Dumb Things I Have Done Lately

Friday, September 12, 2008

My Jury Duty, or Why Black Men Shouldn't Do Burglaries in Great Falls

Back in October of last year, I whined about getting a Fairfax County jury duty questionnaire. (Up until this point, I'd managed to avoid serving -- anywhere.)

I got the summons a few weeks ago, notifying me of my upcoming two-week stint. The first week, my group number didn't come up, but this week, I ran out of luck.

The Assembly
Dutifully, I reported to the Fairfax County General District Court on Wednesday, leaving my camera-equipped phone and Macbook in the car.

The Jury Assembly room was equipped with wifi, but Mac owners are either exceedingly honest (no cameras allowed), or have figured out ways of wriggling out of jury duty, since I didn't see a single Mac laptop in the room (there were several folks with various PC laptops).

My hope that my name wouldn't get called dwindled with the number of people left in the room, and sure enough, I got called. My group was about 20 people, which suggested that it was for a criminal trial (and it was).

The Selection
I made it through voir dire -- the main question asked of us was whether we'd ever been victims of crimes. Of those who said yes, the bulk were property crimes -- a few car break-ins, some credit card theft. There was an assault; also, a few folks with child care issues, plus a youngish guy with some prominent flesh tunnel earlobe piercings. Those folks didn't make it through.

Then, the case started.

The Case
The defendant was a black guy, sporting prison-issues and some gray in his hair. He was charged with three felonies: Burglary, Grand Larceny, and Credit Card Theft, all stemming from the same incident.

I'm not going to get too deep into the details of the trial. The defendant (a DC resident) was accused of pulling off a window screen to break into a house in Great Falls, stealing a Louis Vuitton wallet out of a purse sitting on the kitchen table, and using the credit cards the next morning to buy $400 worth of big-box electronic retailer gift cards... from the supermarket at which he was currently employed.

Obviously, we were not dealing with a criminal mastermind here.

The Evidence Phase

The prosecution's case was completely circumstantial, which the Commonwealth Attorney (the DA, for those of you unenlightened enough to not live in the Commonwealth of Virginia) specifically addressed in her opening statement (she called out Hollywood expectations borne out from CSI- and Law and Order).

The evidence phase of the trial was pretty brief, taking testimony from the victim, a supermarket manager, two Fairfax County detectives, plus some photos, and security camera footage of the credit card purchase.

It turns out that, when they served the search warrant of the suspect's house, 6 Fairfax County detectives, a couple of MPD detectives, and who knows how many other MPD uniforms, were present.

I understand the need to secure a scene, though 6+ detectives (that entire team) seemed a bit much.

Anyway, the defense didn't offer any evidence, so the evidence phase wrapped up that same day.

Going home, working off of my extensive working knowledge of Law and Order, I thought that the prosecution's case had some gaps -- other witnesses who could have been called, additional evidence that could have been presented. But I thought the defense attorney's case, not presenting any alternatives or explanations, was weaker. I still hadn't made up my mind.

The Deliberation
Thursday, we heard the closing arguments. The defense attorney had a better presentation, but he was arguing small things -- whether the offense occurred at night (which is apparently important to the charge of "burglary"), how the time stamps of the security camera and the transaction report didn't match exactly (well, duh).

I was leaning towards letting the defendant slide on the most serious charge -- burglary. And as it turns out, I wasn't alone -- many of the jurors were of a similar mind. That is, until we got the jury instructions, which said that the circumstantial evidence (possession of stolen goods and use of the stolen credit card) "inadequately explained or falsely denied," could go to the burglary charge.

Seeing as how the defense offered no explanation whatsoever of the credit card use (in fact, the defense attorney pretty much fingered his client on the videotape, though the supermarket manager had also ID'ed him), after about an hour of deliberation, we unanimously found the defendant guilty on all charges.

I note that some of the jurors qualified their guilty votes with sentiments along the lines of "well, because of the wording of the instructions..."

We reconvened, and the verdict was read. Because it was around 1pm, we recessed for lunch, which I found a little perverse -- "We find the defendant guilty. Now enjoy your lunch."

The Sentencing
After lunch (the Hard Times across the street for many of us, although to my knowledge, no one drank any alcoholic beverages) was the sentencing.

Up until that day, I hadn't realized that in Virginia (along with about 6 other states), the jury -- not the judge -- determines the sentence. Being felonies, the range of sentences was 5-20 years for burglary, 0-20 years for grand larceny, and 0-20 years for credit card theft.

We'd also learned that the defendant had a few prior run-ins with the law. He'd served 6.5 years for burglary starting in 2001, and had been out for about a year and a half before this latest offense. So much for deterrence.

I went in leaning closer to the minimum -- 5 years for burglary, 1 each for the other two, or 7 years overall. It was incrementally higher than the previous sentence (I had no illusions to a deterrent effect, this was strictly punitive), but it wasn't a violent crime (though for any home entering there's the potential for violence). It wasn't a crime of opportunity: He'd gone to Great Falls looking for a score, but I was assuming he'd looked into the window, saw a purse, saw no people, broke in, grabbed the wallet, and got out.

So I was pretty shocked, during the first polling of the jurors for the total time to stick him with, that there were a few people who said "20 years."

20 fucking years. For going in through a window, stealing a fancy wallet, and using a credit card.

I kept hearing the soundtrack from Les Miserables in my head. Granted, stealing a wallet so you can buy consumer electronics is significantly worse than stealing a loaf of bread, but 20 years still seemed, I don't know, a little excessive.

After the first polling, I was (shockingly) at the low end with 7 years; there were some 10s, 15s, 20s, and some people who abstained (as if they were checking in a game of Texas Hold-'Em, instead of dealing with a man's life).

Apparently, I am a soft-on-crime, limp-wristed liberal commie pantywaist, because I was actually forced to argue that a second offender shouldn't get 2o years for a property crime.

I guess I was hung up on the fact that many people convicted of assault, people who commit violent crimes with the intent to cause bodily harm, don't get anywhere near 15 or 20 years.

Hell, Hans fucking Reiser pled down to 15 years-to-life, and he strangled his wife and buried her in a forest.

After hearing my objections, most of the 20s (almost universally, middle-aged white ladies) immediately revised their numbers downward. When I asked why they'd chose 20 in the first place, some of them said that they were just putting a number out there. Throwing a stake into the ground, as it were.

Calling back to another experience -- back when I was at AOL.com, our biz dev guys were doing a bid for some deal or another to Microsoft -- they were trying to put out a figure, also just to throw a stake into the ground.

Apparently, they were so far off, they failed so miserably, that they were trying to throw a stake into the ground.. and they missed.

That's what I felt happened with the 20s.

Anyway, after a good deal of wrangling, a dot plot chart (on the whiteboard), and significant time pressure, we finally agreed on 10 years (8-1-1). It was a number I could live with, but I wasn't going to feel good about it.

This is what I meant when I Twittered that my jury duty experience was a little upsetting. It sucked, and universally, we jurors felt that a judge would have had more context and experience to determine a sentence.

For me, the moral of the story is, don't do burglaries in Great Falls or the more affluent areas of Fairfax County, especially if you're a minority or can't otherwise afford an ace defense attorney, because you will get fucked.

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  • Well, if it makes you feel any better, he'll probably only end up actually serving 5 of those 10 years...

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 9/14/2008 3:30 PM  

  • Not quite. Parole was abolished in Virginia after 1995.

    He could get time off for good behavior, of course, or he could serve the terms concurrently, but that was not ours to determine.

    By Blogger Joelogon, At 9/14/2008 8:10 PM  

  • damn, that's messed up. i believe if you do the crime, you should do the time. however, 20 years is a bit much for stealing a wallet to buy gift cards.

    10 years is a bit much as I personally know folks who have died in dui car crashes and their killers have only received 2 years with time served.

    but you play the hand you're dealt and if that idiot thought it was a good idea to break into someone's home, steal their property and use the proceeds to buy gift cards at his place of employment then he's too dumb to live in a free society. He needs the structure and daily planned living that jail will bring him.

    By Blogger prettyparker, At 9/15/2008 10:56 AM  

  • Ten years for stealing a wallet? I've known people accused of rape that get off with less than that. Thanks for the recap. I actually never make it through voir dire.

    By Anonymous ErinSlick, At 9/15/2008 4:26 PM  

  • Were you presented with any alternative sentencing options? Seems to me that 10 years at tax payers expense for stealing a wallet is disproportionate.

    By Blogger Conor, At 9/16/2008 8:07 AM  

  • Conor -- since we found him guilty on all three counts, the very minimum he would have gotten was 5 years (the burglary was 5-to-20; the other 2 counts were 0-to-20 and/or fines).

    As to disproportionality -- I hear you. Though I also think he should have copped a plea -- for example, Harriet Walters, who fleeced DC out of about $50 million, reportedly pled out and will get 15-to-18 years

    By Blogger Joelogon, At 9/16/2008 2:46 PM  

  • I'm a little late to this post...

    Ten years does seem excessive to me... hard to believe. But I disagree that a judge is more suited to make the decision. At least with a jury, you have a wider net that someone (you in this case) will be the voice of reason. With a judge making the decision, you are completely at the mercy of one person's opinion... if you happen to draw a "tough on crime" judge, he could have seen 60 years!

    I think 5-7 would have been appropriate.

    By OpenID Ryan S., At 10/16/2008 2:18 PM  

  • Ryan -- 5-7 was where I was headed, too, but the prevailing sense in the room was that the previous sentence (of 6.5 years) hadn't deterred him sufficiently, so they wanted to ramp it up.

    By Blogger Joelogon, At 10/20/2008 12:35 PM  

  • You know the most prevalent statement i hear from kids in the classroom? "Well so-and-so didn't get in trouble so why are you picking on me?" I don't care if so-and-so's jury only gave them 5 years for rape. The bastard better be glad he doesn't live in a country that chops off his hand for theft and be grateful he was given the opportunity to defend himself when he was CAUGHT ON TAPE!!!!! HELLO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Frankly that should be enough, no testimony or trial needed. Are you going to let that same guy into your house or leave your wallet unattended in his presence? I don't think so. A persons true beliefs are shown by their actions. Just because the victim has more money than you (which you made obvious by pointing out the neighborhood, type of wallet) and just because there was no violence doesn't mean the crime should not be punished to the full extent of the law especially if the idiot (and i am sorry but if you steal a credit card and use it anywhere but the internet on a computer at the public library you are an idiot cause there is either a camera on you or you are traceable via the computer) has already been convicted and locked up for the same type of crime. BTW who care if the guy was black or white. I am assuming the victim was white however because you did not feel the need to publish their race or ethnicity.

    By Blogger Rebecca, At 2/15/2010 10:44 PM  

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