Last week when I wrote about getting out of jury duty (and be sure to read the update about the trial), I promised to tell the tale of the trial I sat on nearly twenty years ago. I was in college when I got the jury duty notice. I immediately called the courthouse and told them I was a student and was obviously too busy with classes for jury duty. They kindly rescheduled for my next quarter break. Since I worked alternate quarters that at least got me on the clock, so I was getting paid for the time.
They picked the jury in the morning, took us to lunch, and then started the trial. The first witness was the victim of the crime who told the basic events. He was working alone in a small clothing store when the defendant came in and browsed for awhile and picked up a shirt. When the defendant came to the register to pay, he instead pulled a gun out from under the shirt and demanded all the money from the register. To prove he meant business, he fired a shot over the clerk’s head into the wall. After taking the money, the guy left.
The clerk did all the paper work things you have to do after getting robbed. He called the police and gave a statement. They came out and took the bullet out of the wall as evidence. He called his friends and told them what a bad day he had had. They decided to cheer him up by taking him out for drinks.
When they got to the bar, the clerk was startled and made all his friends leave the bar. He told them that the guy that had robbed them was in the bar. The friends thought it was a put-on, but he refused to go back inside. Instead, he described the shirt the guy was wearing since it was the one that had been stolen from the store. His friends went in and confirmed a person matching the description was there.
They called over a beat cop and told the story. Some cops went in to apprehend the defendant and when they did, there was a small satchel next to him at the bar. Inside the satchel was a gun.
In summary, according to the prosecution, the defendant had robbed a store at gunpoint, stolen a shirt, and then wore the shirt the same day out to a bar and took his gun with him.
Then came the expert testimony. A forensic cop (this was long before CSI) said the gun found in the bar and the bullet in the store wall were the same caliber. He could not prove or disprove that that exact gun had fired that exact bullet, but it was clear he thought it did.
The star secret prosecution witness was the sales representative for the line of shirts that the defendant had stolen. They were a parody of Ralph Lauren Polo® brand except that the embroidered polo player was falling off the pony. The shirts were called Get Off You High Horse and were only sold in two stores in the Atlanta area; the store that had been robbed and another store about twenty miles away. The sales rep had never heard of her company’s shirt being counterfeited since it was a parody of a popular brand.
That was the end of day one. The judge warned us not to talk about the case to friends or family and not to do any research outside of the courtroom by visiting any of the sites described in the case. From chit chat with my roommate, I recognized the name of the store and the bar as being in a predominantly gay neighborhood. I assume the judge was trying to keep jurors from forming any prejudicial opinions about the victim, the store, or the defendant.
The next day, the defendant took the stand to present his side, which essentially covered the following ideas:
- He wasn’t at that store because he had spent the day with his dad who was too sick to come to court to confirm the alibi.
- He had bought the shirt a year earlier from a street vendor on Moreland Avenue, several miles from the store that got robbed. (I knew that was a lie because I worked on Moreland Avenue and the street vendor shirts were mostly crappy white bootleg Ralph Lauren and DKNY tee shirts. Not a polo shirt in the bunch.)
- The gun in the bar wasn’t his and must have been left there by somebody else.
The judge addressed the jury telling us that we did not have to believe everything the witnesses said and that part of our job is to determine who is more credible.
We elected a foreman and the first vote was like 9-3 guilty versus not guilty. Most of the discussion was around what was “reasonable doubt”. The last hold out juror thought that what the defendant had said could possibly be true. The rest of just shook our heads in disbelief. If ever there was an open and shut case, this was pretty close.
We were given the evidence to look at, which included the gun, the bullet and the shirt. The shirt was well made and in very good condition. Inside the shirt there was still an “Inspected by” sticker. This finally convinced the hold-out that the defendant was lying.
One frustrating part of being on a jury, as opposed to watching a Perry Mason mystery, is that there is a lot of stuff the jury can’t hear. The lawyers were always going up to the judge and whispering. At one point something slipped out that inferred the defendant had threatened the victim to not testify. We were told to ignore that and we were ushered back to the jury room for about ten minutes while the judge scolded the lawyers.
After we presented the guilty verdict, we were dismissed. The court remained in session since there were some other charges that the jury wasn’t needed for. I skedaddled and enjoyed the rest of my afternoon off and came to a few conclusions:
- Crooks are really stupid. Especially the ones caught parading around in stolen merchandise.
- Some people will give anyone the benefit of the doubt.
- Trials, even simple ones, take a lot of time to do the simplest things.
I feel good that a criminal went to jail as a result of my civic duty, but it’s not an experience I’m eager to repeat regularly.
Blatant Comment Whoring ™: What would have given you reasonable doubt about this case?