My Day as a Juror
Written by Darrell Anderson.
Note: The following story is based upon a true event. I wrote this essay several years ago. I have since matured in my own educational processes and no longer maintain some of the beliefs I then held.
A few days ago I was in court. Thankfully not as a defendant or plaintiff.
I was selected for jury “duty” in the district court system.
I’d like to share my experience with you. If you never have been in court, then I think I have some observations and lessons to share.
First, I never was on a jury. I never had been in court. I had lived near metro areas for many years and never once was called to be a juror. Within two years of moving to a rural area, I received my first “commandment” to attend.
Although I always thought I’d enjoy the activity, I publicly often had the attitude of most “citizens.” That is, I would do what I could to avoid the inconvenience. Yet over the past few years, as I became more aware of the many issues facing freedom lovers of this once great nation, I also realized that if called I had no “duty” to serve, at least not in any flag waving sense. I had a duty to attend because somebody’s freedom was at stake. My studies had shown me all too well that if called for jury, none of us who love our freedom should attempt to skate out.
In a small community and rural area I also realized that by attending, I had a reasonable chance of the judge remembering my face. Indeed, during the trial the judge, when he dismissed us jurors for lunch, acknowledged knowing at least three of the jurors (he acknowledged this I think, only because he realized those three probably would want to go home for lunch and not to the local greasy spoon; he therefore provided us a 65 minute lunch break). Letting the judge see my face is important because as a freedom lover, I know the odds of me appearing before this same judge are hardly remote. Why not have him remember me as a “good citizen”? Why not indeed.
Now the judge for the case seemed to me quite fair and straightforward, unlike so many of the horror stories I’ve heard. I’m hardly discounting the horror stories, I’m only offering this judge credit where credit is due. He was polite, thoughtful, and respectful. I thought interesting that whenever we jurors entered the court room, the judge (not the bailiff) ordered all attendees to rise. This was in a small rural community district court!
The judge never recited anything to us jurors. Everything was typed on laminated cards. Little was ad-libbed. I don’t know if this is standard in this state’s district court or just standard for this judge.
When we jurors had questions during deliberation, the judge not only read us the statute verbatim, but gave us a photocopy of the statute to take with us back to deliberation. He did not paraphrase the statute. All statute footnotes were clipped, but having the photocopy was unexpected. He also read us verbatim the dictionary and gave us his dictionary to take back to the deliberation room.
My first reaction to the entire episode was from the letter I received from the district court “commanding” that I lay aside all appointments, schedules, etc. and appear before the court for jury duty. The tone of the letter really ticked me. I tried to find the statute that made me subject to and liable for obeying such a command. Unfortunately, I haven’t yet found the statute. I did find an acknowledgment from the state’s Fully Informed Jury Association (FIJA) coordinator that such a statute did exist, but had no substance as far as enforcement. Yet, several years later I have yet to find such a statute.
Nonetheless, after the trial the district judge sent us jurors thank you letters for “sacrificing” our day as jurors. The letter was signed in ink, not stamped (in small towns people still sign things). My juror’s compensation check was also personally signed, not stamped. Included with that check and thank you letter was a feedback form. I returned the form (with no return address) and in the general comments section I mentioned to this courteous judge that if he and his clerk or going to continue “commanding” people about, they both should at least quote the statute that compels one to comply with that commandment. I also commented that the jury instructions should include information that juries have not only the power to judge the facts, but also the law. Any person aware of the FIJA efforts will appreciate this comment.
In all, I was impressed by this judge. Not all judges are corrupt. Lesson? I can’t think of any.
The case was a state district court trial, a misdemeanor criminal case. The defendant was charged with driving in the state without a valid state driver’s license and vehicle license plates. At first, I thought this was going to be a “right to travel” case! How lucky could I be? Well, the case wasn’t a right to travel case, at least not in the sense most of us think. The defendant did have a valid driver’s license and plates — from another state. Yet the state troopers and prosecutor felt this man had “lived” in this state for several years and therefore should have “valid” paperwork and registrations.
Before the trial began, all potential jurors sat outside the court room waiting. Not as bad as waiting for the doctor, but some time elapsed before we were escorted into the court room. The bailiff and judge then took roll call. One person was absent and the judge ordered the bailiff to inquire. The bailiff responded that the person was excused. Superficially then, the judge appears to think there is a statute somewhere requiring people to attend. If the attempt to inquire was a bluff by the judge, this episode certainly runs contrary to the personality displayed by the judge the remainder of the day. Of course, the judge could be honestly mislead that an actual statute exists. Like many humans on the street, I have learned through the years that judges often presume the existence of statutes.
The judge then introduced the court reporter, bailiff, prosecutor, defending attorney, and defendant. These people all respectfully turned to us, said hello and introduced themselves. Did any of us feel disqualified to hear the case based upon past relationships with any of these people? Several people were excused (small town, rural area, remember?). Some left with smiles on their faces. Kind of reminded me of school when the bell rang just before giving an oral report.
The judge asked a few more questions, but nobody was excused. At one point in the judge’s reading of his laminated cards, he mentioned that we final jurors would have to take an oath. Now that pricked my ears. I raised my hand and the bailiff got the judge’s attention.
“Would you mind reading that oath now so I can have some time to think about what I’m might have to swear to or affirm?” Well, that was out of order (several laminated cards deep in his stack), but yes, that could be done. (Hey, I told you this judge was courteous and respectful — ). Satisfied after hearing the oath that I wasn’t going to be coerced or tricked into swearing allegiance to the court or Satan, I thanked the judge.
Then the court reporter started pulling names from an apparently 100 year old wooden box. I think the box was as old as the court house. The names were on paper contained in used prescription bottles (hey — small town, rural area, remember?). My name was the second name called.
The process of voir dire was enlightening. Voir dire is French for “to speak true.” This process was explained to us by both the judge and prosecutor. Questioning was as expected by any informed person. I was glad nothing personal was asked, as I most likely would have lost the opportunity to sit as juror. I tend to be an intensely private individual regarding what information should be public about me (my neck hairs bristle when people start getting nosy).
My first sense that something might be afoot was the fact that the prosecutor questioned us all about whether we felt comfortable convicting with circumstantial evidence. I should have smelled a rat, but because of the newness of the experience, my subconscious was at that moment doing most of the sniffing. When asked, I obliged I had no problem convicting on circumstantial evidence. In hindsight this was a truthful statement, because I also believed the circumstantial evidence had better be overwhelming and convincing. The prosecutor was asking us if we could convict based solely on circumstantial evidence; in hindsight I now realize what this meant: the prosecutor had a weak case. (Note: I have since changed my mind — as my own freedom journey has matured. Although I have learned never to say never, I now believe there is little that could convince me to convict based upon circumstantial evidence.)
Several people were excused during the voir dire questioning. The prosecutor did all the excusing “for cause.” I guess, bless his heart, the cause was his and he wanted a conviction. Finally we winded down to seven people. We jurors were dismissed while the judge started the official proceedings and allowed for any final bickering and agreements. This moment was kind of like the umpire explaining the ground rules.
By the way, while on the recess, the judge later showed up in the hallways without his robe. Guess he had “to go” too. Anyway I had noticed our particular case was in a small court room that also served as the law library. I asked the judge if the library was open to all and what hours the library was open. Yes, he politely told me, it was open 8 to 4. Guess where I should spend some time?
I remember just a few moments later sitting in my chair (waiting for the judge to get dressed) and commenting to another juror about what a gold mine the room was (with respect to free research). “Huh?” I pointed to all the books in that library. “Uh, yeah, I guess.” Clueless.
When the judge returned, the trial began. The prosecutor provided his opening statement. After listening, I think I was already making up my mind — not guilty. I have read and heard the most jurors make up their minds very early in a trial. I did not want to be one of the masses! I wanted dearly to be honest and fair and tried hard to place those thoughts out of mind. Then again, I might have been leaning toward not guilty just because I knew how corrupt the “just us” system could be. Who knows. Still, I wanted to be impartial.
The defendant’s attorney (I don’t know if the attorney was appointed or contracted) passed at providing his opening statement. The prosecution called his first witness, the trooper who wrote the citations.
When the defendant’s attorney was allowed to cross examine, the attorney then provided his opening statement. Interesting “tactic” as I never saw that on TV before — .
One thing new to me was when both attorneys had finished questioning, the judge asked us jurors if we had any questions. We were discouraged from speaking, but wrote our questions on paper. The judge always first read the question silently to determine whether the question was “valid.”
I purposely asked a “dumb” question about the trooper’s testimony. I wanted defined an acronym the trooper used. I figured that unless the other jurors had any run-ins with the law or were well-read, the others probably didn’t know what the term meant. I thought I was doing the other jurors a favor to help them be more informed. (Hey, give me a break, I was getting caught up in the flow. Back off!)
Things rolled along and then the prosecutor called a witness from the stands. This “star” witness was the defendant’s next door neighbor. This witness’s was to provide “eyewitness” testimony that the defendant lived in this state. From this person’s testimony, any one could tell these two neighbors liked each other about as much as two cranky old dogs on a hot August afternoon. Interestingly, both men were (somewhat) disabled and neither worked. In other words, both men had lots of time on their hands — .
Witnesses, testimonies and cross examinations continued. As the day dragged on, I started to smell a witch hunt, although I confess that most of the testimony from both sides seemed irrelevant and often times questionable (I hate to say anybody lied — ). Yet I wanted to keep an open mind until dismissed to deliberation.
One interesting piece. A second trooper was asked to testify. He testified that on July 7, he personally warned the defendant (the two neighbors were feuding and this second trooper got the call) that if the defendant intended to stay in this state, he would have to get a state driver’s license. The defendant was ticketed on August 8, 31 days later. Remember this fact.
One of the most interesting pieces of evidence was a photo the star witness had taken of the defendant’s property. I guess the intent was to show that yes indeed, some kind of permanent structure was on the land, somehow proving the defendant “lived” in this state. (I know, big deal — hey, I told you these two guys were like two kids. They even started arguing in court: “Did too. Did not. You are! No, you are!” Really folks!). What I found interesting about the photo was a No Trespassing sign. What a great sign (for those who like a little demented humor):
Violators will be shot
Survivors will be shot again
In an incredible twist of events during cross examination, the defendant’s attorney asked the “star” witness — the defendant’s feuding neighbor — why he had called the troopers about his neighbor having out-of-state licenses. The witness delayed answering. Then the attorney asked if the witness wanted to see the defendant “punished.” The witness again delayed. The attorney insisted and the witness finally said, “Yes, I wanted to see him punished. If I have to have a state license then so does he.”
Hmm. Witch hunt?
Now these neighbors in the past have both filed for protection orders from each other. These guys really like each other! What became obvious to me was the star witness simply had found a way to get at his neighbor “using” the statutes. From the behavior and testimony I saw neither of these guys would be welcomed in most neighborhoods, but because of all the past scuffles between these two, the local prosecutor and troopers apparently wanted to do something to get the “out-of-stater” out their hair.
The only evidence the prosecution provided was the out-of-stater had been in and out of the state for several years, starting several years prior. The property where the defendant stayed was jointly owned by him and his son. A mobile home was there but in the past a pop-up camper was used. The defendant, son, and other relatives used the mobile home and property for vacations. The defendant was 67 years old, retired. Although having had lived in his home state for 41 years, he no longer owned property there, having sold his home a few years earlier. He had purchased and titled his vehicle in his home state. He still received the bulk of his mail in his home state and as far as I could tell, that state was still his “legal record” of domicile despite spending much time in this state.
According to testimony the defendant had “lived” in this state for the past five months, although other testimony denied that “fact.”
Now the statutes used to file charges assert that residents living in the state more than 30 days have to apply for state licenses. The defendant was “known” to have stayed in the local area for several months at a stretch, especially his current “visit.” The prosecution wanted us jurors to believe this man was a resident and was purposely evading the law by not obtaining the state’s licenses.
After closing arguments, where the prosecutor reminded us jurors that we all agreed we’d have no problem convicting based on circumstantial evidence, our courteous judge read us some more laminated cards and then dismissed us to deliberation. He offered no information about our ability to judge both fact and law. I think I remember him stating something about the court usually interprets laws and juries determine facts, but I am unsure.
Well, we selected a foreperson, shoot, it was a guy — foreman, and we began round robin. Six immediate “guilties” and I had not yet spoken. They expected a guilty so we could hit the road.
“I hate to be the thorn in your side, but he’s not guilty.” Lots of open jaws and blank stares.
“First, this is a criminal charge. Who’s the victim?” No immediate answer.
“The government is the victim!”
“No, the government is not a living being. Who’s the victim?”
“Well, we the people!”
“Well, I’m one of those people and I certainly don’t feel victimized. Second, this man has a right to come and go freely as long as he infringes upon no other person’s rights. How does him having an out-of-state license and tags infringe upon anyone’s rights?
“Third, the man needs a legal record of domicile. He has chosen to keep that address in his home state, despite spending much time in our state. He can’t be a legal citizen of both states.”
“Hey! If we have to get licenses and plates after 30 days then so does he!”
We argued for some time and I refused to budge. The others were quite “displeased” with me. Finally I asked the bailiff to ask the judge for the statutory definition of “resident.”
The statutory definition basically said (I’m paraphrasing here people) that anyone other than an employee who intended to stay in the state was a resident. This particular definition applied only to the driving “code.” I asked for the definition of intent. The judge read from the dictionary.
After we returned to deliberation, I asked the others to prove to me that this man intended to stay in this state. Though circumstantial evidence indicated he stayed in this state for several months at a stretch, testimonies also “showed” that he was often not in the state. My understanding was that he stayed no longer or no less than a typical retiree or “snow bird.” I asked the others what evidence the prosecution provided that this man intended to stay.
“What evidence was there that this man intended to change his legal record of domicile to this state? The facts that the defendant kept his original license and tags, purchased non-resident fishing licenses, received the bulk of his mail out-of-state and had bank accounts in that state showed to me he had no intention of staying permanently.”
“But he was in the state more than 30 days! In fact he would stay here for many months. He owns property in this state but not in the other state.”
“So also do many snow birds. Second, that property is jointly owned by another family member. The property is not solely his. That other owner is his son; and other members of the family all use the property as vacation property. Furthermore, I thought strange that the statute cites 30 days and the difference in days between the verbal warning given by the second witnessing trooper and the day of the ticket was exactly 31 days. Now, I wouldn’t say this was entrapment, but something sure smells funny. How come snow birds never receive tickets?”
“How can you say he’s not guilty? The guy’s guilty. He’s just trying to get away with something!”
I mentioned the statutes were weak and vaguely written. Nobody, outside employment (which the statute mentioned), could ever possibly prove intent to stay, unless they took other actions as I just described.
I told (in very careful words) the other jurors that we had both a duty to not only judge the facts but the law as well.
“No we don’t! Only the judge can interpret the law!”
I mentioned this case was nothing more than a witch hunt.
“So what! The guy’s guilty!”
I said, “It was nobody’s business. In fact, if these two nuts got along like other decent people, we would never be here right now. This whole case stinks!”
I was also told by one elderly lady that I was a very close-minded young man. At the time I was 41 years old, but I guess from her viewpoint, I was young.
I was “reminded” by the other jurors the prosecutor specifically asked me if I could convict on circumstantial evidence. I agreed that I had affirmed that position, but added that the circumstantial evidence needed to be overwhelming and convincing. (Do the words “could” and “would” mean the same thing?)
At that point, the others were quite stymied by my stance. They also were fearing that we were going to be locked up until midnight if we didn’t come to agreement (they must have thought this was the O.J. trial). One juror mentioned she was going to make sure she got excused if ever again selected.
One very young man (barely 18 years of age, I think) thought the entire trial was a waste of time because we were deadlocked. I told him I thought that was a rather silly notion. The system we use exists specifically so people don’t get railroaded. Second, even if we did all agree, the side that “lost” would still consider the case a waste of time. The fact we disagree showed emphatically how the system works! Guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. I had reasonable doubt.
At that point I insisted the foreman notify the judge that we were hung. The judge took it all in stride. He declared that he had no choice but to declare a mistrial. Well, considering all things, good enough for me!
Remember the kind, respectful, courteous judge? Interestingly, he turned to us jurors to console us for having been deadlocked! He told us not to feel bad. That, in fact, he presided over a case with the exact same charges just the previous month and the jury for that trial also was deadlocked. He thanked us for our service and then dismissed us.
The day was long and tiring but rewarding. Lessons learned: