Tuesday, September 04, 2018

What A Month On Jury Duty Taught Me - Part III: Deliberations

(Click HERE to read Part II of this three-part series.)

By the time we were ushered into the deliberation room, the prosecution had tied up the the case with a nice, neat bow, and presented it to us on a platter.  The defense, on the other hand, had lobbed the equivalent of a sloppily-written "dog ate my homework" note at us, and didn't even make the effort to make sure it was even crumpled tightly enough to reach the jury box. 

After discussing what a shit-show we had just witnessed, we chose a foreperson and started the work of parsing the evidence.  Some jurors were already ready to enter guilty pleas for all charges so they wouldn't "be there all week," but others of us were NOT. HAVING. IT.™️ and reminded them that we ALL had things to do outside of court, but that lots of lives would be affected by our verdict, so they needed to chill the fuck out, posthaste.

(Said nicely, of course, because it was day 1, hour 1 of deliberations, and we were still being polite-ish.)

We soon learned that no matter WHAT we thought, the law would be the arbiter of itself because of the way that some laws worked in tandem with one another.  I know that this is confusing, so let me give you an example:

If I rob a bank and only plan to threaten the teller by waving a gun around, but I end up shooting the teller (who dies), I am now guilty of robbery and first-degree murder.  Second-degree murder is not on the table, even though the murder was an accident.  Why?  The law says so.

AND if you and I planned the bank robbery together, then YOU, as a co-conspirator ARE ALSO GUILTY of robbery and first-degree murder, even if you were still at home in your jammies.



So half of us sang seven choruses of "What the fuck?/ This isn't fair!" A fourth of us didn't seem to have an opinion that wasn't given to us, and the remaining fourth seemed to be interested in controlling the narrative so that they could return to their 'real' lives.

The gloves came off. 

Remember the tagline of the grandfather of all reality shows, "The Real World": 

"What happens when people stop being polite and start being real?"

Oh, it was REAL.  I had to turn down an acting job that I really, really wanted because I was serving on this jury, and dammit, I was ALL-IN. I rarely get headaches, but I got them frequently during this case, and had one every day after deliberations.  I didn't have the bandwidth to return calls, emails, or texts.  I forgot to call my dad for 2 weeks, and remembered when he sent me a text asking if had been put in jail. I apologized profusely, and once I gave him an idea of what was going on (because I couldn't talk specifics), he absolved me.  I'm an introvert who is NOT TRYING TO BE CLOSED UP IN A TINY-ASSED ROOM HAVING TO ENGAGE WITH 11 STRANGERS.  YES, I'M YELLING.  That shit wore. me. out!  One day after court, I lay down for a nap and slept for twelve hours straight, then woke up in time to get ready to go back to court...  It was extremely stressful, and the only way out was through it: 

we all had to agree on whether the defendants were guilty or not guilty of the given charges.  

The first charge for defendant #1 was a simple point of deliberation and we all agreed on it right away, by secret ballot (i.e. "little slips of paper tossed into a bowl.")  After the 12th "guilty," one of the jurors clapped and cheered, as if we were issuing prizes instead of life-altering verdicts.  Another juror reminded her of the gravity of the situation, and her attitude sobered up for about five minutes.

Erroneous assumptions abounded, often fueled by lack of cultural understanding.  Slang being misused.  Nicknames being called "gang monikers" until I explained that one defendant's nickname was actually a common nickname in the black community.  

Her: "Oh - I never would have known that."  
Me: "That's why diversity is important."

People saying that posing with money and having tattoos were indicative of gang activity, not realizing that, in certain circles, when you aren't USED to having ANY money, getting some is all you think about (Thanks, capitalism!), and when you get some, posing with it is how you show others that you are now "successful."  There were a few of us who were able to shed some light to the others regarding either common goings-on in the black community,  or gang activity.  Two of us were black (my female self and a male), one was a latina who had grown up in South Central, but now had several markers of affluence, and one was a white, female schoolteacher who had taught in South Central for many years.

How can you judge a culture that you don't even understand?

Turns out that none of that mattered in the end, because, as I stated previously, we had no wiggle-room for variable degrees of guilt, and since the defendants were both guilty of portions of the crimes committed, we had no choice but to find them guilty of everything.

Hear me again, please:  

We had no choice but to assign blanket blame, 
even though not all parties were guilty of everything. 

What part of justice is this?

I reminded myself of the judge's admonishment to decide this ONE case and not try to solve all of society's ills.  It was something akin to holding my nose and taking medicine as we sent two very young men to prison on charges that carry expected life sentences without possibility of parole. Had the prosecution sought the death penalty, then the defendants would most likely have received it.

They deserve to pay for their crimes; crimes that led to a family's brutal loss of their beloved matriarch.  Still, I feel like I was tricked into throwing away two more lives under the guise of "civic duty."  Maybe they'll find religion in prison, and/or rehabilitate themselves against all odds.  Turn their lives around, and become better men than they were when they went in, after all, they'll have LOTS of time.

If they couldn't do it while free, though, the odds are stacked high against them being able to do it while caged in a system that focuses on punishment and further enrichment of well-monied entities  rather than rehabilitation.

I don't know how they came to be where they are - associating with gangs, robbing old ladies.  I DO know how easy it is to end up on the wrong path when you are young, and there, but for the grace of God, go I.  If you come from a poverty-stricken area and are told by society that the only worth that matters is financial worth, then the message is "Get money." If your family is struggling, and you are told that to be a man means to be a provider, but you can't provide on $9 an hour from the local fast-food restaurant, then the message is "Get money." Desperation leads to terrible decisions.  Desperation coupled with not enough life experience to see beyond your neighborhood?  Disastrous.

To be sure, I'm not an advocate for robbing and/ or shooting people, nor errant gun-toting. To me, however, it looks like the crime began LONG before the decision was made to take the victim's purse, and that society may be complicit. Perhaps if we didn't find it so easy to throw certain types of people away, our youth wouldn't confuse fear and intimidation with respect, and wouldn't devalue themselves and others for a quick buck.

I believe in punishment that fits the crime, but in my efforts to make sure nobody got railroaded, I feel like the ensuing wreck was by design, due to a "justice" system in serious disrepair.  As a result, I ended up dragged down the tracks by the train. I may need therapy.  (I'm not joking.)

So, what now?  When I express my despair over the experience and decry the broken system, well-meaning friends and loved ones tell me to let it go.  "It's over." 

But I can't unsee what I've seen: 
the dead body of a grandmother shot to death for no reason, her family broken with grief.  The faces of the defendants' family members who love them, even though they've done wrong.  

I can't unhear what I've heard: 
the coroner describe the path that the bullet took through this woman, ripping up her organs in its wake.  The voice of one of the defendants calling his mother "Mommy" as he talked to her on a jailhouse phone line, and her telling him to "Just pray."

I can't unlearn what I've learned about our criminal *justice* system: 
that you may NOT be judged by a jury of your peers, that the process and laws are grossly unfair and inadequate, and that, apparently, only those who can afford competent representation deserve it.  

I've also learned that some people don't get a second chance, 
even if they didn't have much of a first chance.

As the verdict was read ("Guilty" on the major counts, "Not Guilty" on a lesser "special circumstance"), I looked around, surveying the courtroom and trying to commit the scene to memory.  

A day on which you send someone to prison SHOULD be memorable, shouldn't it?  

Members of the victim's family cried quietly and comforted one another.  I hoped that they could now begin to heal.  The prosecuting attorneys tried to keep their faces from betraying the sense of triumph emanating from their very pores.  The defense attorneys alternately looked at the jury and put their hands to their faces, as if they didn't see this verdict coming.  One defendant (Ron) stared straight ahead as he had done for the entire trial, but his profile had changed. He looked smaller than his already-small frame did, just moments before. Broken. Willie looked me in the eye, and I looked back at him for a beat longer than I probably should have.  I felt it fitting, though: 

If you send someone to prison for life, you should be able to look them in the eye, 
even if you aren't allowed to tell them why.

I held back tears long enough to get out of the courtroom, and began crying as soon as I got out into the hall.  I didn't feel like justice was served, because I felt like I was handcuffed by the law. Back in the deliberation room, everyone was silent.  The judge (whom I feel did an EXCELLENT job of explaining things and keeping order) came back and talked to us for about 10-15 minutes, answering questions, and explaining some things.  Then the clerk brought our "proof of service" papers for those who needed to show them to their employers, and, for our safety, police officers escorted us to the parking ramp through a passageway that we didn't even know existed.

That made me feel more unsafe than anything that had gone before.

I drove to Krispy Kreme, and sat in my car for a long time before going in and a long time after coming out. I was dazed.  I ate a couple of donuts, then went elsewhere in the shopping center to do a little retail therapy.  I let my agents, manager, and family members know that I was "free," drove home, started writing this immediately, so I wouldn't forget, ate, went to bed, and woke up, still dazed.  I feel emotionally injured.

When I arrived for jury duty, I was not prepared for all of this brokenness: broken systems, broken-body photos, broken people breaking other people, broken people mourning broken people, broken systems that break families, and the broken laws that have the potential to break jurors in exchange for $15 a day (which I have earned and will NOT be donating back to the court, thankyouverymuch).  

Even with all of this, when called upon, I will do it again.  

As broken as this system is, it's all that we have right now.  If I can bridge the gap from one group to another and provide even a modicum of understanding that gets us closer to "fairness," I will do so, and consider myself privileged to serve.

For now, however,  I will allow myself space to heal,
then figure out the best way forward, since I am no longer 
cloaked in the bliss afforded by my ignorance.


Thursday, August 30, 2018

What A Month On Jury Duty Taught Me - Part II: The Circus Trial

(Click HERE to read Part I of this three-part series.)

Until this point, everyone had stressed the importance of considering the defendants innocent until proven guilty by the prosecution, so, as far as I was concerned, they started with a clean slate.  Still, I couldn't help but wonder why the hell the defense attorneys (who were all public defenders) seemed so disheveled and disorganized in comparison to the prosecuting attorneys.  They asked stupid questions (contrary to what you have been told, yes, there ARE stupid questions), they allowed their clients to come to court wearing inappropriate hairstyles:

Two men and a woman: let's call them "Willie," "Ron," and "Shante."
  • Wille wore two fat cornrows on the TOP of his head and an ill-fitting suit (maybe the suit couldn't be helped, I'll issue a pass for that)
  • Ron wore a tail in the back of his head (people still DO that??)
  • Shante wore a wig that looked like a hair hat.  I mean, like she took it off of a coat rack and put it on her head and came to court.
I'm going to be the voice of honesty and say that you  DO NOT allow your clients to go to court looking like that because it can very easily read as "low-income throwaway."  I would have had BOTH get haircuts, and told that woman to put the wig on properly or take the shit off altogether.  

I, because I KNOW African-American (or "Black-American" - take your pick) culture INTIMATELY, know how to place the packaging in proper context and discern what is relevant to the case and what isn't.

I DO NOT expect most white people to understand African-American culture nor the socio-economic hierarchies within well enough to be able to notice this before it becomes an issue.  But here they are, in the courtroom, looking "ratchet."  Perhaps their public defenders TOLD them to do differently, but, I suspect that they assumed it was just "what black people do," if they considered it at all.

Now, I'm on the case, and right before opening arguments began, the female defendant, "Shante", was removed from the case.  We weren't told why, and we WERE told not to speculate.  Alrighty, then.  The two young men remain: Willie & Ron.

Opening arguments began, and at the outset we were presented with photos of the victim:  an Asian grandmother.  We saw her alive and radiant... and then we saw her dead: private areas covered with black boxes, bullet hole to her heart clearly visible.

This is when I realized that I was IN IT.  Like, FOR REAL.

Family members of the victim and the defendants were all present in the courtroom throughout the trial, bearing witness to what was presented as well as our reactions to what we were learning for the first time.  Sometimes they cried.  Mostly the victim's family looked stricken, and the defendants' families looked sad, but hopeful.  There were elementary-school-aged children amongst them.  I wanted to throw up, but felt compelled to keep a stiff upper lip.

The defense attorneys opening arguments seemed to consist of: (Ron) "He's a knucklehead who intended to rob, but accidentally killed this woman." and (Willie) "He wasn't there when any of this happened."

My thoughts?  "Y'all better do better than this, because this is already looking like some bullshit."

In short: They did NOT do better. 

The prosecution brought in witness after witness and built their case meticulously.  The defense?  Well, they asked obvious questions that had already been answered (sometimes multiple times), called their clients by the wrong names, pissed off the witnesses, AND the jury with their ineptness, and did an excellent impersonation of Bozo and Cookie while not calling a single, solitary witness, nor building anything remotely resembling a defense.  By closing arguments, the sum of the defense was: (Ron) "My client got scared and shot the woman, and he just picked up her purse and ran because he had been told to do so, and was too dumb to understand the consequences."  This attorney actually likened the shooter to the character, "Lenny" from "Of Mice and Men", and implied that he had the mental capacity of a 9 year old.  At that point I rolled my eyes so hard I'm surprise they didn't fall right the fuck on the floor in front of me.  If your client is mentally unfit to be held accountable for his actions, where are the witnesses verifying your assertion?  In fact, where is ANY PROOF that you have prepared for this case in any way whatsoever?

Willie's attorney had a different strategy.  Let's call his strategy, "Throw Ron Under The Bus And Hope Nobody Asks Questions."  Let's forget that the two defendants are long-time friends (or at least long-time associates, as shored up by photos from Ron's Instagram account), and pretend that Willie let Ron drive the car that one of his relatives had rented for him (because he was underage). And oh yeah- Willie left his cell phone in the car, which explains why cell phone records put him at the scene.  Also, Ron was a pimp, and his girlfriend/ bottom bitch (Shante) left her phone too, which is why it also looked like she was there - but she wasn't either.

I will not belabor you with 4 weeks worth of foolishness.  If you've read this far, I suspect that you get the idea: The public defenders put on the most spectacular display of "not giving a fuck" that I have ever seen.  And coming from someone (me) who is pretty unapologetic about not giving a fuck about things that she doesn't give a fuck about, that says a LOT.  The could not have failed their clients more if they had done it intentionally, which I don't think they did.  I think they just didn't give a fuck, because people who DO give a fuck come prepared.

Have I said "fuck" enough?  I don't think I have, because (trigger warning) I strongly suspect that it's going to show up again in this narrative.

Willie spent a LOT of the trial looking at me. I mean, a LOT.  Quite a few times, I caught his attorney looking at me as well.  They had both heard me tell the court that I wanted the defendants to have a fair trial, so I think I was their barometer for how things were going.  I mostly avoided looking at Willie, but, given that he sat at a table that was right in front of me, it was impossible to avoid his eyes altogether.  When our eyes made contact, he would shake his head slowly.  It looked to me like he was saying "Ain't this a shame?"  And it was.  A woman was dead and they were on trial because they put themselves in that predicament.  Yeah, calling that "a shame" would be putting it mildly.

The public defenders asked the jury to find defendants Ron and Willie respectively: 1.) Guilty of robbery and second-degree murder (because he was "dumb" and killed the woman by accident) and 2.) Not guilty because he, a pimp, and his girlfriend, the prostitute, left their phones in the car while Ron drove the rental car that Willie wasn't even supposed to have- 35 mins away to commit the crimes alone, or with another person who was NOT Willie.

You buying any of this nonsense??

Neither was anyone on the jury.


*Read Part III HERE*

Sunday, August 26, 2018

What A Month On Jury Duty Taught Me - Part I: Jury Selection

(This is part one of a three-part series.)

I have to write this while it's fresh in my mind and spirit.

I just spent three and a half weeks on jury duty.  I've never had to serve on a jury before, and this was a murder case.

I've emerged shell-shocked and thoroughly disenchanted with the U.S. criminal justice system.

I went into this process thinking that I would serve one day and be done (as has been my experience in the past).  Once it was clear that it would go into a second day and that the case itself would be a long one, I asked the clerk if I could have a sidebar with the judge, and the judge obliged.  I told His Honor (with all attorneys present) that this is the beginning of a "busy season" for me as an actress, and that serving on a long case would be problematic and possibly cause an undue financial hardship.  I mean, I'm not going to starve today, nor tomorrow, but as an actress, what happens in the fall (episodic season) sets me up for future residual income.  In short- serving jury duty is inconvenient.

What else is new?

The judge said that he understood, and asked that I wait and see if I would even be selected to serve on the jury.  If not, all of this would be moot.  I agreed.

The next court day brought more clarity: There were three black defendants, no black attorneys, and only two black people in the pool of potential jurors, of which I was one.  I had seen ONE other black person- a woman- on the first day.  She asked to be excused because she couldn't afford childcare for a long case.  I never saw her again, so I assume that her request was approved.

To be as blunt as I can (as I am wont to do), there was NO WAY I was going to sleep well at night if I precluded myself from being selected as a juror.  If I wasn't chosen, that was one thing, but I felt no better about the prospects of three black kids (anyone who is less than half my age is a "kid" to me - call it "old people privilege") being judged by a jury of non-black people than I would be if it were three women being judged by a jury of all men.

Not on my watch.

I was potential juror #72 in a pool of about 110 people, so it took a while for the judge and attorneys to get around to me during voir dire.  I watched and listened to the people before me being questioned.  Some sounded like normal human beings who just wanted a fair trial and justice served.  Some had trouble understanding legal English (which I fully empathize with b/c college Business Spanish 102 kicked my ass up and down the street).  One had a hearing problem.

THEN there were the assholes.  I don't know if they were just trying to get out of jury duty or what, but they sounded like Grade A assholes to me, and this is my blog, so I will refer to them as such.

Instead of commenting on them individually, I will present their statements as an amalgam of assholery in the following literary rehash (liberties taken):

Asshole: (Assuming that the defendants were gang members) I hate gang members.

Judge: I don't think anyone here would say that they LIKE gang members, but would that keep you from following the laws as written?

Asshole: Yes.

Judge: How so?

Asshole: Because I grew up in a gang-infested area, and my mom was robbed.

Judge: What if one of the determinations that you have to make is whether or not the defendants are gang members?

Asshole: I would still not follow the law.

Judge: Why not?

Asshole: Because we lived around low-income people and had a lot of problems with gangs.

Attorney:  Have you been given any reason to believe that the defendants are "low-income"?

Asshole: No.  But I wouldn't follow the law because I hate gang members.  I'm just being honest.

That kind of shit.

By the time the judge got to me, I already knew that I would not be abdicating my civil responsibility with that type of fuckery afoot, and I told the court and all potential jurors as much.

"Your Honor, I know we had a sidebar in which I told you that my being unable to work for the duration of a long case would create a financial hardship, but I look at the defendants, and then I look around this courtroom, and, frankly, I don't see a jury of their peers.  If the attorneys in this case choose me as a juror, I  will make it work."

Of course (as I expected) the lead prosecuting attorney had questions for me.  He led with asking me "Did I see you on a TV show... 'Justified'?  "Yes." I said, trying to figure how how the heck he decided to bring up THAT particular show (I played a prisoner). He went on to ask me if I had ever portrayed a defense attorney (yes), a prosecuting attorney (yes), or a police officer (many times), and if I had ever interviewed people to get additional info on the above-mentioned professions (no).  He then asked me if I could get along with 11 other people.  I told him that I come from a large family of which I am the eldest sibling and diplomacy is often the order of the day.  He asked what important lessons had my family taught me.  I told him "Don't say everything you think... because I had a problem with that for awhile."  Judging by the laughs, many in the courtroom found that amusing, for some reason.  I told him that I was also taught compassion, and he immediately jumped on that:

Him: "Do you understand that in this case I don't want you to be compassionate?  You will have to be surgical.  People may cry on the stand, and instead of feeling sorry for them, you have to decide what is true and what isn't.  Can you do that?"

Me:  "Absolutely.  I don't like criminals any more than you do, and if you prove that the defendants are guilty of the crimes that they are being accused of, then I want them to go to prison, because, if they're left to run free, who's to say that I'm not next?  My compassion extends to the victim who did not deserve to die the way that she did.  Whether the defendants did it or not reserves to be seen."

I assured him that I would not be "going easy" on the defendants because they were young nor because they were black, I just wanted to make sure that the trial was FAIR and that nobody got railroaded.

That seemed to satisfy everyone involved in the decision-making, because I made it onto the jury.


*Part II of this three-part series is HERE.*