I had the opportunity to serve as a juror this week for a case in Ontario County, NY. This was the first time I served on a jury. I thought it would be funny to do something like this to get out of it, but now I am really glad I served. It was a great experience. I made several observations about the process, and now that the trial is over, I can talk about it!
Jury selection was a long and tedious process. I was actually quite surprised at how well the judge, prosecutor, and defense attorney handled it. They had to ask 42 potential jurors the same questions over and over, and this lasted about 5 hours. Despite the long and repetitive nature of this procedure, the judge, prosecutor, and defense attorney were polite, friendly, and energetic when they questioned each potential juror. I think this made it easier for everyone to relax and be patient through the entire process.
Next, before this whole process began, I was under the assumption that during jury selection, lawyers tried to choose jurors who were sympathetic to their side. This is probably because I am quite cynical- instead of following the letter of the law, I expected the lawyers to try to manipulate the verdict by stacking the jury with people they could easily manipulate. In this particular case, it does not appear that lawyers did this at all. Instead, the lawyers simply tried to look for jurors who were, in the very least, not biased against their side. For example, the prosecutor had one witness who was disabled and needed assistance testifying. He asked several questions to determine if potential jurors were biased against testimony from witnesses who were disabled, something he clearly wanted to avoid. In addition, the defense attorney knew that the prosecutor would call several law enforcement officials to testify. She asked several questions to determine if potential jurors were biased in favor of witnesses who worked in law enforcement, something she clearly wanted to avoid.
Next, several of the potential jurors were surprised to learn that it is up to the prosecution to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty, and that the defense does not have to present any evidence at all. Several of the potential jurors were confused why a defendant would not have to provide evidence. They assumed that if a defendant did not testify, this meant the defendant was guilty. Clearly those jurors were not selected, since they had a clear bias against the process.
Even though I knew prior to this that a defendant does not have to testify in court, I did not know why. Luckily (for me?) the judge told us briefly about the history of this rule. For those of you who do not know, a defendant does not have to testify because forcing a defendant to testify is akin to torture. In England during the 15th to 17th centuries, courts would determine guilt by torturing victims until they made a statement. This practice was abolished in the 18th century, and defendants no longer had to answer questions. This rule was incorporated into US law with the adoption of the Fifth Amendment. (Another random fact I learned from the judge- in the US, judges did not wear formal robes until the 1880s- the history of this dress code formality can be found here).
Last, I was quite amused at the behavior of the last group of potential jurors. Some background- the day began with the first group of 14 potential jurors (they eventually needed 12 regular jurors and 2 alternates). They chose 5 people from this group (I was in this group, probably because I am unlucky, but I digress!). Then there was the second group of jurors, in which 6 people were picked, which brought the total to 11 jurors, with 3 slots left. Then there was the third group of 14 jurors, in which 3 people would be chosen. The judge indicated that the first 7 people in this group were more likely to be called as jurors than the second 7 people. Apparently instead of looking at the entire group of 14 as a whole to determine who would be jurors, the judge, prosecutor, and defense attorney looked at each juror, in the order they were selected, and determined if they would be a juror or not.
So, out of all the potential jurors questioned that day, these 7 potential jurors had the highest probability of being selected compared to all the other potential jurors. If these people really did not want to serve on a jury, they really had to put in the effort to be sent home. In addition, these potential jurors had more information about what would disqualify them as jurors, as they were able to observe how the other 28 potential jurors acted, observe which ones were sent home, and then make inferences based on this information what they had to do to be sent home. As expected, as the judge, prosecutor, and defense attorney asked these 7 potential jurors questions one by one, most of them made unusually inflammatory statements about how they could not be fair and impartial in the trial. I found this slightly amusing (cynical me again). The judge, prosecutor, and defense attorney ended up having to select potential juror 8 as an alternate since 5 of the first 7 jurors disqualified themselves. If the potential jurors in the first two groups acted this way earlier in the day, I imagine the judge would have had to call a fourth group of potential jurors because there would not have been enough people to fill 14 slots.
Before the trial began, the judge instructed us to base our decisions on the law and to not make our decisions based on what we think the law should be. In his words, we were not able to legislate. Nevertheless, even though were not able to legislate, it is clear to me now that sometimes when legislators pass laws, they delegate some power to judges, lawyers, and jurors to interpret the laws they write.
Background- The defendant of the case, Grant Ackley, is a Level 3 sex offender. In New York State, all Level 3 sex offenders have to fill out a form with a county or state government office that states their current residence every 90 days. They also have to bring in a letter they received at that address within 10 days of the application to prove they are living there. In addition, if a Level 3 sex offender moves within the 90 day period between applications, they have 10 calendar days to report their move to a county or state government. On December 14, 2011, Grant Ackley filled out a form indicating he was living at the Woodridge Hotel in Canandaigua, NY. He did not provide the proper mail to prove his residence, but the clerk accepted his application anyways. On the same day, he also filled out a form for food stamp benefits stating the same address.
There were three charges in the case: (1) the prosecution claimed that Grant Ackley moved out of the Woodridge Hotel sometime in October 2011, he moved into an apartment of a friend who lived above a toy store, and he failed to inform a county or state government official of his move within 10 days of his move; (2) he falsely filled out his 90 residence form with a fake address; and (3) that he also falsely filled out a food stamps application with a fake address. As a jury, we had to determine what a residence or address really meant, and determine whether Ackley gave his correct residence or address. In other words, instead of the legislature or the bureaucracy determining what a residence or address was, it was the responsibility of the jury to determine this definition.
The trial itself only lasted 2 days. Nevertheless, the prosecution presented a lot of evidence on the first day and it was mentally exhausting. I am glad we were able to go home around 4 pm on that day, as it gave us all the opportunity to process the information.
Jury deliberations lasted about 4 hours. Every one of the jurors was polite and open to having an honest/ educated debate, so it was a pleasant experience. I really enjoyed working with them. I feel as though we examined the evidence differently than the prosecutor and defense attorney. Although both lawyers connected some of the dots for us, it was really up to us to examine the evidence to find proof beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant was guilty.
How we decided: We found the defendant guilty on all 3 charges.
How I came to my conclusions:
(1) Based on the evidence presented, it is clear that at some point prior to October 2011, Grant Ackley lived at the Woodridge Hotel. Nevertheless, it is pretty clear that he moved out sometime at the end of October/ beginning of November. He was unable to live at the hotel because he could not pay rent. His income was too low. He would have had 5 dollars left to his name every month if he lived there for an entire month at a time. In addition, back in October, he already owed the hotel back about 250 dollars back rent. One of the witnesses from the hotel testified that he still has not paid his back rent. So by the end of October, he was financially unable to live at the hotel, as his income would have been unable to cover the rent plus the back rent. (2) In addition, he also did not pick up his mail from the Woodridge Hotel, his purported mailing address. The prosecution provided evidence of returned mail from the hotel that indicated Ackley was not there for at least 15 days in November. (3) It was pretty clear throughout the trial that Grant Ackley spent a great deal of time at his friend’s apartment during the months of October, November, and December 2011. He also had a lot of belongings at that apartment. (4) The prosecution also provided 2 pieces of evidence where the defendant stated that his address was his friend’s address, not the Woodridge Hotel. During a 911 call about a domestic dispute, Ackley identified his friend’s address as him own. In addition, when Ackley was arrested on December 31, 2011, he identified his friend’s address as his own. (5) The hotel worker provided evidence that someone else was occupying the Woodridge Hotel room from December 22 to December 28, 2011. Ackley could not have lived there. Even IF Ackley lived at the hotel until December 21, based on the law, he would have had to report this move by December 30, the last calendar day he was able to report, which he did not. (6) Last, the evidence definitely suggested that Ackley was not living in the hotel in November and at the end of December. Could Ackley have paid 400 dollars to stay at the hotel in the middle of December to stay there for the week of December 14, 2011? Maybe, but that would have been half his monthly income and he had no intent on staying there long term. His permanent residence was with his friend, as indicated by him being there after December 21, 2011. Essentially his stay at the hotel would have been considered a short vacation or trip, only a temporary movement.
As I stated earlier, I am glad I participated on a jury. I am now less cynical about the judicial process. I can also share this experience with my students in the future. Maybe I can leave them with a more positive view of the US judicial system. In addition, after this experience, I feel like I should participate more in politics and other government related activities. It was fun to analyze the judicial process. But I also feel like I learned a lot too, about a topic that is relevant our discipline.
And, finally, just for fun: