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.
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.