I’ve enjoyed jury duty and wish my friends would not try to avoid it. They need smart, thoughtful, common sense jurors. It’s our civic duty.
I remember an old family friend, a member of Philadelphia society starting in the 20’s – quite the living social history, telling us about his jury duty experience. The Judge was asking each juror in turn if they had an opinion as to whether the defendant was innocent or guilty.
Each juror in turn replied, “No.”
Until our friend.
The Judge asked him: “Do you have an opinion as to whether he is innocent or guilty?”
“Yes,” said this highly intelligent, highly regarded, erudite teacher and librarian.
The Judge did a double take and asked again.
“Yes,” our family friend confirmed
The Judge now very curious, asked, “What is it?”
“Innocent,” pronounced our family friend.
The realization slowly dawned on everyone in the courtroom.
Innocent until proven guilty.
He remained on the jury.
First time I was summoned to jury duty was during the time the O.J. Simpson jury was originally going to be picked. I deliberated with myself – a year or more of my life vs. perhaps a book deal….hmmm. I opted out. Frankly, I figured I would not be picked after voir dire – I was blond then and about the same age as Nicole.
I called the courthouse and asked if I could do my jury duty earlier. They were surprised. They had all sorts of people calling to be in the jury pool. I was the first and only person to call to get out of it. They readily accommodated me – I wasn’t trying to get out of duty, just that duty.
In Los Angeles at that time, you had to show up three days in a row to see if you’d be picked.
The first case to which they sent our group up was a bit scary. I was in the second tier and was called up to the box. The case was two big scary looking black prisoners had allegedly sodomized a third prisoner with a broom and other things. I wanted to put my hands over my ears and hum-um-um-um I so did not want to hear any more.
Fortunately, in criminal cases like that, the first people the defense attorneys get rid of are white women. I was excused. I wonder if they saw my revulsion. Someone said to get out of a murder trial just start mimicking making a hanging noose.
I’ve seen too many movies where the verdict is read: GUILTY, and the scary defendant points at the jury and says, “I’m going to get you!”
I was summoned to jury duty a year or so ago. It was hard to tell what the case was. They went through several potential jurors. I was almost the last one. The questions seem to center around: What do you think about toilet papering a house?
We’re about to sit through a case about TP-ing a house? When it came to the defendant’s turn to accept the jury or knock someone off, he deliberated at length with his lawyer. Finally, they came to a decision and I was excused. I was wondering why they hadn’t knocked me off asap. Usually white women…. (Turned out the guy, drunk, had threatened his wife and stepdaughter with a loaded gun after the TP-incident. It was not an isolated incident. They threw the book at him.)
The next case in Los Angeles to which I was sent up for their jury pool, was an eminent domain case. We went through voir dire where I told them I had a real estate license in California and an MBA in Finance from Columbia University. They kept me this time.
The jury was quite diverse. We had an elderly white man who was a retired small business owner, an elderly white woman, retired school teacher; a black young man from the ‘hood, an Hispanic woman in her 40’s, a young man in his 30’s, and every type between. I was 35.
The case was as follows: The Hungarian-American society, a group of elderly men who had been born in Hungary and had immigrated here after World War II, owned a building in Los Angeles. Cal Trans needed to use their property to dig under it for five years to build the subway so wanted to move them and their tenants for those years. The society used the upstairs for their club and a bank used the downstairs and paid rent.
The bank moved across the street and the evidence showed their net income increased significantly.
The Hungarian American society’s lawyer had hired an expert witness, a real estate appraiser, who spent three days explaining why he valued the use of the property at well over $500,000 – I think $600,000.
The expert witness about put us all to sleep for 3 days confusing everyone in the jury (but me, frankly). When the lawyer asked how much he was being paid, he said $3500/day to testify. We all realized that’s why he was speaking so slowly. I thought, I am in the wrong business. He was terrible.
The Judge was quite pleasant and affable but even he was getting a little tired of the prolonged testimony.
I was the only one taking full notes.
At lunch, we had vouchers of course. The first day, I had suggested we all go find a fun place to eat – heck we were in downtown Los Angeles with lots to see. Even during the day, it wasn’t that safe to walk around alone too far. I had to put on my Philadelphia city demeanor. Everyone wanted to discuss the trial of course and what had happened that day. We had been admonished not to do that and not to form an opinion before all the evidence was in. I changed the subject to find out about each person. Heck, we were going to be together for a while especially with that expert witness.
As the trial wore on (it went 7 days), I organized field trips after we ate lunch such as visiting the library downtown – a wonderfully huge building full of all sorts of books and with an exhibit of Norman Rockwell paintings at the time. It made it much easier to not talk about the trial, the elephant in the room.
Finally, at almost the end of the seventh day, it became time to deliberate and we went back to the jury room. First thing we had to do was elect a jury foreperson.
The schoolteacher nominated me. She said I was the only one who understood it all. Everyone was in accord except The black kid nominated the older white guy. The older white guy wanted the job. We had a vote. 10 – 2. I became the foreperson.
I went around the table and asked what each person thought. To a person, none of them understood anything the expert had said.
I kept saying, “There’s a piece missing.”
We asked for his charts. I went through the charts with the jury. How to value real estate? This property here valued as x close by, has all of these features the subject property has but it does not have these features. This other property valued as y sort of close by has other similar features but not all the features. So we had to value each feature and add or subtract.
I asked each person what they thought the value was. We had the expert witness’ general idea but….
I called on the black kid first. He was stunned. He was still awake which was good. I went around the table. Each of them was stunned to see how simple it was and how it took me about 20 minutes to do what the expert witness had taken three days to do.
The day was finished and so we had to come back. The next morning, we discussed it. The older white guy wanted to give tons and tons of money, triple what the rest of us wanted to do.
Most of us wanted to give about $250,000 – that’s what the mean valuation truly showed – plus some extra just for the time and effort to move, bring a lawsuit, etc.
The white guy wanted to give the Hungarian Americans something for their efforts to have to move and bring a lawsuit – about $550,000 or more. I reminded the group that the amount had to reflect that Cal Trans was only borrowing the property for five years and would then get it back all in one piece so it is essentially a mandated 5 year lease.
I asked if anyone had suggestions. So we split the difference and came up with about $400,000; an additional 60% hundred in sympathy. In fact, it was within the limits of a proper valuation so everyone could live with that. Except the older white guy. He wanted his number and that was that.
I said, “It’s almost lunch time. Why don’t we get our last free lunch and do a final vote after lunch?”
All agreed. We actually were sad we were splitting up, probably would never see each other again, and wanted to put off the separation.
After lunch and our last excursion, I think this time to the modern art museum, we headed back to the jury room, did our final vote.
I was still confused – something is missing – and said so.
“Why aren’t they asking about the loss or moving expenses for the bank? Although their income went up. Hmmmm.” This wasn’t part of the evidence or equation before us so we voted.
I think it was 10 people for $400,000 to two (elderly white guy and another) for $550,000. There was no way anyone could convince anyone else to go to the other’s side. We only needed a majority and we did not need another day and another meal, so we let the Court know we had finished.
We filed back in. The Judge asked who the foreperson was and was not surprised when I stood up. I read the verdict.
The Cal Trans lawyer had his head down, made notes, and had no reaction. I wondered. There was no happiness from the Hungarian Americans or the bank.
The Hungarian Americans’ lawyer asked for a polling.
After this, the Judge said, “Thank you, ladies and gentlemen of the jury. However, I’m sorry to tell you, we couldn’t tell you before, but there is another piece of this case and you all have to return on Monday to hear evidence and decide that part.”
To a person, each jury member quickly swiveled their head to me and stared. This did not go unnoticed. I smiled. Vindicated.
We all came back on Monday. After we took our seats, the Judge apologized for us having to come back and informed us the bank and Cal Trans had settled. I never did find out for how much but the bank – I think it was Wells Fargo – should not have gotten anything.
After we left the courtroom, the lawyers for the Hungarian Americans, stopped us. By then we had learned we had come in a couple hundred thousand dollars under what Cal Trans had offered. I felt a little bad for the elderly Hungarian Americans who had been sold a bill of goods by these attorneys and “expert witness”.
The lawyer asked: “How did you all come to our decision?”
Frankly, I berated them (but nicely): “Why did you bring this case to trial? That expert witness was so wrong on his estimates. He should be reported to the real estate licensing board. And you all should refund your fees. Ridiculous. You’re the ones who took advantage of these elderly gentlemen, not Cal Trans.”
The lawyer was stunned. I then said, “And why would you keep me on the jury given you knew you should have settled?”
The lawyer replied, “We figured you would be the only person who understood what was going on.”
You got that right. “I did. That’s my point. So why did you keep me on?”
He was stunned but not so stunned that he couldn’t figure out how to use the information. He exclaimed: “We’re going to appeal!”
He immediately asked the black kid: “Did she tell you how to vote?”
He looked at him, a little upset that anyone think some woman would tell him what to do and he would do it, a little upset that I made him participate, and a little proud that I took his opinion seriously, “Hell NO! She called on me to get my opinion… FIRST!”
I smiled. I think I may have changed this kid’s view of leadership and white women. Even just a little.
They desperately asked each of the jurors in turn and each said, “No, she asked us what we thought. She went last. The amount we awarded wasn’t her choice.” (Okay they didn’t have to tell that part J
The lawyers were truly upset – there went their coercion appeal.
Apparently our cohesiveness was unusual especially given the diversity. It was a fascinating experience.
I wonder what each of the jurors is doing now? And how they are telling this story.