Monday, September 19, 2011

Unreasonable Doubt

Last Monday I reported for jury duty at the Stanley Mosk Courthouse in downtown Los Angeles, hoping to hang out in the jury room, read all day and not get picked for a panel. Afterwards, I'd go home and forget about jury duty for the next 18 months to two years. The closest I've ever come to sitting on a panel was many years back when I made the cut at traffic court for a drunk driving case. But the defendant settled before trial—gutless wimp! Every since, I've sat in the juror room every couple of years, reading a damn thick book. Stacks of newspapers gave way around me to laptop cubicles, then WiFi and iPhones. But I remained the perennial jury duty wall flower, showing up for a day of reading with my thick library book.

Clara Shortridge-Foltz Criminal Justice Center

At first, Monday went as expected. I wasn't called for any morning panels. We broke for lunch. Afterwards, I resumed my reading. Suddenly about 40 names were called out including mine. We're being transferred to another courthouse further away from where our cars were parked. Apparently, the Clara Shortridge-Foltz Justice Center Building—also known as the Criminal Courts Building— ran out of jurors. Great. We're being sent to a legal meat grinder. Forty of us walked out into a bright sunny afternoon up to Temple, then east down past the LA Cathedral, across Hill Street, through a gauntlet of street folk that included a bald transvestite in women's platform shoes and a cadre of Informal Americans with super sized Styrofoam "donation" cups to the Criminal Courts Building and up to Department 46.

To my surprise and discomfort, I was sworn in on a panel at Superior Court. Our case involved seven misdemeanor counts that included spousal abuse, battery, intimidation, imprisonment, violation of restraining order plus damaging a cell phone thrown in for good measure. (That's what you get for not taking a plea bargain.) I didn't want to sit in a room with a bunch of strangers and decide seven counts. My fondest wish was that the defendant would do the right thing by me and settle.

But no. Not only wouldn't he settle but he claimed not to understand English very well. That meant a translator ghosted everything said by anybody in the courtroom—judge, clerk, bailiff, city attorney, defense attorney, witnesses—from English into Korean. There were two translators and they tagged in and out like wrestlers, warming the seat next to the defendant and keeping the air filled with muttered Korean. It was distracting. You never really got used to it.

Basically, the case came down to this: the victim said her husband punched her lights out one morning with a closed fist, smothered her with a pillow, restrained her until she promised not to call the cops, released her, then chased her into the bathroom, grabbed her cell phone and played keep away until she again promised not to call the cops. She promised and he let her leave.

Once outside she called the cops.

The defendant said via translator that his wife was a crazy cocaine addict who made weird glottal sounds as if she were speaking in tongues. He had accidentally hugged her too hard and that was what had caused the victim's facial injuries. Also his right hand suffered from a preexisting condition that would prevent him from ever punching his wife but not earning a living as a musician.

In addition, the defendant wore a sharp looking gray suit but no socks and running shoes. Where the heck were his socks? Unfortunately you are under orders not to discuss the case with anybody including fellow jurors. To my knowledge, everybody on the panel clammed up. We never discussed the sock angle. Now my fellow jurors are gone and I'm left alone with my memories.

On Thursday afternoon I was at lunch in a nearby food court waiting for my Quiznos salad special. I glanced next to me and there were the defendant and his attorney. They didn't recognize me, but I heard the defendant speaking pretty confident English. Granted, the Quiznos menu isn't exactly the works of Thomas Aquinas but for a guy who was burning up two translators he sounded like he could sling around a few good English sentences.

But you can't share that with anyone. And when it's time to deliberate, you can't use it because it's outside the evidence and testimony presented in court and they're all you get to judge the defendant. So no socks and OK English. These remained locked inside of me like valuable jewels kept deep in a bank vault guarded by goblins.

Witnesses came and went; there was cross and re-direct and inquiries and muttered Korean droning on and on. There were cops and a paramedic and a victim friend and a doctor who testified for the defendant, arms folded tightly across his chest as if posing for a painting to be titled "hostile witness."

The court provided you with note pads. You could take notes but had to leave them in the courtroom. The juror sitting next to me used his notebook to doodle an intriguing series of thick arrows along with parallel pencil strokes throwing off shadows. I wondered if he would be thoughtful and wise during deliberations. (I found out.)

Tomorrow: A Pocketful of Koreans
Image: Wickipedia and Chow


Tom Ruegger said...

Definitely one of my favorite "Write Enough" posts of all time -- I honestly can not wait for the next chapter. This should be published in the LA Times or LA Weekly or Los Angeles Magazine -- it should be.

takineko said...

Hahaha, well even if his English is pretty good, better safe than sorry I guess. I bet those missing socks are the key to the whole shebang though...

John P. McCann said...

Takineko, I can't give away the surprise ending.

John P. McCann said...

Thanks, Tom.

It's an experience not to be missed.

Troy said...

Aye aye aye, I too had the "privilege" of serving a three week trial at the Clara Shortridge building about this time last year. The only thing that kept me going was the faint glimmer of hope that the Judge Wapner who served at the end of the hall was one in the same as his television counterpart. And that he was in there dispensing justice for the people. Sadly, I was not in the Honorable Wapner's court, I was in a courtroom down the hall where we were subjected to a stalking and intimidation case amid the lovely brutalist architecture. Anyway, the point of this comment was that I really enjoyed the nearby Quiznos. And my morning excursions through downtown exploring during breaks. But mainly Quiznos.

John P. McCann said...

Three weeks would have finished me.

Ah, but there was always the LA Mall and Quiznos.