I was invited to Jury Service in Dallas County in Mid-March. This being in the middle of System Integration Test for Release 2 of the solution our Testing team is supporting, I applied for a postponement.
So I was told to come back on 1st May. This was not convenient either, but best to get it out of the way before things became even busier on Release 3…
So in due course i got up way too early, and drove into Dallas in the morning rush hour, suffering the usual accordion-slinky speed increases and sudden decreases, as the incompetent and insufficiently-coffeenated were driving like doofi up I-35. By dint of getting stuck in a traffic jam on Riverfront Boulevard, I arrived 5 minutes late at the court building. The usual security line, turn out your pockets etc.etc.
Then I found myself staring at a set of wall monitors, looking for my name on the display.
No “Graham Shevlin”.
No “Shevlin Graham”, “Graham Chevlin” or any other distortion of my name.
Hmmmm. So was there some mistake?
I wandered over to a court official and asked why my name was not on the video panel display.
His reply was wry. “You probably don’t want to see your name on that display” he said. “That lists all the defendants for the day”. He took my Jury summons from me, removed the juror id tear-off, and pointed round the corner.
Thus it was that I found myself marching into the main jury assembly room at the Court building, to be greeted by the sight of 200+ other jurors, all sitting in neat rows like a high school assembly. Most of them had facial expressions indicating tiredness, resignation or boredom. Some were texting on phones. The power guys were walking up and down talking into phone earpieces as they fixed Important Stuff At Work.
Since The Powers That Be decreed no standing (fire codes), some of us were shuffled off to an overflow room. This was good since it had comfy chairs, and more space. No sitting in rows like confused penguins.
We then got to listen to several speeches from court officials, and then we all stood to recite the rather wordy juror’s oath (of which more later).
Then, they announced that jurors 1 though 142 were to go to District Criminal Court 1. (I was #88). Up to the 6th floor to the ante-room for the court, where they handed out…The Juror Questionnaire. Strangely, they called people’s names off a list one at a time to do this, instead of just handing out forms and pens.
Aha! I said inwardly. Time for me to fashion a cunning response that would signal my total lack of suitability for anything as serious and weighty (and potentially time-consuming) as being on a jury. However, after examining the questions, the cynic in me concluded that simply answering each question honestly would probably disqualify me anyway (“WHAT? We’re not having HIM on OUR jury!”).
So, using the court-supplied blue pen, I set to work, scratching my head over some of the questions.
The one that really made me laugh out loud was the one that asked me to rate where I was on a scale of Liberal vs. Conservative. Clearly no room in this universe for people of the libertarian persuasion then.
I was able to inform the court that I considered the criminal justice system to be defective, with some good aspects and some bad aspects, and that i considered The War On (Some) Drugs to be a waste of resources. That would surely work if it was a drug trial… I was trying to convey my fairly strong skepticism of a system that is not only defective, with far too many innocent people being railroaded or convicted, but a system that is pathologically unwilling to admit to any error, and which denies victims of miscarriages of justice fair compensation and accountability within the system for mistakes.
After a while they started to call out names of people being selected to form the panel from which the twelve good people would be selected. Again they named people, this time in a completely different sequence. I marched up, handed over my questionnaire, and marched into the court room, listening for (and failing to hear) any laughter from the court official as he began to read the questionnaire.
They packed 62 of us into every available chair, including temporary chairs.
Judge Robert Burns was already at his podium, so we had none of the usual “all rise for the Judge” hoopla.
So there we were, all looking around and at each other. We were all doing the usual sizing up of others, looking at them thinking stuff like “I wonder what he does for a living” etc. etc.
The case was listed on the courtroom monitors. State of Texas vs. Somebody. The defendant was an African-American man, who looked sullen and not at all at ease (well duh, I think if I was a defendant in a criminal trial, I would not exactly be jumping up and down and saying things like “Oh goody, this is going to be a shitload of fun”).
The defendant’s lawyer looked like a public defender; a smiling, amiable-looking guy in his late 50s or early 60s with tousled gray hair and a very conservative off-the-peg suit.
The prosecution team comprised two young female Assistant DAs. They were dressed sharply but not flamboyantly. No doubt they were eager to ensure that the defendant would ultimately get to feel the firm and compelling Hand of Justice.
After some preliminary whispering to his stenographer, Judge Robert Burns began to speak, and I was impressed by his demeanor. He even cracked a joke against the legal profession; when asking if anybody in the court had not yet taken the jurors oath, he remarked “you can tell it was written by a lawyer, because it is rather long”. He seemed un-stuffy, not a stiff, pompous, authoritarian gavel-banger.
We sat through the usual injunctions – defendant innocent until proven guilty beyond all reasonable doubt etc. Then we were reminded that juries in Dallas County get to decide not only guilt, but also sentencing. The judge also told us that they expected the trial to commence on Wednesday and last no more than 2 days, so everybody would be finished by Thursday pm. This disposed of some questions from jury candidates who had appointments on friday.
The judge asked if any prospective jurors had any personal conflicts. He listened patiently as several jurors tried variants of the “I am needed at work” line, then pointed out that no employer is allowed to penalize an employee for participating in jury service. He even said “if you have a problem, I will call your employer and remind them of what the law says”.
One juror whose mother had end stage Alzheimers was immediately excused.
Then the judge revealed some of the details. The defendant had been indicted for Aggravated Assault on another man. The judge explained that he had been indicted via a Grand Jury hearing, which (interestingly) did not require the disclosure of any of the evidence that the prosecution was going to present at trial. (this I found odd. How do you persuade a Grand Jury panel to issue an indictment without revealing any evidence?).
At this point, a lady in the room revealed that she had been a victim of an assault that weekend. Asked if she had any injuries, she showed bruises all over her hands and forearms, as in significant bruising. The judge immediately excused her.
Then, it began to get interesting. The judge informed us that the sentencing range for the offense was anything from 2 years of jail time up to…life. Yes, life imprisonment. A very large range (more later).
In response to a question from a prospective juror about why probation was not an option, Judge Burns had an interesting response. Under Texas law, probation is only a sentencing option for Aggravated Assault if the defendant has no prior convictions. Since the defendant had a prior conviction, probation was off the table, not an option. The judge went on to say that he was not allowed to tell us what the prior conviction was for.
At this point, the Prosecution lawyer took over and began to walk us through the definition in law of Aggravated Assault. This is where it started to get really interesting…
The main fact that soon became a topic of feedback and discussion was that under Texas law, Aggravated Assault does not require that the victim actually suffer physical or mental harm. Merely being and feeling plausibly threatened is enough if you are a victim.
At this point a lady piped up and told the prosecution attorney “I cannot be on a jury for a case where the victim is not even harmed”. This triggered a discussion about what feeling threatened might comprise, with the judge opining that if a defendant (for example) was to point a gun at somebody and threaten to shoot them, that would meet the definition of Aggravated Assault.
After some amusing back and forth over the evidence that would be required to show that the victim felt threatened, the judge reminded us that, you know, finding the defendant Not Guilty is very much an option…
The discussion then moved on to the credibility of witnesses, particularly prosecution law enforcement personnel. At this point, several prospective jurors began to signal that they did not trust law enforcement to tell the truth in court. One African-American woman explained how her son had been charged with an offense and two police officers had lied on the stand, so she had no confidence in the veracity of law enforcement tendency.
As she was explaining this, a woman next to me snorted “well she would say that wouldn’t she”. Hmmm, I thought to myself, if you’re going to be a racist, you might not be so casual about it.
As he had been doing throughout, the judge was writing down juror reservations and issues on a pad. From his careful process of making sure that he got the right names, it seemed clear to me that he was probably red-lining certain people before the prosecution and defense even got to make any objections.
However, we now reached the discussion of the sentencing guidelines. And this is where a whole slew of us began to state our discontent with the sentencing guidelines. The judge asked for a show of hands about whether we felt that the maximum sentence of life was not something we could consider. Over half the hands in the room were raised, including mine. A similar request for feedback on the lower level of the sentencing guidelines resulted in many of the same hands (including mine, for the second time) being raised.
A background to my objections. In the UK, where i grew up, this defendant would likely not have been charged with Aggravated Assault. Threatening somebody in the UK will most likely result in a charge of Threatening Behavior, which usually results in a fine and probation for guilty defendants. Then the next level is Assault. Then Assault with Intent to cause Grevious Bodily Harm. Then murder/manslaughter.
From the hints being dropped in court, it seemed likely that the defendant had not been physically harmed in the encounter. In the light of this possibility, the idea that one should consider a life sentence was, I think, bonkers to most of us. Also the inability to consider probation was another troubling aspect.
After the completion of the questions about sentencing guidelines, I said to the lady next to me, “At this rate,they will not have enough people left for a jury”.
Less than a minute after I said that, Judge Burns called the lawyers up to his podium and talked to them for a minute. Then he turned on his mike and announced “ladies and gentlemen, we cannot empanel a jury today. You are all free to go”.
So we all trooped out and checked out of the building, not to return this time around.
I drove home, and was back on the day job by 2.00pm.
My conclusion is that the judge, after reading the show of hands responses on the sentencing guidelines, concluded that indeed there were insufficient juror candidates left to even move to the next phase. We had effectively rebelled as a group against sentencing guidelines that most of us felt were way past proportionate to the alleged crime.
So, no more jury service for me for a while Now back to getting a Testing project to the finish line…