Thursday, July 9, 2009

Jury Duty

I just had a fun jury duty experience that you might like to know about, one in which my skeptical outlook on life prevented me from being able to fairly and impartially administer justice. I was part of a jury panel, but was not selected to be a juror for the trial. Would you like to know why?

For those who have never been involved in jury duty, a brief view of the selection process from my not-well-informed perspective: a large group of potential jurors are asked broad questions by both sides in the case, who wish to bring out information about each person that would make him or her not a good juror. This is called voir dire. Once all that information is gathered, the selection is made---everyone goes home and only selected few become the jury and come back to hear the trial.

As I already said, I was not selected, because of how I answered two of the questions. First, some background. The first questions were of a type like, "Do you know anyone else on the jury panel?" or, "Do you know the judge/attorneys/defendent/etc.?" Other questions involved specific aspects of the evidence we would hear. In order to answer them accurately, we were told generalities about the case: a man was arrested in January 2008 and charged with possession of crack. So they asked, "Does anyone think that crack is not illegal?" No one raised a hand. "Does anyone think that crack should not be illegal, and for that reason could no be fair and impartial?" One guy did raise his hand, and said he agreed crack should not be illegal. They asked some followup questions, in response to which he clarified that he wouldn't convict someone for drug possession under any circumstances. So we were pretty sure he was off the list. Later questions included, "You will hear testimony from police officers. Is there anyone who would, before hearing the testimony, trust a police officer less or more than any other person?" To which several people answered, in various words, "I would never trust anything that a cop said." So they were off the list.

This went on for hours. For each question, they'd go through all the people to whom it applied, getting them to clearly say on record that whatever particular issue might be a problem for them. The "clearly" part was a problem for most, as some of the questions dealt with beliefs or opinions, which aren't always one-to-one with the legal terms they steered us towards saying. That was certainly true of the questions I had to answer.

There were two I put my hand up for, very related but not exactly the same, involving testimony. They gave some background first on the types of evidence---testimonial, circumstantial, and physical---and stressed that under the law all three are to be weighed equally. They asked, "Would you need some type of physical evidence, like a fingerprint or a videotape, to consider the state to have met its burden of evidence?" From this question I inferred that, not only would the state bring a police officer as a witness and he or she would testify that the defendant possessed drugs, but also that this would probably be the only evidence that they'd have. From what they'd told us, under the law this would be fine, and a credible witness testifying that a crime had occurred would be enough evidence to establish that element of the case. I did not agree.

So I raised my hand and responded, "If any of the elements of the case were supported only by testimony, I would not consider that element sufficiently proved." To put it into more skeptical terms, I would not accept anecdotal evidence, without any other support, as proving a claim. I could not convict one person of a crime based on another person's word. An anecdote is not enough evidence to establish that an event took place, whoever the witness or defendant is, whatever the circumstances are, and whether or not I found the witness "credible." That brings us to the second question I answered.

"Is there anyone who thinks they would not be able to determine a witness's credibility?" My interpretation of this question is, "Can you tell if a person is lying or not?" I quickly raised my hand, and I was surprised more people didn't raise theirs. If they had been honest with themselves I think they would have. When called on, I answered, "Given two people making contradictory statements [which there obviously would be, since there wouldn't be a trial if the defendant agreed that he had possessed crack] I would not be able to determine who was correct without any outside information." In the followup questions, they asked if I was unable or just unwilling, and couldn't I use body language or tone or details of the testimony to judge someone's credibility? My thought was, "Hell to the fucking no I can't! I'd just be using my biases and prejudices to come to a decision in that case. I'm not willing to send a man to prison based on my interpretation of a cop's 'body language!'" What I said was, "No."

So that's how I didn't get on the jury. A person who considers facts to be of paramount importance in all aspects of life was not considered able to fairly and impartially find facts according to the law. And I'm glad I wasn't selected. If the courts say that anecdotes have to be considered on the same level as other forms of evidence, I believe the courts are wrong, and I would have a hard time following the instruction to weigh the evidence equally. Of course, this decision came about without an investigation on my part of the history of testimony as a form of evidence, why and how it is used, how juries make their decisions and on what basis, and many other bits of information I now find I wish I had had at the time. But I was not armed with this information, only a firm---but for me empirically groundless---belief that I could not imprison a person on another person's word.

I hope I did the right thing.


Techskeptic said...

I had a very similar circumstance at jury duty. Mine was about someone who was the brother of a local mayor who apparently was mistreated by doctors who he was now suing.

I had similar questions asked. I had similar responses. In the end I basically outlines what each person would have to do for me to decide in their favor (we were given a lot of leeway to speak).

I was similarly not put on the jury. Are skeptics ever on juries? I wonder!

In reflection, I was thinking that skeptics shouldn't try to be skeptics in jury selection, we should be skeptics in juries. If I ever get in jury selection again, I'm going to try to get in it.

Ben said...

That was depressing. Thanks.

Bing said...

Wow. That sucks. I do think that skeptics should be on juries. People who have a sense of the relative value of hard evidence and anecdote need to be on there. I think that we owe it to our fellow citizens to be on juries. That said, when I was called up, I was stunned by who was picked. They simply weren't my peers, and I would not have been comfortable being tried by them! I would have been the ideal candidate for an impartial trial, but only because I hate insurance companies and ambulance chasers equally (the plaintiffs were represented by a well-known firm that advertises on television about "injury law").


BarnStormer said...

I hope I did the right thing.

I would have done the same.

Anonymous said...

I had a different experience. Same state, other side. The case was a civil matter about insurance so there were no expert witnesses. It came down to which guy presented his side of the argument with the best evidence.

Anonymous said...

my question is how can you expect a person to say if a person is guilty of a crime when you have a police officer whoses a x-offender testify against a defendant how can you believe them!