Rural Juror (transcript)

Published December 27, 2020

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Hi dee hi dee ho, children, and a wop bop a lu bop ba whop bam boom to you and yours on this fine day or evening or late night/early morning, whatever the case may be. The snap of winter is in the air here in the northern hemisphere, and I know it’s weird that when it’s winter here it’s summer in the southern hemisphere, but that’s just something we’re going to have to learn to live with. This, as you may or may not be aware, is THIS IS NOT A TEST, and I, as you may or may not be aware, am your humble civil servant Hannah Phillips.

Well, the presidential election is over, maybe, and a different very old white man will ostensibly be in charge of the country soon. The cynical among you may say, “So what?” and I can’t disagree with that. We’re beyond the tipping point, and I don’t foresee that a President Biden roaming around in the white house will change anything. True, there probably won’t be a psychotic, tiny-handed lunatic Tweeting from the white house anymore, it isn’t clear yet whether he intends to leave when his lease is up. But maybe he was what we deserved. No, I take that back. He’s exactly what we deserved, and here we are.

But this isn’t about all that. What more can be said about this country’s politics? I certainly don’t have any unique insight or wisdom or knowledge that you don’t have, not about politics, anyway, so what I would have to say about any of it doesn’t matter, and it wouldn’t change anyone’s mind if I did say anything about it, so let’s move on to something closer to home. Something that affects all of us. The justice system. Justice, it’s what’s for dinner. And the system is eating your dinner, as it always has and always will.

The part of the justice system I’m going to talk about is jury trials. A jury of your peers, as they say so reassuringly. All sitting there listening to lawyers present cases which the jury then has to decide which side is lying more, and either send someone off to jail or prison, or set them free to be you and me. It’s a weird system, but it’s a weird country, and here we are. It’s better, I suppose, than tribunals or mob rule, if only marginally. But it makes you wonder what a jury of your actual peers would look like. And whether you’d trust them with your fate. Whether you’d want to belong to any club that would accept you as a member.

Well I’m really old and so far in my life I’ve managed to avoid serving on a jury. Until maybe five years ago I ignored the jury summonses that would come in the mail every couple of years, or I would send them back with “SET THE PRISONERS FREE!” or something similar scrawled on them in Sharpie, which always seemed to do the trick as far as keeping me out of the jury box. But then, like I said, about five years ago, I changed my mind. I do that sometimes. You should try it. It’s exciting and it leads you to some weird, unknown places. Anyway, I changed my mind.

What changed my mind was a felony stop. Something all of you brown, black, or otherwise non-white people know all about. But for the paler among you, a felony stop is when the police pull you over because they believe you’ve committed a serious crime, and you may be what they call “armed and dangerous.” They don’t walk up and tap on your car window and say, “How ya doin’?” they stay back, guns drawn, and yell commands to you, or squawk them over a loudspeaker, which they all seem have hidden under the hoods of their cars.

Long story short, I was felony stopped because they thought I’d robbed a bank. Now whether or not I robbed the bank isn’t important, and it’s none of your business, the point is, I ended up face down on a hot Pasadena street, and when I stood up, there were 8 motorcycle cops and 4 squad cars blocking the road, and all of the civil servants present were aiming guns at me. Big guns, little guns, every color of the gun rainbow. There’s something about looking down a dozen, or more – I was too distracted to do an accurate count – but there’s something about looking down all of those gun barrels that’s slightly unnerving. Knowing you, allegedly, didn’t do anything wrong doesn’t make it any more friendly.

If it’s happened to you, you know what I was thinking. If it hasn’t happened to you, what I was thinking was, “All it would take is a random brain synapse firing in a certain random way to cause one of these brave first responders to pull the trigger, and once one of them pulls the trigger, they’re all going to pull the trigger.” That’s what I was thinking, and it’s a reasonable thought to have in a situation like that one. Your life, or the upcoming, exciting, unknown part of your life anyway, is completely out of your control. I mean, our lives are out of our control anyway, for the most part, but in that particular situation, even more so.

Anyway, they didn’t shoot me, but the experience gifted me with that change of mind I mentioned earlier about being willing to be a juror. Mainly because the way the cops determined I wasn’t a bank robber was to drive witnesses past me and have them look at me. Think about that. The guns aiming at me were nothing compared to those police cars driving by with witnesses in the back. If any one of them would have said, “I don’t know, that could be the guy,” off to jail I would have gone. What would have happened then, who knows, but it wouldn’t have been enjoyable.

The system is rigged, if you haven’t heard, and sometimes the only thing standing between you and years as a guest of the state is a jury. I’ve always known that. That it took the felony stop to convince me that I should make myself available to serve on a jury doesn’t say a lot about my character, but I have no excuse to lay at your feet or the feet of the society I live in to justify it. So twice now I’ve gone in to report for jury service. The first time, in Los Angeles, I was excused by the prosecution when they asked if anyone owned guns. I said, “Sure, guns are neat,” and they said, juror number 7, you are excused.

Okay, I didn’t say “guns are neat,” and they may not be, but that was the end of that jury for me. But last month I was called up here in Joshua Tree, and I was selected for a jury. Well, I was called up in June or July, to be more specific, but I put in for a delay, or whatever they call it, that thing where you push the date you have to report up a few months if things aren’t convenient for you. I did that just because it was summer and I didn’t want to sweat out a trial at a desert courthouse. Ironically there weren’t any trials during the summer because of COVID, so if I had reported I would have never served. I hadn’t considered that. I’m not very consider-y, as it turns out.

But in the end, I was glad I put in for the extension, because I got onto the jury for a good trial. The first COVID-era trial out here, as a matter of fact, so it was all mask-y and social-distance-y which makes for an awkward trial, but there we were. The Joshua Tree courthouse is a San Bernardino county courthouse. Joshua Tree is a tiny town, but San Bernardino is a big county. More than two million people. So the trial was for something that happened at a Black Lives Matter protest at the San Bernardino “Justice” Center, AKA courthouse, 75 miles away from Joshua Tree.

Without going into a lot of detail, there was a scuffle at the protest, and a dozen kids were arrested that day. Only one of them was charged, and that was the trial I juried for. Who was this vicious, violent protestor? A 5′ 2″, 104 pound 25 year old girl. She was accused of obstructing a peace officer, which, she absolutely did, but also, get this, battery on a peace officer. Battery on two peace officers. The “peace officers” in question were big, stupid San Bernardino sheriffs. I say stupid because I heard them both testify, not because I think all San Bernardino sheriff officers are stupid. Though I’ll go out on a limb and say that the majority of them may be. It’s an occupational hazard.

Lawyers are funny, in the same way that evil clowns and Nazis are “funny,” meaning they are twisted and weird and mostly, again, let’s say on average, as stupid as most cops. Sorry, peace officers. Lawyers are worse than cops, in countless ways, but they are an essential part of the system. The rigged system that wants to lock you up, whether you technically should be locked up or not. The District Attorney, the lawyer prosecuting the young protestor – oh, let’s say her name, Jaydee Lynn Lopez – but the DA was a particularly vile pile of shit in dress shoes. He gave me that impression from day one, and when I talked to him briefly after the trial, he did nothing to disabuse me of my opinion.

Anyway, as you may have gleaned from what I’ve said so far, I came down on the side of the defendant before the trial even started, before I knew any details. That might not sound impartial, as a juror is supposed to be, but we all have biases, and mine was clearly on the side of the defense and the defendant and anyone protesting for any cause that they feel is just. It’s a first amendment thing, and it isn’t something I can ignore or suppress in the service of being impartial. But I did. I mean, I didn’t suppress my feelings, but I did make a go of being impartial. I gave it my all.

But once the trial started and they showed us video of what happened, my mind was made up. The sheriffs started the scuffle, which was all it was, no blood was shed, no bones were broken. Not because the sheriffs didn’t try to break any bones, the video shows that they did, but because of the randomness of the universe. But they clearly instigated everything that happened, they clearly couldn’t wait for something to happen, so to my mind, nothing that any of the kids did after that should be held against them. If an “arrest” or an attempted arrest or detention is illegal, is getting in the way of that arrest wrong? I don’t think it is, but that’s basically what the case boiled down to and what we the people of the above entitled jury had to argue and decide.

I’ve always been a bit cynical about juries. I don’t think a jury of your “peers” is even possible for some of us, maybe most of us, and how can 12 people come to agreement about anything? Have your parents ever been in town visiting and you’ve tried to decide on where to go out to eat? If 3 or 4 or 5 people can’t do that, how the hell can a jury agree on something that’s slightly more important than what’s for lunch? That’s what I’ve always thought, but I have to say I was impressed by how seriously everyone took their jobs as jurors and how smart and thoughtful most of them seemed to be. Most of them.

Juries are people though, and people are funny. The judge tells you, orders you, in no uncertain terms, not to discuss the trial with other jurors when court isn’t in session. But you do. We did. You spend a lot of time sitting and standing around in hallways waiting for the judge and lawyers to finish their Margaritas or whatever they do in there when the doors are closed, so eventually you’re going to talk to the other jurors, and eventually, at least some opinions are going to be shared. There was one young guy I talked to quite a bit, and the first thing he said to me was. “I think maybe the wrong side is on trial,” which I couldn’t have agreed with more.

But people are funny, and it turned out that guy, along with an older woman, were the cause of some trouble later on, and I found out after the trial that he had been a “corrections officer” in the past. In other words a jail or prison guard or worker. He didn’t seem old enough to have done that, but there you go. But a few of us talked about the trial, not really in-depth or anything, but you could get a vibe from some people of how they were feeling about the thing in general. From others, not so much. It’s an unusual situation, you spend a lot of time with this group of people, but you don’t really know that much about them or how they tick. And it’s even harder to read people when they’re wearing COVID masks.

But I wasn’t really surprised at how some of them ticked, which I found out when we did our initial, raise-your-hands-if-you-think-the-defendant-is-guilty-of-this-charge-or-that-charge voting. But even before that, after the first day of the trial, I came home and said to Carol, “I think I might be the single person who refuses to call this kid guilty. I might have to hang the jury.” And I was prepared to do that. Which, again, I know sounds not so impartial, but we saw the videos on the first day and I just couldn’t. I couldn’t technically find the kid guilty of something that I didn’t see as wrong. Whether it was, you know, technically or legally wrong or not.

And technicalities are everything in a criminal trial. The deliberations were hung up on technicalities for most of the two days we deliberated. That part threw me off. It wasn’t wrong, the other jurors weren’t wrong to argue over technicalities, but I think we didn’t take the big picture into account, something that the foreman and I both pointed out on day two. But the big picture didn’t really come into play the way I thought it should. Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself. What about that first hands-up vote? Well, that was eight for guilty on all four counts, four for not guilty.

I was surprised, considering the evidence I’d seen, but that first vote just made me more worried that I’d be the lone holdout at the end. Oh, and there were four charges because she was charged with obstruction and battery on two different sheriff’s officers. See how they system just piles the shit on you? It’s like when you’re pulled over for a broken tail light and end up with five tickets for other things. And to make the charges even more ridiculous, the defendant, Jaydee, wasn’t arrested the day of the protest. She was arrested a month later, after some “task force” of jughead “peace officers” watched the tape. Probably a hundred times, and probably stopping the tape every two seconds, saying, “Oh, there, couldn’t that be something?” That’s the impression I got. It was all bullshit perpetrated by people who wanted to make something out of nothing because that’s the bulk of their jobs.

I mentioned more than a couple of times during deliberation that I had a hard time with the charges because they didn’t arrest her in the minutes following the scuffle. That they waited a month to arrest her. At another protest, incidentally. If the sheriffs felt “obstructed” or, for Christ’s sake, “battered,” don’t you think they’d have the batterers and obstructers in handcuffs right away? Jaydee was there at the protest all day. They could have arrested her at any time, over the course of many hours. But no. They waited a month. After watching the tape. And there was no tape. I keep saying “tape,” and we all say “tape” about any video or audio recording, even though no one records anything on tape anymore. This isn’t on tape, it’s all digital, yet here we all are saying, “tape, tape, tape, let’s watch the tape, rewind the tape, what does the tape show?”

But as I mentioned, most of the jury members were thoughtful types, and after a few hours of reasoning – and watching the tapes over and over again – we, meaning the four people who were inclined to say “not guilty” to everything, managed to convince the other eight to say “not guilty” to the battery charges. That filled me an unjustified smug confidence that we’d be able to do the same thing with the other two charges, the obstruction charges, but that wasn’t meant to be. Again we got hung up on technicalities, and in the end there were two holdouts. The former corrections officer I mentioned, and an older woman who was of the mind that you’re simply not allowed, under any circumstances – any – to disagree with anything a cop says or does.

We argued and argued but we wound up hung on those two charges. So we had to go in and tell the judge it was a no-go, but she said, “Not so fast,” and sent us back in to deliberate more. A trial is an expensive thing, and an inconvenient thing, so when the jury says they can’t decide, the judge almost always says, “Okay, sure. But maybe you can decide, go back and try again.” She asked if there was anything we needed in order to help us come to a decision, and we said ‘no.’ Or our foreman did. I was thinking, “Yeah, we need two new jurors,” but I don’t think I said that out loud.

We only re-deliberated for another hour, during which the older woman said she’d “go along with what we wanted,” but a couple of us pointed out that that probably wasn’t the point. I told her if she really felt that way, after 10 other people harangued her for an hour, that she was a warrior and she should stand firm. Which she was, even if I thought her war was misguided, narrow-minded, and uninformed. I think I told her not to flip because it very well could have been me there in her shoes with 11 angry people trying to convince me not to hang the jury. Like I said, for a while there I thought that would be me. So I guess I sympathized with her.

The young corrections officer, not so much. He was just stupid, clinging to a technicality that was technically wrong. But no matter how many times we tried to explain that to him, he’d say, “I understand what you’re saying, but…” The problem was he didn’t understand what we were saying. It was like telling someone that eating broken glass might not be good for them, and they keep saying, “I hear what you’re saying, I understand, but let me just eat this broken glass real quick.” It was frustrating. But it was a moot point, as lawyers say, because the older woman flat out told us there was nothing we could say to make her change her mind.

So we went back in to get yelled at by the judge again, but instead she just asked us for the paperwork and read the verdicts. Poor Jaydee was crying as it was being read, I suppose she thought that us being hung on two charges didn’t bode well for the other two. But we surprised her with not guilty verdicts for those, and she was pretty relieved. But being hung on the obstruction charges meant the prick District Attorney could try her again for those charges. Which he did a few days later. But I just found out the other day that the defense filed to have the two charges that we hung on dismissed, and another judge agreed to that, so Jaydee is clear of all the charges now.

While the judge was reading our decisions, I was looking at Jaydee and her lawyer, and her lawyer was looking at us, trying to get a read on the jury. When the judge said “not guilty” for the battery charges the defense lawyer was looking right at me and I just nodded. So the judge released the jury, and while we were on our way out, the defense lawyer asked in passing if I wouldn’t mind hanging around for a few minutes so he could talk to me. So the jury foreman and I hung around in the hallway and talked to the defense lawyer, telling him where his arguments worked with the jury and where they fell flat. We were giving him an intelligence debriefing he could use in the next trial.

While we were talking to him the District Attorney walked up and said some insulting, smug, dicklike things, and asked the foreman and I some of the same questions the defense attorney had asked us. For the same reasons I suppose, to help him next time. But both the foreman and I answered his questions the same way, by saying, “Gee, I don’t know,” or “I’m not sure.” Eventually he figured out we were stonewalling him and walked away. What an idiot. We weren’t about to help him do a better job next time putting some kid in jail for exercising their right to protest.

As we were leaving the courthouse I said to Jaydee, “Your testimony was fire, kid! I’m proud of you.” It was, and I was. I am. The DA was relentlessly picking her apart – and I should just say, Jaydee is young and not incredibly articulate or well-spoken, so it was easy for an experienced lawyer to trip her up and make her look bad. But she kept answering his questions in such a great way. He said, “So you intentionally put yourself between officers and the man they were trying to arrest?” And she said, “Yes, I did. When the cops started swinging I wanted them to hit me, not him.” “Him” being the kid that was leading the chants. The kid the sheriffs were trying to arrest for no reason other than protesting.

She’d editorialize during her answers, throwing in things that weren’t part of the question. “Yes, because we didn’t want him to be shot the way they shot Mr. Bender in the back and nearly killed him when he reached for a lighter.” Referring to the case they were protesting in the first place. It was great. What made it great wasn’t what she was saying. It’s the kind of stuff that you’d expect an older, experienced radical to say in court. It wasn’t great because of what she was saying, it was great because I know she was terrified, but she stood her ground and said what she wanted to say anyway. Under the threat of jail. That’s a warrior, and you have to respect that.

I know she was terrified because while the sheriffs were testifying I watched them, a bit, but mostly I watched the other people in the trial. The lawyers, Jaydee, the judge, the people typing the transcripts, I watched to see how they were reacting to the testimony. Since I was doing that I saw that Jaydee cried a few times. When the video was played, and during both of the sheriff’s testimony. So I know she was scared. And probably frustrated having to sit there and listen to cops lie – and anyone who watched the tapes knew they were lying – in an attempt to get her locked up.

That’s why her testimony was great. Because it’s easy to be a smart ass or a radical when there’s nothing on the line. When you don’t have anything to lose. But to stand on your convictions when you’re the defendant in a criminal trial is an entirely different thing. There’s nothing you can even compare it to. It takes a kind of courage that most of us will never have. Never be in spitting distance of. To talk the way she talked on the stand you either have to be crazy or really, really believe what you’re saying. And I don’t think she’s crazy.

After the trial, before she came and joined us, her lawyer made it pretty clear he thought she fucked up. He said he hadn’t wanted her to testify. And from his point of view I guess I can see why he’d say that. But from a human point of view, and let’s be honest, from an entertainment point of view, because most parts of a trial are pretty boring, her testimony was pure gold. I had to try not to laugh when she’s said some of the things she said on the stand. Because I couldn’t believe I was hearing some of it. It was great. It was fire rained down upon Babylon, Rasta.

Anyway, that’s about it. That’s my rural juror story. I assumed I’d be sitting there listening to two sides argue over a fence or whether a shoplifter should go to prison for fifty years. But I got a good one, and I was glad to be there to help someone who really needed a jury that would hear things in her favor. Even if some of them took some convincing. That’s exactly why I changed my mind about serving on a jury. So I could get to do what I did. I lucked out.

But I’ll tell you what I didn’t like about jury service. And there was only one thing, because the courthouse is about 10 minutes from where I live, so it wasn’t inconvenient at all, but the one thing – my belt set off the metal detector, so every time I went in I’d have to take it off and I don’t really like getting undressed in the doorway of a courthouse or in an airport line. So after the first day I replaced my belt with a raw piece of leather that I just tied around my waist. Can you picture it? Well, it might seem crazy, but you go take your belt off in a courthouse doorway three times a day and see how you like it.

Why didn’t I just wear a different belt then? Why resort to what amounted to a hillbilly belt? Well, what do I look like, a millionaire with a closet full of belts? Okay, I have more than one belt, but a belt buckle is a belt buckle. They probably all would have set off the alarm. And really, what better belt for a rural juror that a leather string?

Oh dear, would you look at the time? I mean, I can’t see a clock from here, but it feels like I’ve been talking long enough. Next time maybe I’ll tell you about my new job, but probably not, because who wants to hear someone talk about their job for half an hour? Not me. Unless your job is funny or dangerous or you work someplace mysterious like the sewer or the back room at the pottery barn. Is there still such a thing as pottery barn? The answer to this important question and so much more next time. Buh-bye.