The litter of the law

This may ramble a bit as I spin out and organize my thoughts, free-association style.  So, please indulge me.

It is interesting how events conflow to produce a series of thoughts or actions related to a particular topic.  Earlier this week I posted about Judgment at Nuremberg (on the occasion of Oscar-winning star, Maximillian Schell’s death).  The value of this film, to me, is how it forces the audience to consider the nature of a legal framework that institutes inhumanity as law, pitted against man’s innate conscience.  Wikipedia states this as follows:

The film is notable for its use of courtroom drama to illuminate individual perfidy and moral compromise in times of violent political upheaval… [it] explores individual conscience, responsibility in the face of unjust laws, and behavior during a time of widespread societal immorality.

At the beginning of the week, I received a jury summons for March (so if I disappear for a week in March, you are fore-advised). All of this drew me to watch some of the Michael Dunn trial. Dunn is accused of firing ten shots into the car of four unarmed African American minors, killing one of them, because they were playing loud music and allegedly showed Dunn “disrespect” when he asked them to turn it down.

I normally do not watch court television, except in cases that capture my attention, like the Scott Peterson or Casey Anthony trials, where children are involved.  On the heels of the outrageous acquittal of George Zimmerman, however, this has become (for me) a serious reflection on our (in)justice and trial system.

In the past I would try to get out of jury duty.  But, once I watched the original 12 Angry Men, I changed my mind and decided that I would want sincere and deliberative people to judge me and owed my fellow citizens no less.  So, I always respond to summons immediately.  There is really no way to get out of it anymore, anyway and they have it all online now, including extensive orientations by video that you have to sign in, view, register and then test for, to prove one has processed the summons and shows up.

Last time I went, was five years ago or so.  When I was called to the stand for the selection process, the prosecution wanted me but the defense nixed me for the final jury because I truthfully mentioned that my in-laws had been the victims of a home invasion robbery at gunpoint (the trial I was called to was for a carjacking).  Geoff’s family was held at gunpoint while burglars demanded the contents of their safe.  It turned out that the robbers had the wrong house (they meant to rob the next door neighbor) but the family thought they were toast because the gunmen did not wear masks.  Geoff’s baby brother was nine at the time and the intruders did not know he was in an upstairs bedroom.  He somehow sussed out the situation, climbed out an upstairs window, shinnied down a vine and ran to get help.  They were all safe in the end and the culprits were arrested, but it was harrowing and became vivid family lore.  So, apparently, I am spoiled for similar cases.  And, I was happy to be released from jury duty, at that time.

220px-170592-Judgment-at-Nuremberg-Posters

Now my concerns are somewhat different.  Over the years, I have been involved in work-related litigation and those experiences, as well as the subverting of justice in some of these recent high profile murder cases has caused me to seriously question the wisdom of our so-called ‘peer’ jury system.  What makes us think 12 laymen, with nothing better to do (indulge me here, as I am potentially about to be one of these next month)(unless it is an armed robbery case), can sort out complex crimes like the one in the Dunn case right now.  Yesterday, after hours of wrangling, they had a series of questions that all the talking legal heads on the air could barely articulate and explain.

Attorneys, including prosecutors, are a mixed bag when it comes to training and skill.  I have no legal background whatsoever (something I regret — as an aside, I think everyone should take law, mechanics [automotive and bicycle], child/human development, accounting/finance, and home maintenance/repair courses just to be able to live intelligently in the 21st century, but that is the subject of a future post, perhaps) and even I was jumping out of my chair at the poorly mounted prosecutory case against Dunn.  And, to add insult to injury, it was being delivered by the same team that screwed up the George Zimmerman trial. If experienced prosecutors often bungle the law, how do we expect a grab-bag of uneducated (legal-wise) neighbors to get it right?  I am afraid they are about to let Dunn, a racist, far-right wing nut get away with firing 10 shots at four children, for no other reason than they were living while black!

This also brings in the gun issue, as the Dunn incident took place, as did the Zimmerman murder of Trayvon Martin, in Florida where the state has a ‘stand your ground’ law.  In other words, you don’t need to retreat if you decide you are being threatened, and you can even use deadly force to so-called protect yourself from the imagined or perceived threat.  This is an ALEC/NRA gun lobby law that apparently over half of our states have.  Gun violence has spiked in those states, as have, predictably, gun sales.  It is a frightening and disturbing trend in American jurisprudence and a perversion of the 2nd amendment, in my view.

Along the way, I have been in various comical situations that involved court appearances.  Back in graduate school, I was with my then boyfriend, an engineering grad student and his married friends, a fellow engineer and his biologist wife, in a tiny four-cylinder, 100 hp wreck, headed to a mid-day party in New Jersey.  We were pointed up a steep, icy hill, at at a stop sign on a T. The car was slipping and Chris, the driver, had to slightly (and I mean almost imperceptibly) accelerate, just to get up over the hump and make a left turn.  We couldn’t have been going more than 5 mph after making the full stop.  Out of nowhere came a b/w patrol car, siren blaring, pulling us over and angrily barking into the car that Chris had run the stop sign.  He decided to fight it in court and we naive 20-somethings all agreed to be witnesses. When we appeared, the officer — somebody right out of Duck Dynasty — took the stand and in what I swear to you was a country drawl (this, not ten miles from NYC), heatedly swore that we were hot-dogging, Chris gunned the car and that there were ‘rockets in that-there engine’.  We each took the stand and calmly and seriously testified on his behalf, sure that our neat appearance, solid citizen professions, and articulate, first-hand testimonies would carry the day and serve justice. Guess.  A $1250 ticket and fine, and points on his license.  We were stunned.

Another case occurred when Geoff and I worked for one of his dad’s companies, which Geoff ran for him when we first got married.  It was a breach of contract case and Geoff was the plaintiff.  We never even got to court, because the judge Downtown threatened to virtually destroy us if we didn’t settle, even though we were the victims and had a solid case.  That experience sitting in his private chambers, his Honor glaring at us as if we were criminals, with our insurance company rep and attorney stammering on our behalves,  was so unnerving, that I quake at the sight of Federal Court to this day.  You have no idea how powerful the Federal government is until you go through something like that.  I would hate to have been the perp in those chambers. So much for blind justice.

That case eventually made its way to arbitration in NY.  The three retired justices who heard the case were so magnificent, they almost restored my faith in our system.  We also had a different attorney, a Park Avenue genius who is one of the most brilliant people I have ever met. Our insurance company found him — we didn’t even have to bring in my FIL to help us.  I learned more about the law from that experience and those individuals than all else I have witnessed, put together.

Time will tell what happens in the Dunn case, but I am now convinced that the only way to get justice, is to have cases heard and decided by qualified legal experts, ideally, retired judges with impeccable records.  Why don’t we have that?  I am sure it is a matter of money and a Constitution drafted at a time when only literate and sterling men of flawless character would presume to pass judgment in serious matters.  Now we have people on our juries who rush to judgment so they can go on trips (Casey Anthony) or go home for the weekend (George Zimmerman) or protect a hero (OJ Simpson) or salvage a three-day holiday.

Our recent legal history is strewn with bad judgment.  Especially now that more and more of our prisons are private enterprises that must keep an 80% occupancy to be solvent.  This refers back to the issue of why, for example, there is equal infraction on drug felonies between Caucasians and African Americans, yet the latter are the overwhelming majority among the incarcerated. The confluence of the prison industrial complex and polarized and often clueless “peer” juror system is increasingly alarming.

Janning [asks Haywood] to believe that he and the other defendant judges never desired the mass murder of innocents. Judge Haywood replies, “Herr Janning, it came to that the first time you sentenced a man to death you knew to be innocent.”

I will not be allowed to discuss my jury experience until well after it is over, so, I am hoping that whatever transpires will prove me wrong and my concerns to be undue subjectivity and anecdotal bias.  Let me know what you think.

Images: Wikipedia

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10 Comments on “The litter of the law

  1. I’ve had a number of friends called to jury duty lately- all of whom were dismissed for various reasons. Despite the fact that this came as a relief to all of them (since they wouldn’t have to miss work/be away from young families), it has illustrated one of the (many) problems with the jury system.

    Those who SHOULD be participating- educated professionals- rarely seem to serve. Defence lawyers don’t want people who can reason things through, think critically and see to the truth of the matter, they want those who can be manipulated and who might well get lost as forensic language is thrown at them.

    I have one friend who was dismissed by the defence side since he self-identified as an atheist and the case had an aspect of ‘religion’ involved (it was actually a murder case that was being argued- in part- from a perspective having to do with religious/cultural differences).

    The system is about filling the juries with people who will be most persuaded as to the ‘facts’ of the case by one side or the other.

    Lately we seem to be seeing more and more evidence that the system is failing. I’m not suggesting that all cases should be decided according to the decision of one, single jurist (that system has it’s own fair share of issues), but perhaps something more akin to British system might lead us toward a system more concerned with actual justice than ‘winning/losing’ cases.

    Thought provoking post, Beth.

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    • Thank you Cole. I think a system with each criminal case being decided by a panel of three retired Judges with good records would work far better than the one we have now. But, I won’t hold my breath.

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  2. OH, PREACH IT, SISTER! Well written and articulate post.
    Our justice (or [in]justice, as you so rightly called it) system has become so perverted that it’s a wonder anyone receives a fair trial. Our jury system is antiquated and unreliable. I, too, believe we need professional and unbiased jurists to weigh in on and adjudicate cases, and rather than one judge hearing a case, a panel of 3-5 to keep them honest. In addition, there needs to be video cams in all courtrooms and no one trying cases in the public arena.
    In other words, our entire system needs to be overhauled.

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    • I wish we could find the political will to overhaul it. What a mess. Just hearing about the slanted information the jury was given in this “loud music” trial, makes my blood boil. It has also convinced me never to move to Florida, which is a state I had liked and spent a fair amount of time in when I was young. I don’t know that I would even feel safe at Disney World!!! Thank you Susan.

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  3. Like your 3 retired judge jury idea, but until something such as that happens I’m glad there are people like you who will serve.
    I can barely watch the press coverage on any trial, especially when people phone in to offer their comments.
    It also amazes me the amount of ridiculous lawsuits that are filed, and then settled, because it is less expensive to give the plaintiff money (even if the suit is frivolous) than it is to take it to trial. But I guess that’s another post….

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    • You are so right. We were pushed to drop our suit, and in fact, we actually lost part of it in Los Angeles, even though we were the plaintiffs. The judge was “outraged” that middle class, white people were bringing a civil suit against other middle class white people. It was a business breach of contract, what were we supposed to do? There was no settlement even discussed until we won the case in NY where the other parties were headquartered. TG for NY! But, your point is well taken – the system is prone to being gamed or it just doesn’t work properly. It is like our infrastructure, it is broken.

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      • I was not referring to breach of contract, or other legitimate Torts, of course, because that is your only course of action to collect damages.
        If we had less “Your Coffee Is Too Hot”, “I Had A Staple In My Pizza” (placed there and consumed by the claimant), or “You Shaved My Mother’s Upper Lip Without Permission While She Was In The ALS” suits, maybe the court system would function at a different level.
        Forgive me for jumping off the subject a bit to vent about a pet peeve.
        Now about those Court TV shows that accept and broadcast phone calls from the media-educated public….

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        • No worries, I understood you completely and agree. The whole thing is a mess because people just act irresponsibly and then don’t want to acknowledge it and do something to correct the system. 🙂

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