Michael Data

Michael Stewart 2017/11/14

I was summoned to the Superior Court of Orange County in Santa Ana and sworn into a jury on 2017/11/06. This was my first time serving in a jury. I found myself fascinated by the people around me and our justice system, and I want to write about it. I was horrified by some of the people I saw in the jury selection process, but left the whole experience with better confidence in our justice system.

Jury Selection

We spent the first day selecting the jury. A large pool of 300-400 people were initially summoned to the courthouse Monday. Those with important reasons were excused, and many were able to be excused by mail before ever arriving. Before those excused, this pool is possibly one of the best population samples we ever see. According to the OC Jury FAQ:

Names are drawn randomly by computer from lists of registered voters and 
Department of Motor Vehicles driver's license and identification card 
holders for Orange County. The law requires a fair cross-section of each
county's qualified residents to be available each day for jury duty.

About 80 of us were initially assigned to the case and moved to a courtroom. The judge explained the basic schedule then began filtering out jurors. Initially these included people with financial hardship, such as “I won't be able to pay my rent if I miss work for this”. The judge immediately let them go.

Then the questionable ones started slipping in. A few people used the excuse of “I'm so important, no one else can do what I do at work.” The judge reassured everyone that workplaces are obligated to at least survive while someone is away on jury service and not punish you for it. After his slight pressure, he let them all go anyway. It became clear that a new stage of filtering had begun. Eventually, even “I have deck repairs at my house, and I have to be there, I'm the foreman too!” worked as an excuse. We had moved from excusing those with financial hardship to getting rid of the assholes. The judge had an amazing poker face. We entered the final phase of the jury selection process as the attorneys entered the picture.

For a final jury of 12 and 3 alternates, 18 people were initially selected for direct questioning at the jury box. A crash course in Western justice was given, explaining due process and the presumption of innocence. Some basic details of the case were presented: possible drunk driving, a car accident, and a death.
Then the attorneys began probing, trying to test key points:

  • can you ignore other crimes and judge the defendant based on the charge in this case alone?
    • can you tell the difference between evidence, opinions, and hypothetical situations mentioned here?
  • can you base your decision on evidence?
    • “would you vote him guilty now, having seen no evidence yet?”
  • do you hate police, or hold them on a pedestal?
    • many witnesses of the case were police officers

It seemed the goal now was to remove the stupid people. I was horrified at how many were removed here due to their inability to understand evidence or simple abstract ideas. Then I realized I was one of the stupid people. Many at this stage were not really biased, but had only realized late in the game that they could get away by simply lying and using that as an excuse. I had this realization at this point too. The responses turned from “I believe this man is guilty now and I can't stand the idea of him just walking free” to “I have, uh, a bias against him! Yeah, that's right…” The final assholes were let go. This stage brought us from 50 down to about 30 candidates.

Civic Duty

The judge in our case and both attorneys treated the case, the courtroom, and all jurors with the utmost respect. I felt that if they didn't find a reason to dismiss me, they needed me. I was shocked at how many biased, stupid, or asshole people we're produced by the idealized sampling of the summons process, and felt I couldn't abandon our justice system to them.

Juror Bias

An interesting point here was the idea of keeping quiet about case details during the trial. The key point to confidentiality on our part isn't so much about preserving secrets of the trial but avoiding biased influences on ourselves as jurors. If I mention the detail that my case involves a car crash to my friend, they may start expressing more of their feelings on automotive safety. This would cause some trivial unconscious biased influences on me as a juror. In the extreme, however, jurors have been known to try to directly investigate cases themselves. Like an amateur trying to learn quantum physics in a few days, they end up with an incomplete picture, biased and confused.

Selected

I took the approach of answering questions of the attorneys and judge as best as I could, letting them decide if I should be dismissed or not. By the end of the day, I was sitting in the jury box. It was a long day paying attention, contemplating my place in society, being shocked at the assholes and idiots shown by a well-randomized population sample, and learning about our justice system. I went straight to a microbrewery in Huntington and got a beer with Brian.

The Case

Here are some local news stories about the case I looked up today:

The trial began with the prosecutor presenting witnesses and evidence. Then the defensive council presented a couple. At the time, as a juror, we didn't know exactly what was relevant or what was not. We had to follow and pay attention to all facts as presented and try to keep track of any reasonable scenarios to ourselves which could explain them. We had pen and paper to help, but had to leave our notes in the courtroom. Here, I'll describe the three main aspects rather than go over every tedious detail.

The Intersection

There is an intersection in Lake Forest, CA that is a confusing intersection. From the first GPS image I saw of it, I knew it was a sub-optimal and confusing intersection. The signage is not optimal and the large number of lanes on Northbound Santa Margarita at the intersection makes it more confusing than the typical intersection. I could see myself getting confused and turning down the wrong side of the road from El Toro to Santa Margarita. I've done this before, possibly even at this same exact intersection.

 The intersection from the night of the crash.

The correct turn is very similar in appearance to exiting one road and turning onto an access road, such as shown here.

 Another intersection with a confusing side street exit.

At 11:40pm the night of the crash, the defendant turned South into Nouthbound Santa Margarita from Westbound El Toro going the wrong way. A street sweeper witnessed the defendant at this intersection at the night of the crash. He reported thinking the defendant ran a red light and drove fast, but I didn't think this mattered. His route didn't drive like a normal person, and his strange sweeping route would have put many red and green lights in his side mirrors. I don't consider a person's memory of when a light was what color so reliable when they are doing questionable maneuvers and traffic lights don't always function as expected at night.

The Crash

Eyewitnesses and expert crash analysts came forward to describe the crash to us. After entering and driving South on Nouthbound Santa Margarita, at the peak of a slight hill which obscured visibility, the defendant crashed head-on to a woman driving North in her minivan. They both swerved a bit at the last moment but unfortunately in the wrong directions. The woman was killed due to terrible injuries to her head, chest, and spine. The defendant was brought to a hospital for lesser injuries and seemed to be confused about when and where he was.

The Blood

The prosecution presented witnesses who detailed the journey of the defendant's blood samples from late into the night of the crash. The blood was collected at a hospital later than night, taken to a police holding location, then later brought to a laboratory for testing. Witnesses described this journey in great detail, from the first-responding officers on the scene of the crash to the sheriff officer who transported the blood, to the manager and lab technician who performed the blood-alcohol-content tests. There was no reason to doubt the accuracy of the test showing the defendant had a BAC of 0.23% late into the night after he was brought to the hospital. One witness estimated, conservatively, that his BAC would have to have been at least 0.25% at the time of the collision.

Jury Deliberations

After both sides had presented their evidence, we were told the details of the decision we had to make. We had to decide if the defendant was guilty of second degree murder with malicious intent. This charge has nicely-codified definition of fairly clear bullet points, except one part which was not obviously defined and became a matter of our jury's interpretation.

Juror Bias

At the start of the trial, I noticed my immediate reaction to the defendant was negative. When I learned he crashed in South Orange County, and saw his appearance, I immediately thought of the jerks driving around Irvine and Lake Forest in their BMWs as if they own the streets. His horribly tacky Ford pickup truck broke my charicature. I soon sympathized with him as the initial focus of the trial revolved around the intersection and I could easily see myself driving the wrong way and crashing in the right circumstances. During the middle of the trial, I held onto a scenario in my head about a reformed and sober man who fell into very unfortunate circumstances the night of the crash. This scenario dried up with lack of evidence to doubt the BAC tests and became hard to consider “reasonable”.

Other jurors quickly mentioned people they watched in the audience. “I don't know if we should be talking about this, but I saw a little girl crying in the audience. I think that was the victim's daughter! She had a carseat in her crashed van!” I replied “No, we shouldn't talk about that.”

Jury as a Decision Process for Truth

We were asked to keep sentencing from our minds in order to focus on deciding the truth of the case. Our remaining jurors were offered information to follow up on the trial in case we were curious about possible sentencing of the defendant. I still don't know what sentence he received because I didn't want that to influence my decision. In a way, I don't care about his sentence. I'm more interested in this decision process. We do our best to try to reach some truth of the case in deciding guilty or not guilty. We need to do that well before someone can focus on appropriate judgement and sentencing of the guilty.

We don't know for sure what happened that night. Maybe a freak accident led to the defendant accidently being tested as drunk when he was completely sober. That scenario is so unlikely that is isn't worth giving up our ability to treat truly drunk drivers appropriately. If it was more likely (reasonable) that an innocent person would have all of this evidence presented against them, I would have had reasonable doubt to find them not guilty. That is how reasonable doubt, to me, comes from the presumption of innocence.

Guilty

What we needed to talk about was the charge brought against the witness, so we did. One critical component of the charge involved the defendant's state of mind and knowledge “at the time of the act”. The jury deliberated and agreed that “the act” involved drinking and driving as a whole, and not just the final moments before the crash or at the intersection. We had hard evidence of a prior DUI, alcohol counseling, and the defendant being informed of the dangers of drinking and driving to human life. We found that his actions fit the description given to us for second degree murder with malicious intent.

We spent about an hour reaching a unanimous decision. Some stayed behind to ask questions but I left.