A few weeks ago I was selected for my first jury duty. Attempted murder and various other, related charges in connection with a stabbing that took place in the house pictured above. I had always been somewhat suspicious of the American justice system, and the process of jury selection and the trial itself only confirmed my suspicions. After it was all over I felt a sense of unease and no small degree of trepidation that should misfortune befall me, my fate would not likely depend upon my innocence or guilt but on the fragile and quirky workings of the court.
The judge first read the charges being levied against the defendant, and then explained at length the concept of innocent until proven guilty. I thought she had gotten her point across 30 seconds into the 5 minute monologue, but then she posed a hypothetical question to the jury pool: if she were to send us to deliberation right now, without having heard a single piece of evidence or any remarks from either attorney, which of us would return a verdict of guilty? At least two juror candidates promptly raised their hand.
Odd, I thought. Perhaps they didn't understand the question. But then after further explanation from the judge as to their error, she and the two attorneys proceeded to ask individual jurors some questions about themselves, presumably as it pertained to the charges. For the next three hours I sat and listened, mortified, as one juror candidate after another conveyed fantastical tragedies that had befallen them, and/or bizarre belief systems that would prejudice them against the defendant. Most of which had no bearing on anything but were the result of some unstoppable, compulsive need to over share.
All told the two attorneys struck down at least twenty of the initial juror pool, and would have kept going had they not been stopped by the judge.
The trial proceeded over the course of three days, and the District Attorney did a wholesale terrible job at convincing anyone of the defendant's guilt. The only witness he called was the victim, who otherwise might have been a slam dunk except his blood alcohol level was .25 and he (unsurprisingly) remembers nothing. In full disclosure I have been somewhere in the vicinity of .25 myself, and the fact that he was still upright and conscious at the time I found to be exceptionally impressive. But while his body entered that home on the fateful evening, his mind apparently wasn't anywhere in the vicinity.
The defendant--a prior convicted felon--was schizophrenic and bipolar, which apparently we learned can have the byproduct of hyper-religiosity. Which would explain why he had a penchant for spray painting crosses inside the refrigerator freezer and hot water tank, for example. And why he had a cross tattooed on his face.
He also kept falling asleep during the trial, as did one of the jurors. Both had to be awakened at the behest of the judge.
The defendant looked and acted as if were entirely capable of committing the alleged crime (and then some), and in all honesty he very likely did attempt to kill his Mom's boyfriend. But he and his Mom were sober that evening, their stories more or less aligned, and the other plausible theories behind the stabbing were left hanging by the incompetent prosecution. We returned a verdict of not guilty.
I can hardly make sweeping judgments of our legal system after one trial, but the fact that the incompetence of a single attorney could turn the tide one way or another gave me chills. And I can't help but think how many defendents have been convicted of crimes they didn't commit because that incompetent attorney just happened to be theirs.
After the verdict I was chatting with another juror in the parking lot, and the defendant walked by. He waved, yelled "God bless you," and I laughed and waved back as he hopped in his car and drove away, a free man.