the attorneys excuse every single juror who had more education than a high school diploma. Another of his questions was about lupus, and he dismissed everyone who had ever heard of it. A panel of high school dropouts deciding a medical malpractice case.

Another time in voire dire for a drive-by murder, the judge informed all the candidates that the death penalty was not a possibility in this case. Did anyone have a problem with that? One guy stood up and said that the shooter deserved to die and the jury should be able to decide that. He was dismissed (which was exactly what he wanted all along).

Another one asked if any of us knew any lawyers personally. Those of us who did were out.

I've been called for jury duty three or four times and I have never actually gotten as far as deciding anything.
posted by acorncup at 8:17 AM on February 26, 2009

The jury isn't really deciding if the person did it or not, they're deciding if you, as the prosector, proved it or not, so your demeanor is important.

I've been on two juries that went to a verdict, a federal trial for mail fraud, and a San Francisco trial for murder. We convicted the defendants in both trials.

Both trials lacked the drama and elegance you often see in the movies. The courtrooms and back rooms were surprisingly shabby. My mental conception of the prosecutor trying to make the case was like watching someone build a brick wall. There isn't a lot of change day-to-day, but at the end there's a solid structure. If the defense attorney's successful, there will be holes in the wall and it won't stand on its own. It's not enthralling, but the overall process is fascinating.

I was disappointed in most of my fellow jurors in the mail fraud trial. Everyone except me and one other guy said "he's guilty, let's go home" as soon as we started deliberations. I thought the defendant was guilty, but felt we should at least briefly discuss each charge. The other guy needed to be talked through each count (it was about a 15-count felony indictment), and since everyone else was annoyed with him, I explained the counts to him. This wasn't me making the prosecution's case so much as explaining how I interpreted the rules to decide each charge. He had trouble understanding how conspiracy could make someone guilty of something they didn't personally do.

That was another surprising thing: we got instructions for deciding the charges, but not the actual laws, and the instructions felt more malleable than having the actual laws would have.

The murder trial was emotionally draining. It's difficult to have the discipline to not let your emotions affect your decision, and you can't talk to anyone about the case, but you still have the emotions. One of the witnesses was terrified of some rough-looking characters in the courtroom, and the victim's family was there. I don't think those factored in my decision, but I was wiped out after the trial.

One frustrating aspect of being a juror is you don't get to hear the whole story because the prosector only tells you things that support their case, and the defense attorney only tells you things that undermine it. Also, words whose lay meaning is different than their legal meaning. People think "premeditated" means you planned everything out in advance, but in a legal context it just means you thought about it before you did it, and it could be almost instantaneous.

"Beyond a reasonable doubt" can be a tough concept. It doesn't mean there's no doubt. I flipped it around so I'd convict if I thought it was unreasonable to think something else happened. It's not 100%. For example, in the murder trial, the defendant had an argument with the victim, then went to his car, where a parking lot attendant saw him get something out of the glovebox, then he walked back to the other guy and shot him. So, he got the gun out of the glovebox.

That turned out to be the difference between 1st- and 2nd-degree murder in the case. Everyone agreed that he killed the defendant, but some people didn't feel that they absolutely knew he got the gun from the glovebox, so they didn't agree with 1st-degree murder because they didn't think it was premeditated, so we agreed on 2nd-degree murder. In retrospect I feel like we should've convicted him of 1st-degree murder because going to get the gun showed premeditation, but should I have stuck out for a 1st-degree verdict or a mistrial? I don't know.

Do I know 100% he was guilty? No. I mean, it's not impossible that someone else shot the guy and planted the gun on the defendant, but it's unreasonable to think that happened. No one else was seen arguing with the defendant earlier in the day, and the eyewitnesses saw the defendant shoot him, not anyone else.

Some of the jurors thought he was guilty but didn't want to convict him of murder because they didn't want him to go to jail forever. My feeling was that worrying about the punishment wasn't our job; our job was to decide which level of murder matched what happened.

I loved being on a jury and would do it more often if I could. And it disappoints me when people try to get out of it. It's one of the few civic duties most people are called upon to do, and I do feel it's a duty.

I've been picked for the jury most of the times I've had jury duty. The last time I had travel plans and forgot to postpone, so I went figuring I probably wouldn't get picked. I was juror #1. The defendant made a deal before they went to trial, though.
posted by kirkaracha at 1:42 PM on February 26, 2009

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