Doing Time: Day in the Life of One Juror


Unlike the majority of the citizens of Los Angeles County who receive jury summonses, I have always had the naive notion that it's my civic duty to sit in judgment of my fellow Angelenos, if only to say I did my part to keep the crooks off the streets. There's also that $15 a day. But I know with some certainty that jury duty is a painless experience: As a writer and editor for a national magazine, I'm the third rail of jurors to most lawyers. Too cynical and prone to drawing my own conclusions. Or so goes the theory.

So much for the theory. For whatever reason, I was selected as Juror #3 in a recent trial at the downtown criminal courts building. The case wasn't the type that leads the TV news: A john was accused of attempting to solicit sex from a police officer posing as a prostitute in South Central. But it did provide insights into what's being brought to trial by rookie District Attorney Steve Cooley.

My conclusion: The DA should at least make sure that the cases are solid, especially if it's just a misdemeanor. In this instance, you would have thought that after all the LAPD's credibility problems, they would make sure that the sting was caught on audio or video tape. It wasn't, and the result was a hung jury, but surprisingly by only one not-guilty vote.

Impromptu sting

Despite the fact that this boiled down to a he said-she said case, most of the jury was willing to give the benefit of the doubt to the cop. Not that she was all that convincing. A youngish woman with three years on the force, she claimed this was a "spur of the moment" sting, which is why there was no recording of the offending incident a point made frequently by the defense attorney. Her vice "training" consisted of a few hours of class work and prior prostitution sting assignments.

But the defendant tied his own noose. He claimed he pulled over and motioned the cop to his car only because he was concerned about her safety. Then he also admitted he asked her for a "date," common slang for a sexual encounter on the street, although he claimed he meant a real date, as in dinner and a movie. When she asked him what he wanted to do on their "date," the defendant even admitted he blurted out "sex," an answer he later regretted.

The courtroom portion of the case was over in less than a day. At the end of it, we were marched off to the jury room, an anonymous box with one big window overlooking the dreary Los Angeles Times building. We were a mixed collection of strangers, suggesting there wasn't any logic to our selection. A few professionals, some blue collar types, others with no visible means of support. An equal balance of men and women.

In our first straw poll prior to deliberating, we voted 9-to-3 to convict. Considering I was one of the three who voted not guilty, I was surprised by the vote. I'm as law and order as anyone after 9/11, and I figured the guy was probably guilty. But I also wanted to send a message to the DA and LAPD that if you want to get a clean conviction, don't come to court with a case that consists of only verbal testimony, especially if the technology exists to record the event.

But as I listened to the other jurors, I remember that the judge's instructions were to base our decisions only on the evidence that was presented during the trial, not extraneous issues. After I re-read my own notes of the testimony, I was convinced beyond a reasonable doubt the ultimate juror's directions that he had all but admitted to the crime.

A lone holdout

With the other not-guilty changing his vote as well, we were down to one stubborn holdout. A humorless woman, she didn't trust the police officer, but offered no reason why. As the deliberations droned on past two hours, she threw up her hands and agreed to "buckle under" and change her vote so we could go home. Oh no, said some jurors in unison, don't just change your vote because of pressure. I silently groaned.

We recessed until the next morning. Perhaps emboldened by our indulgence of her stubbornness, the lone holdout wouldn't budge. Did she have a beef with cops, one exasperated fellow juror asked. Did she want to read the testimony? Nothing worked. Though I was aggravated with her peculiar logic, I couldn't blame her. Absent a video of the event, the evidence on which we were supposed to reach a verdict wasn't enough for this juror. Never mind that convictions were made on less for the centuries before there were such things as videos, wires and tapes. In our technologically indulged times, many folks have lost the ability to arrive at a conclusion based on anything other than a smoking gun.

We solemnly filed back into the jury box and announced our hopeless deadlock. I was frustrated that we couldn't bring closure, but considering it was an 11-to-1 vote, the young assistant DA couldn't consider it a total loss. Plus I got a check for $71.25 for my troubles, and my jury duty was over within half the usual 10 days of required service.

Seth Lubove is Los Angeles bureau chief for Forbes magazine.

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