Sunday, June 10, 2012

Jury Duty

  In April, I got a letter telling me I was selected for jury duty for the months of May and June. Just like the last 2 times I got this letter over the 17 years I’ve lived in Iowa, I had to call every Friday to see if my jury pool had to go in to the courthouse the next week. But unlike the last 2 times, this past Friday I was told to call back on Wednesday night because a trial was scheduled for my jury pool on Thursday. When I called, I was told the trial was still on and I needed to go to the courthouse Thursday morning.

  I really didn’t want to miss a day of work (even though I was going to be paid), but if there had to a day to miss work for jury duty, last Thursday would have been my choice. I’d been fighting a cold all week that made the hour drive seem like 2 and 8 hours behind a desk like an eternity and on Thursdays I get to work an hour early so I can get back to Marshalltown for Thursday Night Chess Club. But on this Thursday, even though I woke up at 4:30 like normal to take Daisy and Baxter for their 5 am walk, I was able to hang out in the morning and catch a nap before heading out to the courthouse at 8:15.

  My phone call said I couldn’t bring my cell phone, but it didn’t say anything about other devices so I brought my iPod and pen camera in the hopes of being able to capture some jury duty action for my blog, but when I got to the courthouse elevator there was a huge sign saying NO electronic devices were allowed in the courtroom, so I went back to my car and put away my iPod and pen camera. When I got to the fourth floor courtroom there were 60 people hanging around in the open space between the courtrooms being checked in by the court clerk. There were only 10 or so chairs so almost everyone was standing around until 8:45 when we were brought into a bigger courtroom where all of us could sit down. We waited around until 9 and then were brought into a smaller courtroom which had enough chairs for almost everyone but there were 20 chairs no one was allowed to sit in so many of us had to stand up. Then the judge came in and the court clerk read off 20 names of people who got to sit in the chairs. I was one of the 20 and we were selected to be on the jury for the trial.

  It was explained was that the prosecutor and defense attorney were going to ask us questions and then each would eliminate 4 jurors, leaving a jury of 12 people. I wasn’t that concerned whether I would be eliminated or not, although being selected for the jury gave a bonus of being excused from calling for jury duty for the rest of the 2 month period. The prosecutor got to ask first. He was a young guy who talked about himself for at least 5 minutes and then talked about being a juror for another 5 minutes and then he read a long list of names and asked if we knew any of them. Then he asked if we knew any of each other. Marshalltown isn’t that big so a lot of these people knew each other or went to high school together or worked with one of the other jurors spouses year ago and on and on and on and since I didn’t know anyone of the other jurors I didn’t get to say anything but got to listen to all the trivial ways that some of these people knew each other. Then the prosecutor started talking about the police and asked if any of us ever got traffic tickets. Finally I got to raise my hand. Most of the other jurors said they got tickets but it was OK because they were speeding and they were guilty. Then the prosecutor called on me and I said I get a speeding ticket at least every other year and I never get a ticket for driving crazy; I’m just driving in back of the guy in front of me and in front of the guy in back of me and we all happen to be going too fast so there was never any reason to give me a ticket. The prosecutor then asked if I was upset about it and I said in my best New Jersey voice that ‘Nah. Everybody’s gotta eat.’ That got the courtroom laughing and I figured that I would be excused from the jury any moment. Then the prosecutor asked if we would have problems listing to witnesses with Spanish accents and also asked if any of has had any dealings with Jensen Ford (the only Ford dealer in Marshalltown). That led to another round of people talking about how they got their dent fixed or bought a car there or almost bought a car or was really good friends with someone who worked there and how they could be objective about Jensen Ford in Marshalltown. Then the prosecutor asked if any of us had had our property vandalized. Other people mentioned how their car had been vandalized and I talked about my neighbors driving through my fence or bushes every year or so. The prosecutor asked us how we felt about our vandalism experiences and while everyone else said they just wanted to be reimbursed, I mentioned how I’d like to throw a brick through my neighbor’s window when they break my stuff. I must have sounded like I meant it because only a couple of people laughed this time.

  Then it was time for the defense attorney to ask questions. He was an older guy who introduced himself and said he wasn’t going to ask a lot of questions and then he asked for the lady who was really good friends with someone who worked at Jensen Ford to be excused from the jury and she was. A new juror was selected and the prosecutor talked to her for 5 minutes asking a lot of the same questions and then one of the jurors fainted and we all had to clear out of the courtroom for the EMTS and firefighters. We went back into the open space where there were only 10 chairs and I just sat on the floor reading ‘Chess For Tigers’ by Simon Webb. A little before 11, we were called back in to the courtroom, the fainting juror was replaced and asked 5 minutes of questions by the prosecutor and then the defense attorney said he was done questioning the jury.

  Both the prosecutor and defense attorney then secretly picked 4 jurors each to be excused and the clerk named the 12 jurors that would hear the trial. Much to my surprise, I was not excluded from the jury. The prosecutor and defense gave their opening arguments and we finally got to hear what the case was about. On April 20th, 2011 a Ms. Tovar was in the meat packing plant parking lot before her 6:30 am shift when she heard a scrape sound and saw a Ms. Jones (a small oriental woman) put something in her pocket and walk quickly past her. Tovar then got out of her car and saw her car had a deep scratch on her month old Toyota’s minivan sliding door. Ms. Jones was being charged with 4th degree criminal mischief which is for damage not exceeding $500. It didn’t seem like the kind of case that needed 60 people to take off from work, but there we were.

  After the short opening arguments, Mrs. Tovar took the stand as the prosecution’s first witness. She said that while she didn’t see Ms. Jones scrape the car, she heard a long scraping sound, saw Mrs. Jones put something in her pocket, got out of her car, saw a long deep gray and white scratch on the sliding door behind her, and went to the security office. Then the defense attorney asked her what side of the car the scratch was on, the driver or passenger side. Tovar said the driver side and the defense attorney asked why in a deposition last month she said the scratch was on the passenger side. Tovar said she didn’t understand English that well and misunderstood the question. That made sense to me since the scratched door wasn’t the on the passenger side, but it was a passenger door. Then Tovar was asked why she didn’t confront Jones and Tovar said she couldn’t afford to lose her job.

  The next witness was the service manager from Jensen Ford who had been the service manager for 26 years. He was asked about his estimate and established that it would cost $469 to repair the scratch and all the steps that would have to be done to fix the scratch. The prosecution then entered the estimate into evidence. The defense attorney then asked the service manager to read a date on the top of the estimate and the service manager read the date: March 28th, 2011. Then the service manager was asked what the date meant and he said that would be the date he made the estimate. The prosecutor then had a chance to ask some more questions and he didn’t ask the service manager if the ever entered the wrong date in the computer or if their service department was a bunch of screw-ups. Instead he asked if there was a date on the bottom of the estimate and the service manager said yes: April 25th, 2011.

  Then the arresting police officer was called to the stand. He looked so out of shape that he seemed winded by having to raise his right hand for his oath. He was asked some details about his investigation and he didn’t know the plaintiffs name and didn’t know the dates and said ‘I guess’ about 3 times. He eventually said he charged Jones in June of 2011. Then the defense attorney asked why he waited almost 2 months to charge Jones and the officer said that he was waiting for the estimate from the plaintiff so he would be able to make the proper charge.

  At that point, the prosecution rested and it was the defense attorney’s turn to present his case. But at this point it was 5 minutes till noon and the judge let us break for lunch and told us to be back at 1pm. I was home at 12:05, eating a bowl of soup at 12:10, going on a walk to the Kum & Go with Kathy to get Daisy and Baxter some beef stick treats at 12:20, and back in the juror’s waiting room at 1:00.

  The juror’s room was very nice, with chairs, couches, water, coffee, and a mens and ladies bathroom. We hung out there for a few minutes until we were called back into the courtroom. One of the jurors had parked on the street but had his tire over one of the lines that separate imaginary parking spaces and got a ticket! When we got back, we were told that the defense had rested and wouldn’t be presenting their case and the judge read us 21 pages of jury instructions. Then the prosecutor gave his closing argument. He made some joke about cat-scratch fever and relating it to the scratch on Ms. Tovar’s minivan and told us that we should believe the witness and not the date on the estimate. Then the defense attorney gave his closing argument. He pointed out that the defendant and plaintiff had no proven grudge against each other and that Ms. Tovar didn’t actually see Ms. Jones scratch the van door and that the estimate dated a month before the accident provided enough reasonable doubt to acquit his client.

  We got into the jury room and the guy that got the parking ticket was named the foreman. The first thing we all wanted to see was the date on the estimate. When we saw the date as March 28th, we all talked about whether it could have been a mistake on the part of the service manager. But we all thought the prosecutor should have found a way to show how the date could have been entered in error. Then we started talking about the damage to the car. I volunteered that I had experience keying a car and one of the other jurors also had similar experience. We both agreed that to make a scratch that was described by the plaintiff (we never saw a picture of it) in one continuous scratch would take quite an effort and make a huge screeching noise.

  After only a few minutes deliberation, we decided that because of the date discrepancy on the estimate we had to acquit Ms. Jones. No one could understand what reason she could possibly have had to scratch up someone else’s car, but I could see vandalizing something a co-worker has that you don’t see how they can afford when you can’t. I would have been interested in knowing if Ms. Jones had been in this sort of trouble before and I would have liked to have known what kind of car she had. I mean, there must have been a reason this case went all the way to a trial! Once we all signed the not guilty verdict and gave it to the court clerk, the judge came by a few minutes later, congratulated us on our quickness, and dismissed us. I thought we would have to go back to the courtroom to deliver the verdict, but instead I was home by 2:10, checking on work, walking the dogs, and taking a nap before chess club.

  It was an interesting day in the courtroom, but I was glad to get back to the normalcy of our Thursday night chess club and blitz tournament. After losing 30 rating points to 2012 Iowa Class B champ Joe from Waterloo over 2 weeks, I got to play him in the second round of the tournament. For the first time on over 3 months I didn’t make any silly mistakes and after the normal twists and turns of a 10 minute game we reached the following position:

  I had about a minute left on my clock to 2 and a half for Joe. After trying to provoke a mistake for 10 or 15 moves, I couldn’t find a win and forced a draw with 20 seconds left. My son Matt and Jaleb both thought I lost the game and were surprised that I managed to draw it. I think I must have a win here (with 20 seconds left I have been more likely to hang my queen!), but Joe and Matt both thought it was a draw even with best play. The jury is still out on this case…