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Willie's Off-Brand Web Journal

Saturday, September 27, 2014:

Glam Chicken!

I recently sent an email to Amanda in which I wrote a freaking textbook about my recent jury duty experience, and she suggested that I post it because she found it amusing, so you're going to hear way too much about it here! In the middle of July, I was summoned to the Penobscot County Court to sit in a jury pool of 150 or so potential jurors. Unlike most patriotic Americans--such as John Linnell, who I remember once writing an essay in which he talked about throwing his jury duty summonses away until he received one "which suggested that if I was not interested in being a juror, they had an opening in the role of defendant"--I had long been looking forward to the day that I'd be selected for jury duty, as I find our nation's judicial system fascinating and also enjoy having the power to play God with my fellow citizens' freedom. The first day I arrived, they discovered that they'd ordered way too many jurors for the day, so they sent me and about 30 others away and told us to come back the following day. Seems like the sort of thing they could have anticipated; it's not like picking up more hot dog buns than you ultimately need for your party's attendance. Anyway, seeing what went on just in the brief segment of time between when they announced I could be sent home and when I gathered my things and left has comprised quite a deterrent for me as far as ever committing any crimes, because evidently "a jury of my peers" would mean "the biggest whiners in all of creation." Upon hearing the announcement, dozens of people started raising their hands and saying they needed to go home because they had to take their pills at a certain time, they didn't have anyone to watch their kid, or any number of other things they could and should have planned ahead for.

When I returned the following day, they told us that they were going to be spending the entire day selecting juries for all of the criminal cases that the court would be hearing for the remainder of July. (All six of them. Either I live in an even lower-crime area than I'd thought or the district attorney has been going bananas with the plea bargains.) We were first made to fill out a brief questionnaire asking whether we'd ever been involved in any way with a court trial regarding either a DUI or a case of domestic abuse, and whether our ability to be impartial in these cases would therefore be questionable. Then, in an attempt to show us a brief, Troy McClure-esque video about the powers and responsibilities of jurying, the poor volunteer tasked with that duty caused the video screen to descend from the ceiling and get slurped back up again three or four times, which I don't think anyone found as funny as I did. She finally got the video to work, after which we were led into the courtroom proper, where 130 of us were all simultaneously sworn in. Without thinking, I answered the "Do you swear to tell the truth, etc.?" question with "We do," which I immediately realized was pretty presumptuous of me.

The jury selection process for each case began with the judge asking some general questions to the entire group, such as "Does anyone personally know the defendant?" and "Does anyone feel, for any reason, like they would be unable to be an impartial juror in this case?" (The guy sitting next to me answered affirmatively to that question for every single case. Later, as we all left the courtroom for the day, I overheard him boasting to some pretty young woman about how he'd figured out this clever loophole that enabled him to beat the system, and the woman spat, "That's terrible." So he backpedaled madly, saying, "Well, it's not like I wanted to...")

Then the judge and lawyers would confer at sidebar, looking through the questionnaires we'd filled out, whittling the candidates for that trial's jury down to 30 or so. Then the 30 people would be called to stand up, one by one, and the lawyers would make notes, I assume about each person's age, gender, race, and general appearance ("slovenly" is the word I'm guessing was scribbled next to my name). Then the laywers would confer with the judge again and they'd bring the field down to 12 jurors as well as two or three backup jurors who would sit in on the cases but wouldn't participate in the deliberations unless one of the real jurors was excused mid-trial for some reason. This process took 30 to 45 minutes per case, and if I hadn't brought a suitably long book (Bob Mould's fine autobiography, See a Little Light), I would've been crawling the walls with boredom by the end of the day. There were a number of people who were just sitting there silently for the entire day, who I assume were enjoying a protracted tantric sex session, because there is otherwise no way they could've been so fidgetless.

Toward the end of the afternoon, I got selected for one of the juries (thankfully not one of the domestic violence ones, which I'm sure would've made my blood boil), and so I had to come back the following week for that trial. The courtroom itself was very nice, by the way. Cushy, relaxing chairs for the jury, air conditioning, and HD screens in front of each juror's seat on which evidentiary pictures were brought up in addition to being projected on the far wall. It was a far cry from what I'd imagined going in: the stereotypical movie courtroom with one slowly rotating, ineffectual ceiling fan high above the proceedings, the lawyers continuously blotting their foreheads with handkerchiefs while the jury sits uncomfortably on a wooden bench built at a 90-degree angle.

In the case we heard, the defendant was charged with "driving to endanger," which I gather is Maine's equivalent of reckless driving. Basically, this woman was accused of trying to impress her 20-year-old son by peeling out onto a fairly high-traffic road in her Mustang, then losing control and smashing into an oncoming flatbed. During the opening statements, the defense attorney didn't say much about the actual crime, and merely emphasized to us that the standard of proof for conviction in this case was "beyond a reasonable doubt," which told me he didn't have much of a case to begin with. (It reminded me of Owen Wilson in The Royal Tenenbaums: "Everybody knows that Custer died at Little Big Horn. What this book presupposes is... maybe he didn't?") He was hilarious. He managed to carry himself in a way that made him seem simultaneously swaggeringly cocky and full of shame at how far in over his head he was. Here's a representative piece of dialogue from the case:

PROSECUTING ATTORNEY: So, Mr. James, did the defendant continue spinning her wheels right up until the time of the crash?
[Two-second pause while the judge makes an exaggerated "On what grounds?" gesture.]
DEFENSE ATTORNEY: I mean, "spinning her wheels"? What? It's ... [Trails off]
JUDGE: Overruled.

Before lunch recess, we heard the prosecution's argument (two eyewitnesses, crash scene photos, and the cop who arrived at the scene), and after lunch we heard the defense's argument, which consisted solely of the defendant testifying on her own behalf. While she was on the stand, the defense attorney brought up a few of the crash photos, and he seemed to be taking the tack of suggesting that the visible tire tracks leading directly from her entry onto the road right up to the crash site weren't hers, or at least could conceivably be somebody else's. However, that tactic was abandoned when the defendant repeatedly referred to them as "my tracks."

So then the defense's argument shifted toward it being the car's fault. Specifically, the defendant claimed that the driveway she was pulling out of was gravelly, and so she turned off the car's traction control because--although she claimed she had no idea what the traction control button actually did--she thought this would make it possible to get out of the driveway without gravel spitting up and dinging her car. Now, at the time of her testimony, I had no idea what traction control is generally used for. In fact, below is a complete list of my car-related knowledge:


But even I thought this was a pretty stupid argument. If you're going fast enough in a driveway that you're worried about gravel flying everywhere, then I'm pretty sure you're guilty of breaking some law. But anyhow, she claimed that she turned the control off without knowing what it would do, under the assumption that it'd give her more traction, I guess? She really wasn't clear on her reasoning. Anyway, she then claimed that she turned onto the road and the car somehow did its own thing and crashed into the truck. It was such a sad and transparent attempt to weasel her way out of culpability that the prosecuting attorney didn't even bother cross-examining her.

Then the attorneys presented their closing arguments, which were pretty close in tenor to their opening statements (D.A.: "We have evidence and eye-witnesses showing this is what she did." DEFENSE: "None of you were there, so who are you to say the car wasn't haunted?"), and the judge explained in detail what law the woman was charged with breaking. Interestingly, she emphasized that "driving to endanger" has nothing to do with intent in spite of the way the term sounds; the prosecution just had to prove that the defendant willfully made a decision that constituted exceedingly poor judgment.

With that, it was time for deliberation. In retrospect, we probably could've saved ourselves 40 minutes if we'd just taken a vote at the beginning of this session, but instead the table instantly broke up into four separate and simultaneous conversations:
I actually did learn from one of my fellow jurors that traction control is what you would turn off if you intended to peel out impressively and leave a patch, which made the defendant's story sound even less plausible than it had. Eventually we did get around to voting, and we unanimously found the woman guilty in spite of my fear that some of the jurors were having so much fun jawing at one another that they would toss in a few "not guilty"s to extend their impromptu kaffeeklatsch. So we had the bailiff call everybody back in and the judge asked the foreman to deliver the news. It was kind of anticlimactic. Following the verdict, the judge just thanked us for our service, the defense attorney and defendant made faces that communicated, "Yep, that's pretty much how we thought it'd go," and we were shunted out of the courtroom without so much as a bonking of the gavel. I've thought about paying for a transcript of the trial just to see if it includes the woman's sentencing, out of curiosity, but that seems like a needless expense. Anyway, it made for a very interesting few days over the summer and I got nearly 30 bucks for my trouble! The system works!

CURRENT MUSIC: Some of the rough mixes for the new Disclaimer album, They Burned for 18 Days! I've said this every year for at least six years, but I'm really hoping to finish this album by year's end. I've got eleven songs done and two more nearly done, but then there are an additional two that are going to be toughies.
CURRENT MOOD: Constructive.
CURRENT READING: An article that my cousin Jay sent me about the 20th anniversary of Ween's Chocolate and Cheese, one of my top-ten favorite albums.
TIME: 2:43 PM.


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