Sunday, March 14, 2010

A Step in the Right Direction (for more than just one of us, hopefully)

Allegheny County Courthouse


For as long as I can remember, the bus I ride downtown to work every morning has dropped me off at the corner of Grant & Fifth Ave in downtown Pittsburgh. 

And from here, I've always stayed left (on my walk to GNCorp & Mellon in the nineties, or UPMC since 2000).  So it was a strange feeling this week to get off that same bus & turn right instead, to that dark and imposing brick 'castle' seen here--the Allegheny County Courthouse.

Instead of going to work I was serving as a juror in a criminal trial.

When I first received the summons for jury duty back in February, I stuck it in my bill drawer & had almost forgotten it.  I've received a summons twice before in the twenty years I've lived in Pittsburgh, but never served.  (Both times I spent the day in a giant room with 300 other prospective jurors, bored & waiting to go home.)

jury summons

But luck was (or wasn't, depending on how you look at it) on my side on Tuesday.  We were all asked to fill out questionnaires for potential interviews with the prosecutor & defense lawyers for possible jury trials.  And somehow mine became the second name called for an interview, and ultimately, the first one chosen.

The case was "The Commonwealth vs. James B.";  a twentysomething professional who was accused of attacking another man without provocation and breaking his jaw in the process.  The defendant admitted to causing the injury, but claimed he had only acted in self defense.  (Rather, his irritating attorney did, as he kept reminding us "SELF DEFENSE IS PERFECTLY LEGAL IN PENNSYLVANIA!  LET ME READ YOU THE LAWS TO PROVE IT!")    

our courtroom

The actual courtroom of the trial,  the jury box is on right


For someone like myself who has never even stepped foot in a courtroom (yet seen my share of them on tv), it was almost a surreal experience.  It's disconcerting to have so many sets of eyes watching you--the lawyers, the defendant, his family, the witnesses from both sides.   We jurors had a wonderful 'tipstaff', a court official who advised us this would happen, among other things, and tried to minimize the surprises.  She remained with us every step of the way.  (For someone who must do this everyday, and usually with a group of confused first-timers with lots of questions like ourselves, we were always shown a great deal of attention, courtesy and respect.)

It was a well rounded jury, too.  We had 6 men and 6 women, and 2 alternates.  (The alternates were both older men who sat in the jury box the length of the trial but were dismissed right before we went into deliberations to decide on a verdict).   juror badge

Strangely, we all talked like old friends but didn't ask each others names--we went by 'Computer Guy' (me), 'Salon Girl', 'Med Student', 'Dressy Lady', etc.  On the first day, the judge told us "For the length of this trial, you jurors will remain together every step of the way.  If one person needs a break, you all take a break.  If one of you needs to go to the bathroom, you all go to the bathroom." 

So in between sessions, we sat in the Jury Room and quizzed each other on old trial movies!  "Who starred in 'Legal Eagles'?"  (Robert Redford.)  "What movie did Al Pacino play an angry lawyer in 1979?"  (And Justice for All.)   "What was the movie where a group of vigilante judges meet in secret?"  (The Star Chamber.) 

The trial went smoothly enough--we referred to it as 'Revenge of the Nerds Part 3', as the defendant (and his colleagues) resembled the quartet from 'The Big Bang Theory'.  Their separate accounts of what occurred were detailed and consistent, & most importantly, rang true.  They claimed a tipsy jock-type approached the defendant, said 'You're a f--king pussy, I'm taking you down", and shoved him against a wall.  The defendant claims when he pushed him away, he got a punch in the chest & ear for it.  He then stated he was frightened of just walking away & took a swing, which broke the jock's jaw--and his pride too, I'm guessing.

The Assistant DA, at a poetry reading

I was surprised to find this; District Attorney  David Michael Belcyzk is also an author of several poetry collections & does readings!


Judge Williams informed us that in a case of 'he said/he said', we had to study both sets of witnesses carefully, then rely on our intuition and use some common sense.  It didn't exactly help the prosecutor's case when the jock with the broken jaw took the stand and said "I did not instigate this, and I don't use terms like f--k and pussy either."  

(We jurors later witnessed him outside the courtoom telling his friends "You should see me in there, I'm taking this f-ckin' pussy down!"  I said to one of the other jurors ‘case closed’ and she agreed.)

We found the defendant not guilty by reason of self-defense.

I found it a but surprising (after the verdict was read) when the defendant turned to his attorney & said "Yes!  I'm innocent!" and the judge quickly admonished him:  The jury did not find you innocent, they found you not guilty.  There is a difference.  I'm convinced you could've walked away, so remember this the next time you plan on striking someone.  You may not find this many people on your side again.   I really liked that.