Jury Duty III: The Trial

Previously: Voir dire

During voir dire we were lectured, questioned, and talked down to. Then the jury was selected and we broke for lunch. Upon our return, we were suddenly treated like royalty. “All rise for the jury,” demanded the bailiff every time we entered the room. And the attorneys began speaking to us like we were their closest, most trusted friends.

In an effort to keep the participants in this case as anonymous as possible, I’m going to largely avoid the specifics of the case. But here’s the gist.

The charges were multiple counts of molestation and rape of a child. The allegations were brought forth by a young woman, in her late teens, who claimed that the defendant (a relative) had serially abused her throughout her childhood. The (alleged) victim had no history of medical, psychological or behavioral problems, nor had anyone else known of or suspected the abuse until she had first confided in a friend some 16 months ago. There was, in short, almost no circumstantial evidence to corroborate her claims.

The case was thin to begin with, but the State still managed to mungle what little they had. The first item the Prosecutor entered into evidence was a huge, blown-up photograph of a door. It was the door to the room that one of the molestations was said to have taken place, yes, but the picture had been taken seven years (!) after the date of the incident — so long that it wasn’t even the same door that hung in the house at the time of the alleged molestation. The Prosecutor put this picture on an easel so we could all look at it while she made her opening remarks, which were essentially a narrative stringing together the five allegations of abuse. My gaze kept returning to the picture of the door, waiting for her to point out some fingerprint or footprint or something I had overlooked, but she never mentioned it. After she finished her statement, the picture was removed and never referenced again by either side. I was left to conclude that this “evidence” was, in fact, a prop, something to help us visualize the dramatic events she was describing. It seemed like an embarassingly clumsy courtroom device, a technique they might advocate in “Prosecuting For Dummies”. I found it far more distracting than helpful, and her introduction of evidence-that-wasn’t-really-evidence made her argument seem weak from the get-go.

The State then called a number of witnesses, all of whom testified that the victim had recently told them about the abuse. That’s it: they couldn’t (and didn’t) speak to the actual veracity of the allegations, only that the claims had been made and that they believed them. The Prosecution spent a lot of time on these witness, but I couldn’t figure out why. Neither could the Defense, apparently, because he let each go with nothing more than a perfunctory cross-examination.

On the second day, the victim herself took the stand. She described the allegations in some detail, giving a vivid account of each of the five charges. Here again we learned of no additional circumstantial evidence that would help substantiate the claims; but, that said, her testimony was eminently believable. Curiously, when the Defense cross-examined her, he spent little time questioning her account of the charges brought against the defendant. Instead, he referred to a transcript of an interview she had conducted with a police officer a year ago, and grilled her on some additional allegations of abuse she had mentioned then.

Apparently he was trying to trip her up on the details of these other incidents, but the message he sent me was: “I can’t poke holes in your accounts of the actual charges, so I’m going to poke holes in your accounts of some other, not-entirely-relevant claims.” Furthermore, by asking about all these other occasions, he was only reinforcing the premise that her abuse was systematic and frequent. On redirect the Prosecutor made a point of telling us that it was she, and not the victim, who had opted to only pursue the five specified allegations. But had it not been for the Defense attorney, we may well have believed that these five occasions were the only time she had been abused. In fact, I had been wondering just that, thinking it odd that there were few molestations over the course of seven years. Thanks to the Defense, this significant doubt about the State’s case was dispelled.

The whole trial went like this: the Prosecution would do a inept job of making her case, and the the Defense would get up there and make it for her. There were times when I wanted to interrupt one lawyer or the other and demand to know what side they were on. At one point a witness rambled on and on in response to a question from the Defense, while the lawyer stood there reviewing his notes, seemingly oblivious to the fact that she was shredding his case as she went.

By the time the Prosecution rested, I was ready to vote “Not Guilty” on all charges — it wasn’t that I didn’t believe the victim, it was just that I thought the Prosecution had failed to make their case. Then the Defense went. By the time he was done, I wasn’t sure what to vote. He managed to take my five “not guilty” votes and give each a healthy shove towards “the other side.

He did this by calling only three witnesses, asking them completely nonsensical questions, and eliciting responses that were so clearly rehearsed as to be wholly unbelievable. Much of his rebuttal centered around the door, the door that was sort-of-but-not-really pictured in State’s Exhibit #1. The door led to a room owned by another member of the family (who was conspicuously absent from the courtroom), and the Defense asked the same line of questions to everyone he called. It went like this

Defense’s Question
Witness Answer
Believability
“Did the owner of the room lock his door when he wasn’t around?”
Emphatic yes
Believable
“Did the defendant have a key to the room?”
Emphatic no
Believable
“Did anyone in the household, aside from the room’s owner, have a key to the room?”
Emphatic no
That’s pretty odd
“Did the owner of the room ever let anyone else go into his room?”
Emphatic no
Come on
“Did the owner of the room leave his room unlocked even a single time over the course of the five years he lived there?”
Emphatic no
Gimmie a break!
Afterwards, several jurors pointed out that the overuse of absolutes (“never,” “always”) by the witnesses and the blatantly scripted nature of their testimony rendered the entire defense useless, except insofar as it helped to convince people like me to reconsider their “not guilty” votes. The defendant himself did not testify, but that, the judge reminded us, could not be held against him.

After the Defense had rested, the Prosecution made her closing arguments. She frankly admitted that her whole case came down to the testimony of one person — the victim — but that we could still find the defendant guilty if we believed the allegetions beyond a reasonable doubt. Circumstantial evidence obviously helps, she said, but you don’t need it to make a conviction. Then the Defense went. He essentially summarized how I had been feeling just after the Procecution rested: that the State had failed to make its case, and that there was, in his words, “reasonable doubt all over the place”. Then, to my surprise, the Prosecution got to make a second closing statement. This was technically a “rebuttal,” but it sounded just like a closing statement to me. I thought the Defense always got to go last, but apparently not.

The trial concluded, we now found out which among us was the alternate juror. The judge had (wisely) not told us who the alternate was before the case, because he wanted that person to pay attention during the proceding. I was hoping against hope that it would be me.

Alas, it turned out to be the guy who probably would have been our foreman had he not been excused. He tried to look bummed out, but didn’t quite succeed. He quickly gathered up his stuff, headed for the door, and said “I don’t envy a one of you.”

Next: Deliberations.

* * *