In the twenty-two years that I’ve been eligible for jury duty, I’ve been called twice. The first time, I bought a new book, showed up to the court house expecting to have some time to read it. Half an hour later, our case was settled without our help and we were sent home. I had to find some other time to read the book.
This weekend, I called in and found out that I didn’t have to report Monday morning, but I’d have to check back mid morning. I checked the website just after 11 am. It said I was to report to jury duty at 2:30 pm in Palo Alto. I ate lunch, went to a meeting, and then cancelled the rest of my day.
Day 1: Jury Selection
I checked into the Jury Room on the fourth floor of the government-gray building. It is bland and aging, not like the majestic stone buildings you see in the movies. The jury room was filled with chairs that are probably the same age as the building itself. There were a couple of newer stuffed, leather chairs with desks. I snagged one and started working.
We were called down to the courtroom and asked to sit in the gallery. I can only imagine that this is how lemmings feel, following the lemming in front of us, not really sure who is leading and if they know what they are doing or not, but trying not to fall behind on the march to our impending fate.
We were told to stand as The Judge entered the courtroom. The Bailiff—a petite woman with jet black hair pulled back so tight into a bun that she must have a constant headache from the strain on her follicles, or done as a way to stay awake during the proceedings—told us to be seated and we were given some instructions. I decided that The Bailiff was probably a fun person to hang out with in another life. Then the Clerk started reading names—juror number, then last name, then first name. We all looked at our summons to try to figure out where she was getting the juror number from. The Clerk was a grandmotherly woman with shocking white hair. She spoke in a manner that was both awkward and endearing, her body jerking forward slightly as she accentuated syllables in her breathy voice.
The first name was read and the gentleman was asked to sit in the back of the juror box at the front of the room. He was now Juror #1. The second name was read and I recognized it immediately as it was mine. I became Juror #2. The juror box of twelve, plus six chairs in front of the juror box was filled from the gallery. Then the questioning began.
The Judge would have been perfect in any episode of Law & Order. An older gentleman, jovial in both manner and physique, he made an occasional joke to lighten the serious mood. The Judge asked a number of questions. For example, he read off the names of the people that were involved in the trial and asked if anyone recognized any of the names. One of the jurors said that he recognized the judge from another trial he had been called for because of The Judge’s sense of humor. The Judge responded in a way that made us all literally laugh out loud. Yes, I’m using literally in the literal sense of the word, just in case there was any doubt.
The questioning was fascinating. It was meant to figure out who to disqualify. Occasionally, The Judge would deem someone unfit for the trial and send them home. You could tell that some people were trying their best to wiggle their way out of the jury. One woman told us how she has really bad allergies to strong perfumes and might have to be excused mid-trial to use her nebulizer if she has an attack. The Judge asked if she was having a problem now with the people around her. She was not, so he suggested that if the situation arose, they’d deal with it then. He then occasionally brought it back up for a laugh during the rest of the questioning.
A man was excused because he is a surgeon and would have to reschedule surgeries. A woman was excused for religious reasons and felt she couldn’t judge someone. Some people were excused because they said they felt the Defendant was guilty just because he would not be testifying. A couple of others were excused because they had pre-paid vacations planned; although I did question the truthfulness of those answers. One self-important, pompous sales executive tried to claim that him being there would be a hardship on his clients and said there was no one else that could perform his job for him. The Judge admonished him publicly for acting like his hardship was somehow more important than everyone else in the courtroom, but The Judge eventually excused him. Sadly, the sales exec probably doesn’t care that I and much of the courtroom think he is an asshole.
The eighteen chairs ebbed and flowed with participants. As seats opened up, new names would be called to fill the seats. Many of the questions from The Judge had to do with any negative experiences we may have had when interacting with the law system, whether police officers or the court system. We were asked if we had ever been pulled over while driving. Only one woman had never been pulled over, but her brother-in-law had recently been arrested for DUI. Since this was a driving under the influence case, we were asked if we ourselves or any family members had ever been arrested for DUI. A surprising number answered yes to this question. This was the first time I spoke up. I wasn’t sure exactly how honest we had to be about things, so I mentioned that some of my family members may have been arrested for DUI but that I did not have any first-hand knowledge of such an incidence. In my head I was thinking that probably someone in the Irish Catholic/French Canadian side of my family or even the Swedish/English side might have had some run-ins to which I was not privy. The gallery laughed at my non-confession.
Eventually we were dismissed for the night.
Day 2: Jury Selection Continued
We had to read through a list of question and answer aloud. I said my name, my occupation, stated I was single and childless, listed what city I live in and how long I lived in the county. I had to answer whether I have any family members who work in any field related to the law. I mentioned that I have a relative who was once a private investigator. I was asked what kind. Workman’s comp insurance investigation was not enough to get me off the jury, not that I was trying.
I had to answer if I or any family members had ever had any run-ins with the law from any side; witness, victim, perp. I mentioned that an uncle had been arrested a few months ago for a crime. Surprisingly, The Judge didn’t ask me to clarify like he did the others. These questions knocked out a few more people. I listened for single men. There weren’t any that I was interested in pursuing outside of the jury box. I was kind of hoping that I’d have more success in this arena. Not that it was a good idea, but I like to keep my options open. Besides, meeting on a jury would be a great story to tell at our anniversary.
Once The Judge was done with his questioning, we moved on to questioning by Counsel. First it was The Defense Attorney’s turn. Tall, dressed smartly, she had really great hair. But she has this downward smile that made her look more angry than I thought she was. She was extremely pleasant when talking to the jury. I liked her style and her questioning.
She did not ask me any questions, however her questions did prompt The Judge to eliminate a few more people. There were a couple people who had friends or family with impending DUI trials or who had been killed or injured by a DUI driver.
Next, it was The Prosecutor’s turn. I do have a thing for guys in suits. Short cropped hair and a round mouth. Cute, but married. Too bad. I wasn’t allowed to talk to him in private anyways. He began his questioning with a hypothetical story about how we, The Jury, were a store owner and an employee and friend of ten years had been caught on video taking money out of the cash register and pocketing it. When confronted, the employee/friend said that he was behind on rent and would pay back the money when he could. We were then asked whether we would fire the employee/friend. I raised my hand without hesitation. But not high enough.
The Prosecutor asked Juror #1 why he wouldn’t fire the employee/friend. Juror #1, like a few of the other jurors, were emotional about it and talked about how they would talk to the employee and find out the situation, especially since they were friends. To me, the employee was just that, an employee. As soon as he started stealing from me, I realized he was not a friend. Simple as that. Friends don’t steal from friends.
The Prosecutor turned to me and said, “You’ve managed to avoid most questions so far. So why didn’t you raise your hand?” I smiled and said I had. The crowd giggled. He was flustered. I explained, “He stole from me. I’d definitely fire him. If he were really a friend, he could have asked me for a loan.” This began my campaign to confuse the lawyers subtly without doing anything to jeopardize the trial. I was poker-faced from there on out.
I also became a target. After he had finished with asking everyone how they would answer that question, he started targeting people that he was thinking of dismissing. He turned back to me and asked, “Since The Judge didn’t ask, can you tell me how your uncle felt about being arrested?”
“It seems he quite enjoyed himself,” I replied.
The room filled with laugher. The Prosecutor turned his head in confusion and tried to collect himself. He couldn’t decide if he should keep digging this hole or let it go. He kept digging. “Could you please explain what he was arrested for?”
“Prostitution.” I tried to say it with a straight face, but my face was burning bright red. There was giggling in the courtroom. The Prosecutor decided it was best to move on to a new target. I’d won this round.
The Judge eliminated another person or two based on their answers.
Then it was Counsel elimination time. The Prosecutor and The Defense Attorney took turns eliminating people. People close to people with DUI’s or having been affected by one. An FBI agent who the judge thanked for gracing the county system with her presence. A guy who didn’t think he could be fair. I was not dismissed. I became Juror #2 out of the twelve jurors and two alternates.
We had opening arguments. Counsel both tried to lay out what they wanted us to decide through a narrative while trying to make themselves likable. They tried to make us smile at them. They tried to make personal connections using what they knew of us that consisted entirely of what they had written on yellow sticky notes in the order in which we sit in the jury box. I wondered what mine said.
The Court Reporter was a slender woman who sat, legs spread, with a device between her knees on which she typed. It has large blank keys. Her fingers moved continuously as people spoke. She stared into space, concentrating solely on what she heard. When there was silence, she’d rotate her wrists and sip her caffeinated, Starbucks beverage. Hot in the morning, cold in the afternoon. She drinks a lot of caffeine. I’m about to understand why.
The first witness was called. She was a woman in her 50′s with grey hair dressed in flowing floral who lives in Los Altos. She looked like a native Californian. She had been a passenger in her mother’s vehicle during The Incident. She described how they had been driving in the slow lane when, in her periphery, she saw a black BMW come up the bike lane.
Yup, the bike lane. She testified that her mother was driving 30-35 mph and the BMW was speeding by. In the bike lane.
The BMW swerved in front of them and cut them off. And sped up even more. Just as two lanes were merging down to one.
She didn’t see the accident per se, but she described the scene after. A minivan on the sidewalk, the BMW on the other side of the road with a Honda SUV. They stopped to make sure people were okay. She asked The Defendant if he knew how fast he was going. The Defendant was an early 20-something guy with thick black hair that was cropped short on the sides. Bushy black eyebrows and eyes that looked like he was always looking up at something but made me feel like he was really looking down on us. Dressed in a crisp button-up shirt for his courtroom appearance. I tried not to make any judgements about him or the lawyers based on looks alone. You can’t tell a book by its cover.
Every time we left the room, we were reminded by The Judge not to make judgement on the evidence we heard until we’d heard the whole story from both sides. It was difficult, but I did the best I could. We also were instructed not to do any research on the case or talk about it. That was a lot easier than being left with my own thoughts while I played golf. I hit a 47 for 9 holes. Not so bad for me.
Day 3: Witnesses & The Police
This was a full day of witnesses and police officers. After a while it all started to run together. The first witness of the day was the woman driving the minivan. She’d been grocery shopping without her kids. She was driving home and had just merged into the one lane when she was hit from behind. She tried to control her minivan, but it spun out of control and landed entirely on the sidewalk. It was totaled. The first witness had come to console her as she was quite shaken up.
Then the driver of the second vehicle took the stand. He was really nervous. In his early 40′s, his right hand shook so much when he took the oath that I wondered if he had some sort of degenerative motor-skill disease. I wondered if The Defense Attorney was going to bring this up and that this was what would make the case fall apart. But she didn’t. I wondered for a long time what her strategy was. There were quite a few witnesses that she did not rebut.
The driver of the Honda SUV talked about how he’d seen the driver of the BMW drive into his lane at high speed, then hit the minivan, then come back into his lane. He tried to swerve out of the way, but couldn’t move in time. The BMW careened into his driver’s side front panel and door. We eventually saw pictures of all of this. Miraculously, the woman in the minivan, the driver of the Honda SUV, his wife and daughter, and the driver of the BMW were unharmed.
The next witness was the officer who’d arrived at the scene. A man too young to be as round as he was, he’d been spending more time sitting than walking the beat. He had a likable demeanor and was thorough in his description of the procedures he’d followed. We learned a lot about Field Sobriety Exams. The Defendant had not exactly passed with flying colors, although he hadn’t done a YouTube worthy dance either. He was somewhere in the middle. He’d missed his nose a few times. He only stepped 7 times heel to toe instead of 9 times and put a foot out of line. He did stand on one foot but swayed a little. And he stood with his head up, eyes closed for what he thought was 30 seconds, but it was really 10. Some of this could have been explained by having been in a major accident.
The Driver had reported that he had been at Oktoberfest in Mountain View. He’d not had anything to eat for lunch and had had a few beers. He said he’d stopped drinking at 1:30 pm. The accident was just before 2:45 pm. He had been subjected to a blood draw for the blood-alcohol test around 4:33.
The Phlebotomist took the stand. He was a character. An introvert by nature, he had thick, dark hair and eyebrows. He looked much older than his hair. His full-time job is working the graveyard shift at a hospital taking blood. My imagination wondered if he is a vampire. Not the sexy kind depicted in recent movies. He spoke in a slow, deliberate way that set me slightly on edge. He “moonlights” in the afternoons taking blood for the police department. He’s done it for years. He kind of creeped me out and I could imagine The Prosecutor not really wanting to put him on the stand. But I also felt like The Phlebotomist is probably a really nice guy who is misunderstood by most. So I gave him the benefit of the doubt. He talked about the details of how he draws blood and the procedures taken. He seems like a guy that is good at sticking to the procedures.
We heard testimony from the cheery woman in her late 20′s who deals with evidence for the Mountain View Police Department. She had dealt with transporting the blood vials to San Jose. She smiled often and seemed happy to be asked to participate. We also heard from the sexy woman in her mid-30′s who accepted the evidence at the San Jose lab. She now works at Stanford. She would have been perfect in an episode of CSI.
At some point, the Criminologist explained that from the skid marks he determined that after the BMW hit the minivan and before it hit the Honda SUV, he was going 45 mph, which meant he was going faster than that when he drove into the bike lane, cut off the first car and hit the minivan. Remember, this was a 35 mph zone that was merging from two lanes into one lane into a 25 mph zone.
Lunch was somewhere between witnesses. It is amazing how easy it is to forget details even a day later. But my goal was to visit as many places on California Avenue as possible. For breakfast on Day 2, I’d gotten a decaf latte and croissant at Printer’s Cafe. For lunch I went to Pastis for their Croque something with fromage with a salad. I started Day 3 with a trip to Starbucks for a Greek yogurt with honey and granola, then the veggie enchilada with green sauce at Fiesta del Sol.
I’d taken the train to the courthouse and by the time I got out, the weather hadn’t cooled much from the 90′s it had hit earlier in the day. I walked home from the train station. I walked the dog. I walked to Quiz Night. I almost hit 9 miles. Not too shabby. After drinking two beers with dinner, I got a ride home with someone who had been drinking water.
Day 4: The Conclusion
Today I took the train to the courthouse again. The highs were in the 90′s again. A little rough since we went from just being in the 70′s to being in the 90′s. It was already warm in the morning. I didn’t bring a sweater because the courtroom had been warm yesterday. It had finally cooled off. I was a bit chilled.
I stopped at Izzy’s Brooklyn Bagels for a blueberry bagel with cream cheese. I ate it in the jury room while waiting for the trial to start for the day. I figured I deserved it after 9 miles yesterday. In reality, I didn’t really deserve it because I’d already spent those calories.
The morning was filled by The Toxicologist. Tall and lean, good looking suit, chic glasses, I sat up a little straighter and paid attention. But as soon as he started speaking, I silently shook my head and realized I was probably not his type. He spoke intelligently and easily put things into layman’s terms as he’d been an expert in many a trial. He’d also been a Toxicologist in upstate NY and did a cameo on a TV show when he worked in Las Vegas.
He was a scientist, so I finally felt like we were getting some substantial evidence. He explained gas spectrometers and how he goes about testing the blood for alcohol level. He explained absorption and elimination. He showed data and it said that at 4:33 pm The Defendant had a blood alcohol level of .077. Based on The Defendant’s report that he stopped drinking at 1:30 pm and the accident happening around 2:45 pm, The Toxicologist estimated that The Defendant’s blood-alcohol level at the time of the accident might have been .09. The Defense Attorney offered hypotheticals that this could have been a lower value based on other estimate.
We broke for lunch. I went to Cafe Brioche. I indulged with a house salad, the spinach ravioli, the apple tart and a cappuccino. I needed caffeine. While I loved all the scientific information, it had taken a long time to get through. For all of the police department witnesses, there was a lot of background needed to show that the witness was competent at their job and a good witness. It was not exactly fascinating.
When we resumed, we listened to closing arguments. The Defense had called no witnesses. Both sides were quite predictable. The Prosecution restated all the facts of the case. The Defense Attorney tried to convince us that we could not say The Defendant was guilty of both driving under the influence and reckless driving since reckless driving requires wanton disregard. We were sent off to deliberate.
Knowing that no one would really want to be Foreman, I sat at the end of the table, asked if anyone was dying to do it and then said I would do it if no one else wanted it. I already had a plan in place. I wanted to make sure that we had a discussion before taking a vote, so I made everyone list the facts that we had learned in the case. For each fact listed, I asked if anyone disputed it or if we needed a discussion for it. We discussed a few of the points.
Then we went through the two charges individually. The first was driving under the influence. Pretty much ignoring the Field Sobriety Test, we determined that the fact that beer had been consumed, the blood alcohol content at the time of the blood draw, the lack of skid marks before the first accident, the disregard for safety by speeding, by driving in the bike lane and trying to drive into oncoming traffic were enough to convict for driving under the influence. We took a vote and everyone agreed on the first count.
The second count was a little bit more difficult. The Defense Attorney had made a good point about it being hard to convict for both driving under the influence and reckless driving since that had to do with wanton disregard. He had to have known what he was doing. But how could he if he were driving under the influence? We had a really good discussion about this. There were a few people who felt that maybe we couldn’t convict for both. It basically came down to this: If his BAC had been much higher, like falling over drunk, then we couldn’t have also convicted for reckless driving, but because his BAC was either below or just above the legal limit of .08 depending on whether he had actually finished drinking at 1:30 or not, we felt that it was enough to influence his driving, but not enough to have made him incapable or rational thought. He had been driving for six years. We are all trained to drive in the lanes. It would have been against muscle memory for him to choose to drive in the bike lane or into oncoming traffic. He would have had to make a conscious decision to do that. Most people, if they’ve had a few drinks, do their best not to do anything that would attract the attention of the police. This wasn’t even close.
I had to sign my name to the verdict. That was the hardest part. Being on record. Being accountable. But I think being accountable is important. I think people should own up to their actions. So that is what I did.
Then I went for a drink. I went back to Pastis and sat at the bar. I stated that it was 5 o’clock somewhere when in fact it was 5 o’clock here. We’d been told we needed a verdict by 4:45 pm in order to not come back tomorrow. Without watching the clock, we last voted at 4:44. I signed the paper quickly and leaped for the door to hand the verdict to The Bailiff. I still wish I could have a drink with her. I bet she has stories.
So I had a glass of white wine. Then a rose. It was hot out and I had a lot to write just now. I had the baked brie with way too many mushrooms hanging around. I hate mushrooms. Mushrooms are not vegetables. I finished with port and the sponge cake with strawberries. There was also a surprise chocolate mousse that showed up by accident. I skipped the entree. Tonight was confirmation of my verdicts. I’m not sober enough to be driving, but I’m perfectly capable of editing this post and making mostly decent decisions. And I’m not driving home. I’m taking the train.
On the way to the train, I passed He-who-shall-never-again-be-named-in-my-blog in the crosswalk. I heard he hangs out at Cafe Brioche. I smiled.
N.B. The order of events here may not be entirely correct, but were unnecessary for the verdict. There was absolutely no dissension of the verdict, so even if I got some details wrong or out of order, I do not question our final result. For the important pieces, I took notes and I was not allowed to take those with me. Also, I’m not trying to publicly shame The Defendant. He will get his punishment from The Judge. The purpose of this post was to tell you what it was like to be on a jury in hopes that the next time you are called, you will be prepared to do your civic duty and not be the pompous asshole trying to get out of participating in Democracy.