What do sports stars, cockroaches, Courthouse News Service reporters and the measles have in common? Jury duty!
I usually avoid my civic duty thanks to my special knack for getting genuinely sick whenever my group is called. But my immune system was in prime condition last week, so I showed up for the second time ever to Kern County’s jury services department at the ungodly hour of 7:45 a.m.
Not knowing what to expect, I came prepared for boredom – armed with several e-books loaded on my smartphone and a hard-copy John Grisham novel in case said smartphone died. (Wall chargers are a no-no in the court.)
Although I’m completely happy any time I can read all day undisturbed, I’m a legal junkie and had always wanted to see the inside of a real courtroom. My wish was granted Monday afternoon when I was chosen as juror #12 on a felony case.
Prosecutors had charged the defendant with brandishing a firearm at a peace officer, being under the influence of methamphetamine while in possession of a firearm, and possessing an illegal zip gun – a homemade gun made from junk materials.
If there is a hell, it is probably a never-ending session of voir dire. The repetitiveness of the jury-selection process is enough to induce insanity in even the hardiest of souls.
Our judge, Kern County Superior Court Judge Stephen Katz, made it much more bearable. Relaxed and good natured, Katz used funny metaphors about tables and sandwiches and sports stars to make sure we all understood the legal terms and how to interpret them if we became jurors.
The trial itself began Wednesday morning with the prosecution’s evidence, which consisted of the two sheriff’s deputies who arrived on scene, the range master for the Kern County Sheriff’s Department – who was also head of the bomb squad – and a forensic technician and criminalist from the Kern County Regional Crime Lab.
When one of the deputies needed to point out details on photos projected on the television screen, the prosecutor said, “The judge probably has a laser pointer you can use.”
Judge Katz responded, “The judge has this old-fashioned thing called a stick.” Everyone laughed as he handed the deputy what looked like a long, pointy wooden dowel.
The defendant’s public defender was excellent. Dignified and assertive, her cross-examinations were so brutal and efficient she ultimately decided to rest on the state of the prosecution’s evidence rather than present her own case.
The highlight of the trial was definitely the intruder who invaded the courtroom during closing arguments Thursday afternoon.
As the defense attorney argued why we should find her client not guilty, the court reporter suddenly jumped up and screamed. We looked at her in time to see a huge cockroach skitter over the top of the partition. She later said it had crawled across her steno machine while she was typing.
It aimed for the jury box next, and I would have been its next victim had the judge not yelled, “Deputy! Deputy!” Our longsuffering bailiff ran over from across the room, chased the bug into a corner and stomped on it. We all applauded our hero, and then Judge Katz told everyone to take a break. When we came back, there were chocolate candies on our seats.
When it came time to choose a foreperson for deliberations, I accidentally elected myself by asking who wanted the job. Pro tip: if you don’t want to be foreperson, keep your mouth shut.
We all immediately agreed the defendant had a zip gun. After a few bumps we also concluded he had fulfilled the “acting threateningly” element to find him guilty of brandishing a firearm, but deciding whether he was under the influence of methamphetamine at the time he had the gun took the most time. Hours, in fact.
Though the criminalist testified that the urine analysis came back positive for the amphetamine drug family at a value that was consistent with methamphetamine, the prosecution elected not to run additional tests that could have determined the exact drug in his system.
Many of the jurors thought the officers’ testimony and the lab results were enough, but I and several other jurors were not convinced. The evidence indicated that he was on something, but nothing indicated what exactly that something was.
Some of the jurors didn’t understand the difference between amphetamines generally and meth specifically, so I explained using a medical analogy. Chicken pox, measles and shingles all have similar symptoms, but if the doctor diagnosed someone with shingles when they really had measles, that diagnosis would be incorrect. It’s not enough to know the family of disease, or drug, in our case. The instructions stated we had to determine if he had specifically used meth, and there was just not enough evidence.
We ultimately found him guilty on two of the three counts. After having a nice discussion outside the courtroom with both attorneys, we all went our separate ways.
Who knew jury duty could be fun? I honestly can’t wait to serve again. Next time, I just hope they hold the cockroach.