4 min read

Jury Duty

Civic duty or diffusing the blame?
Jury Duty
Photo by Tingey Injury Law Firm on Unsplash

Many IRL friends and family know that I was on jury duty recently. It was a short trial. Two charges: Commercial burglary and grand theft. No murder, no one was physically harmed. And yet, it was emotionally exhausting despite being a paltry four days.

We found the defendant guilty on both counts. And thus his shitty life just got worse. We learned after deliberation that he had prior convictions, so that’s going to wreck his sentencing, but we weren’t allowed to know earlier as it might bias us. If I want to know what happened to him, I’ll need to learn how to research the criminal records in my county.

I am certain I got selected for this trial because of what I told them about myself in my juror survey. I was the victim of a home burglary in 2011. The prosecution therefore knew I’d be sympathetic to the commercial burglary crime since it was personal effects that were burgled.

The grand theft was much harder morally, though evidentially it was cut and dry. The theft was of casino chips in the amount of three grand. By California criminal code, that’s grand theft since it exceeded $950. The prosecution had no trouble establishing a chain of identity back to the defendant. But morally, in my opinion, it’s always legal to steal from a casino. Thieving from unscrupulous profiteers is right up there with stealing bread: Go for it.

So my personal dilemma was actually with the burglary count. There’s a weird quirk of the California criminal code that says that “Every person who enters any [personal property] with intent to commit grand or petit larceny or any felony is guilty of burglary.” (emphasis mine)

I and three other jurors were hung up on the word “intent”. The defense attempted to show plausible causes for entering a building without intent to commit a crime. It came down to the defendant’s behavior at the locked door, in our minds. He jiggled one handle, finding it locked, then jiggled the second, finding it unlocked. The prosecution had the mind-bogglingly bizarre task of trying to prove what was going on in the defendant’s head in that moment. Was he looking for a bathroom? Or was he looking for loot? In the end, we concluded that there was no reasonable reason for the defendant to be there other than to look for something to swipe. The second jiggle on the door cinched it. He knew he wasn’t supposed to be there, but went in anyway. Did we misread his mind? I don’t know, short of an audio recording of his saying “I’m going to look for something to steal”, how is one otherwise supposed to read minds?

But that was the crime I was most upset about. He attempted—and ultimately failed, as security recovered the stolen bag after he left the property—to take a test engineer’s personal laptop, wallet, keys, checkbook, and emergency supplies. Like, fuck that. It’s not on the same level as the kid who stole and hocked my great-grandfather’s ring—given to me by my grandmother on her deathbed—but I keep personal shit on my laptop that I would be heartbroken if it were lost or pirated.

So yeah, nailed it on picking me for the jury pool. Fuck me.

The roughest part of the trial was actually during voire dire when two prospective jurors said, in their jury surveys and again under oath, that they believed the defendant was guilty because he looked like what criminals look like on their social media feeds. Both answers were nearly identical, which makes me think they cribbed off the same “get out of jury duty” instruction manual.

The juror to my right (who was ultimately selected for the jury, too) was indignant, stating “I’m really hurt. My Asian brother and sister over there are saying that just because I’m black, I look like a criminal. That really hurts me. It’s very upsetting to hear that.”

The Asian American behind him said that the words hurt him as well, as his daughter was marrying a black man and was already worried about racism directed against his future son-in-law. He was also selected for the jury.

Those two racist jurors were dismissed.

I’m an atheist, but if I were a believer, I can’t imagine thinking that St. Peter is going to let you off easy at the Pearly Gates for saying that shit, even if untrue. Jury duty wasn’t that bad. It’s not like we were sequestered or it went on for six weeks or there were hostile witnesses. It was mostly boring overall, watching the same video of a man stealing casino chips over and over1. It was mentally taxing, and that’s what self-care is for.

So, the question at the end of the day, the one that keeps me up at night, though less so as time goes on, did we do the right thing?

There’s a concept in psychology called the Diffusion of Responsibility which notes that the more distributed the responsibility, the less likely any one person is going to act. The classic example is a person feinting on a crowded street. No one person immediately acts to aid the person. The presence of other people reduces the pressure to respond.

This is almost the opposite, like the diffusion of blame. Like a firing squad, but we don’t have the option of leaving one bullet chamber empty.

The two black men on the jury were the most reluctant to convict. I can’t blame them. The quieter of the two almost looked resigned when he signaled that his vote was guilty on both counts.

But would a bench trial have been fairer? It would be the same evidence, and the judge already knows the law. He knows intent, whatever that is supposed to mean. In the end, twelve jurors weren’t empowered to offer an alternative to this man’s dire predicament. And that impotency is what makes me the saddest.

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  1. I know how to steal casino chips now and get away with it, at least in one casino. Ask me how IRL.