Warning – this is a LONG post!
As I wrote earlier, I received a jury notice in the mail in January, and when I reported, was actually selected to serve on a jury for a trial in Snohomish County Superior Court. The process was a new, interesting (and inconvenient) experience for me.
The Reporting Process
The first step to my excellent jury duty adventure required me to actually report for service. We were instructed to arrive to the courthouse no later than 8:10 am on Tuesday. After parking, I quickly joined a couple of other potential jurors in the parking garage elevator and we all nervously navigated our way across the Snohomish County Campus to the courthouse. Similar to an airport, we had to go through a security checkpoint before checking into the jurors room. There, we were greeted by the clerk, who instructed us to grab a clipboard, complete the brief biographical overview form and take a seat. She also pointed out where we could get our parking validated and reminded everyone in the room that those who park on the street WILL get not just one – but multiple parking tickets. A few people scrambled out to move their cars.
After finding a seat, I experienced the first of what would be many long waits. I scanned the room occasionally and was fascinated by the diverse group assembled. Finally, after about 45 minutes or so the jury administrator walked to the podium and spoke into the microphone – greeting us again and providing brief housekeeping issues. She then introduced a video that was written and produced by Snohomish County that provides an overview of the jury selection process, what to expect during the jury selection process as well as expectations for the jury itself. I have to say, the video was quite well done – and was easily watched on one of the 10 or so monitors available in the room. The administrator informed us the video was indeed an award-winner, and is used in all courthouses across Washington state. When the video was finished, a judge was introduced and he spoke to the group, letting us know how much he and the rest of the county and state appreciated our reporting for duty. He gave a nice, brief talk and then departed. It was time to wait again. The administrator explained that we needed to wait for the courtroom clerk to come in before the next stage could kick off – and it was unclear how long the initial proceedings in the courtroom would take.
Around 11 am or so, a young law clerk (fresh out of law school) came into the room and addressed the 60 or so potential jurors, He explained that he would read our name and then a number. We had to write our juror number on the form that contained our brief biography and then turn in the clipboard and paper. We then received a new badge that contained the badge number and were instructed to clip that onto our initial jurors badge. We were told that we needed to visibly wear these badges at all times while in or around the courthouse – so that any attorneys, witnesses or others would identify us and know not to talk to us (for fear of us hearing about our case). I was juror #5.
After all badges were dispersed, Ben had to go back up to the court room to check on the proceedings. We again had to wait. He returned and then told us the court was ready for juror selection – so we all had to go up to the 5th floor. The courthouse has 3 banks of elevators – none of which are very fast. So it took awhile for all 60 potential jurors to make their way up to the 5th floors. As people arrived in different stages, Ben instructed us to line up according to our badge numbers. He explained that the first 13 would fill the first 2 rows of the jury box while the rest would be seated in the gallery section of the court. He reminded a few men who wore baseball caps that hats had to be removed when they entered the courtroom.
We entered the courtroom and I quickly scanned the room. Anyone who has watched any type of legal drama or show on TV would instantly recognize all the characters. The judge, court reporter, deputy prosecutor, young public defender and of course, the defendant himself. At this point of course, we still had no idea what the case was or what the charges were against this man. The judge greeted us and provided us with a series of instructions for the jury selection process. He explained that the attorneys would be asking us a number of questions to determine our suitability for the jury. He then said that this was a domestic abuse case, and said that any potential juror who had experience (either direct or indirect) would obviously be questioned more carefully to determine if their views were prejudiced at all. He also explained that because the court understands that some information can be considered private and not appropriate for all potential jurors to hear, that any juror who wanted to share the information privately (only in front of him and the attorneys) were free to do so. He then asked how many potential jurors wished to share information in private and about 5-6 raised their hands. The judge then said that because it was getting close to the lunch break, the court would excuse all potential jurors except those who wanted to answer these questions in private. We were told to return by 1:30.
Once we returned, the attorneys began their public jury selection process. They took turns asking the jury questions ranging from experiences with domestic abuse to law enforcement. This probably took about 45 minutes or so. Once they were finished, they each had the opportunity to dismiss potential jurors – either because they felt the jurors had too direct of a connection to the case (those dismissals were unlimited) or for any reason they wanted (but didn’t have to disclose). Those were limited to 6 each (I think). Since I was juror #5, I was already “in the box” so I needed to be dismissed if I was going to get out of serving. But looking around at the other potential jurors, I knew the odds of me being dismissed were probably pretty slim. And I was right – I made the final cut. And just like that, the trial was underway. The judge again provided us with instructions – most heavily emphasizing the importance of us not to discuss the case with ANYONE while the trial was going on. He said this was especially true with other jurors. He cited examples of having to declare mistrials because one juror mentioned to another during an elevator ride, “isn’t this the most ridiculous thing you’ve ever heard of?” He admonished us to remain silent about the case until it was concluded – the point could not have been made any more clearly.
The Trial Kicks Off
So the trial kicked off Tuesday afternoon with opening statements from each attorney. The deputy prosecutor opened and explained that the defendant was being charged with 2nd degree assault and 2nd degree harassment.. He claimed that the defendant had allegedly tried to strangle his girlfriend at the time (with the hood of her sweatshirt) – and then threatened to burn down her apartment (with her and her daughter inside). The public defender spoke next and said that she would demonstrate that there was no evidence of this crime occurring – and would also show how inconsistencies and behavior patterns of the accuser would undermine her credibility. That was the extent of the trial on Tuesday. The judge dismissed us and reminded us again not to discuss any aspect of the case with others.
Wednesday – State Witnesses
Wednesday we reported at 9:30 am to the jury room and were again escorted to the 5th floor by Ben. The prosecution opened its case by calling its first witness, the Deputy who responded to an emergency 911 call to an apartment complex in Lynnwood. He reported that he received the call and arrived in the early morning hours – close to 3 am. He found the defendant sitting near the garbage bin, bleeding profusely from cuts on his head. He questioned the defendant and then went to the apartment to continue his investigation. There he met the defendant’s girlfriend of the time, and she told the deputy that the two of them had argued during the night, and that while she was lying on her bed speaking to a friend on her cell phone, the defendant entered the room and in a fit of rage, sat on her torso, pull the hood of her sweatshirt across her neck, and tried to choke her. She said that in an effort to defend herself, she used her cell phone to bash him on the head multiple times – causing him to bleed. She also said that as he left the apartment, he threatened to “burn down the house” – with her and her daughter inside.
A quick aside here – as the trial started, the judge told us we could take notes. But the court provided us with notebooks – each with a number corresponding to our juror number. We were told that the notebooks could never leave the courtroom – and that all notes taken would be removed and shredded at the conclusion of the trial.
Back to the trial, I made a note regarding the deputy’s age and experience. He was very young and had only been part of the Snohomish Sheriff Department for about a year and a half. After hearing the girlfriend’s story, he took photographs in the apartment – including a couple that had the woman posed on the bed to demonstrate how she was lying down when attacked as well as another that showed her pulling the hood across her throat (to demonstrate what the defendant allegedly did). The photos showed lots of blood drops on the bed sheets and comforter – as well as blood on her sweatshirt (although it appeared smeared – not drops). After hearing the girlfriend’s story and taking photographs, the deputy proceeded to then arrest the defendant – without taking him to the apartment to get his version of the night’s events (this proved to be instrumental later).
Witness: The Accuser
The next witness for the State was the girlfriend who made the allegations. She was a heavy-set black woman who was obviously muslim (based on the Takiya she wore). I could see her hands visibly shake as she was sworn in before taking a seat. It was clear she was extremely anxious. In the course of the questioning, her version of sequence of events that day/evening were this: she had agreed to go to a cookout with the defendant and brought her 8 year old grand daughter. The cookout was in Bothell – they received a ride from the defendant’s friend. She said that during the drive to the house and while they were there, he became verbally abusive towards her. She also claimed he was drinking heavily. At some point she decided to leave with her granddaughter – even though she had no idea where to go. She eventually found a bus line and many hours later, arrived back at the apartment – and the defendant was already home. She claimed he broke into the apartment by cutting a hole through her daughter’s screen and breaking the window. She said that after some additional arguing, she told him the relationship was over and he needed to move out – and this is what set him off.
One never wants to take any allegation of domestic violence lightly, but her story seemed to have holes nearly immediately. Under cross-examination, she initially said that she did not have any marks from the attempted strangulation – but then said that marks appeared a few days later. Still, there were no photographs nor any report from anyone else about any bruises or marks on her. Also, the public defender got her to admit that she had basically perjured herself in earlier testimony – when she told a questioner that her only mental illness was depression (and only had a prescription for one drug) – while she testified on the stand that she also suffers from anxiety (which requires 2 additional medications – neither of which she was taking during the time in question). One odd detail in her story was that at some point, the defendant ripped her sweatpants – or tore them off. But this didn’t appear in the police report (or any of her subsequent reports or pretrial testimony). So at the end of her testimony, her story sounded tenuous – at best. But we had to hear from the rest of the witnesses.
Next up was the girlfriend’s 19 year old daughter – who lived in the same apartment. Her story basically matched her mom’s version of events. She wasn’t around for much of the day so she didn’t hear the arguments leading up to the altercation. But she said she was woken up by the cries of her mom asking her to call 911 because she was being robbed. She then said that her voice sounded “muffled” – so she placed the call because she was scared. Again, most of her testimony lined up with her Mom’s – except the part about the torn (or missing) sweatpants. When asked, she seemed confused, and said that there was nothing different about her mom’s sweatpants. The daughter was the final witness for the state and the deputy prosecutor rested his case.
There were multiple times during, before or after the testimony of the first two witnesses, when the judge asked the jury to leave the courthouse and enter the jury room (adjacent to the room). This happened to frequently at one point that one of the juror’s tried to joke, “at least we’re getting some exercise.”
Before the defense called its first witness, we were dismissed for lunch. The weather was nice that day so I took advantage of it and went for a stroll in the area around the courthouse. While I was on the walk, I saw a crazy cloud formation that almost looked like the early part of a tornado or funnel cloud over Everett. You can see that photo here.
The first witnessed called by the defense was an ER physician from the hospital that treated the defendant. While he didn’t remember the defendant, he was able to use his and nurse’s notes to recall the injuries sustained that night. He also spoke about mental illness (he said that he saw at least one case per shift that involved some form of mental illness) and testified about potential effects of the medications the girlfriend’s prescriptions for depression and anxiety. They included agitation, aggression, delusion, etc. The doctor was actually my favorite witness. He said he began his career as an engineer and later decided to become a physician. So he had very precise language in his descriptions – but also seemed to have a very lively personality. He was very interesting and entertaining while on the stand.
Next up for the defense was a job counselor from Fare Start (which is where the defendant and girlfriend first met). He testified that the girlfriend had numerous problems the previous summer – including missing appointments with her mental health counselor (as well as himself). She was placed on a performance improvement plan and eventually was granted a temporary release from the program. Again, her character was called into question – and it didn’t look good. Meanwhile, he had only good things to say about the defendant and his performance – and pointed out that he had graduated from the program, while the girlfriend had not (even though she started it before him).
The next witness called was the jail guard on duty the evening the defendant was admitted. He was only questioned for 10 minutes (max). The only revealing information gleaned from his testimony was the fact that the defendant complained of feeling light-headed as he was being booked – and then collapsed on the ground. Emergency aid had to be called to tend to him again (although he turned out to be OK).
The Defendant Tells His Story
Finally the defendant was called to the stand. I was eager to hear his version of the events. He was approximately the same age as the girlfriend – also black but average to slight build (she probably outweighed him). To summarize his story, he also noted that they were all to go to a cookout at a friend’s location in Bothell. But he explained that on the drive out to the cookout, it was the girlfriend who created tension – by responding negatively to a comment his friend made. He said this then escalated while at the cookout, and she bolted down the long driveway on her own. He said he gave her time to cool off (it sounded like this had been a pattern in their brief 3 month relationship) and then tried to look for her – but to no avail. He said that after an hour or so, he got a ride back to the apartment and was indeed there well before the girlfriend and her granddaughter. But he disputed the claim that he broke into the apartment – he said the girlfriend had given him a key when he first moved in. As he waited for her to return, he tried on numerous occasions to call her on her cell phone. He said it continuously went into voicemail, but she did answer once – at which time she swore at him for leaving her alone in Bothell – before hanging up on him. She eventually returned and the arguing began. He said he told her the relationship was not working out and he would leave the next day – and she got upset. They were fighting off and on, and he said he noticed his cell phone, wallet and food stamp card were all missing. He asked her where they were and she didn’t respond. He then spotted her purse on the side of the bed, and went towards it to look for his items (he suspected she hid them in there). It was when he bent over to pick up the wallet that she yelled “call the police, he’s robbing me!” Surprised, he turned around towards her and was hit on his head above his eyeball – and immediately started bleeding profusely. As he bent over in pain, he felt another blow to the top of his head. He staggered around the room, trying to get out, with blood in his eyes and squirting out everywhere. As he exited the bedroom, she kicked him in the groin and he fell to his knees – and she then hit him in the back of the head with her brass incense urn. He yelled at her and left the apartment. She told him the police were on their way and he told her, “Good, they’ll arrest you for assault.” He then went and sat on the stairs outside and waited for the police to arrive.
What struck me most about his testimony (other than what an unfortunately hasty choice he seemed to have made by agreeing to move in with this woman after dating only 2 months) was how clearly he remembered all of the events and how consistent he was with each aspect of his story, even when asked multiple times. This was in clear contrast to the girlfriend – who had multiple versions of the story and who could not recall many specifics.
That concluded the testimony for day number three so it was then time for closing statements. I was getting excited that the end was nearly here – and hopeful that we may be able to enter deliberations before the end of Thursday. No such luck. Not surprisingly, both attorneys took a long time with their closing statements. As they made their separate arguments, I glanced down at a few of the notes I had made during earlier testimony. Why wasn’t the sweatshirt introduced as evidence (instead of only photos)? What about the cell phone that was used in self defense that caused injuries to the defendant? Why wasn’t that introduced as evidence? It likely would have had a lot of blood stains on it (or something) to show how it was used. There were a few other notes – but all of which pointed one simple fact: there was no evidence that corroborated with the girlfriend’s story. There was way more than reasonable doubt here – it was an open and shut case. The guy was not guilty. I knew that deliberations would be quick.
But by the time closing statements were made, it was nearly 4:30 pm on Thursday – so the judge dismissed us for the day and told us what to expect for deliberations the next day. We were to report directly to the courtroom jury room at 9 am and begin the process.
Deliberation and the Verdict
The jury had assembled by 9:05 am on Friday and we were all relieved to finally be able to talk about the case with each other. On all other occasions we sat in the room in silence – even though there were times we had to wait for 45 minutes or so. It was very awkward and difficult. But now we could talk about the case, and our first decision was to figure out who would be the presiding juror (he or she was supposed to lead the deliberation and sign the verdict papers). One juror said he really wanted to do it – even though he didn’t really know what to do. So we gave him the title – and when he sat for a minute or so (unsure what to do), I suggested starting with a quick vote to see how everyone felt so we could see how much deliberation we really had to do. I volunteered to speak first and said quite clearly that I found the defendant not guilty – there was simply no evidence to the accused crimes. And it was clear I wasn’t the only juror who felt this way. As we went from juror to juror, it was unanimous – nobody thought the guy was guilty. There was one juror who said he said he could see where it “might have happened” – but we reminded him about burden of proof and how it had to be “beyond reasonable doubt.” He quickly came around and we had our verdict – in less than 45 minutes. We buzzed the court clerk and when he entered the room and we told him we reached a verdict, he was clearly surprised. He then left to inform the judge, attorneys and defendant. We had to wait for another 30 minutes or so until everyone was assembled, and we entered the courtroom as a jury for a final time. We handed our written verdicts to the judge, and he read them out loud. The first count (2nd degree assault) was addressed first. When the judge announced that the jury found the defendant Not Guilty, he immediately broke down crying. It was incredibly emotional and I found myself choking up a little myself – as were others. When the 2nd verdict was read, he continued to sob while hugging his attorney. Suddenly, it felt really great to be part of justice.
The judge thanked us for our time and service and told us we were now free to talk about the case to anyone and everyone – but we shouldn’t feel obligated to do so. He said that the attorneys often like to speak to to the jury to find out what they could have done better, how we were influenced, etc. We returned to the jury room and after a few minutes, were greeted and thanked by the public defender. She told us that the defendant had been in jail since September 5th – which is one reason why he was so emotional to have been found not guilty. She also told us that the girlfriend had one previous conviction (and 2 additional charges) for assault. Not a surprise really. She said the defendant was eager to get on with his life and apply the degree earned in September from Fare Start to begin a new chapter in the food service industry. I hope it works out for him. The deputy prosecutor had another hearing to attend so he did not visit with us. And with that, my jury duty was complete and I was able to leave the courthouse by 11 am on Friday.
The Bottom Line
The week was very challenging as I still tried to keep up on as much work as possible in the evenings – so I had a lot of very late nights. But for all of the inconvenience and hassle involved, I have to say that the experience was well worth it.