A Word on Jury Duty (or How to Get Out of Jury Duty Even When You Don’t Want To)

2226745248_0b873b3b3fI overheard someone saying today that they look forward to jury duty because it gives them “a chance to see justice served” and had they stopped right there, I wouldn’t have anything to say right now.  The entire sentence, however, was “It gives me a chance to see justice served and help the police put a bad person behind bars.”

And THAT is the subject of today’s post: The role of the criminal juror.  Read all the way to the end of the post and you will get a free gift guaranteed to be worth more than whatever they’re going to pay you for jury duty.  The only catch is that you’ll probably have to go to work instead.

Here’s what I wish everyone who reported to jury duty for criminal court was required to swear to when they walked in:

I understand that I am not here to help the police.  I understand that I am not here to help the court system.  I understand that I am not here to help the judge.  I understand that I am not here to put a bad person behind bars.  I believe I am, in fact, here to do exactly the opposite.  I am here to be an obstacle to a conviction – and I understand that unless I am, an innocent person will go to jail.  At the outset of the trial, I will favor the accused, no matter what the charges and force the Prosecutor to present evidence to sway my opinion.  I will view all of that evidence with a skeptical eye and listen to the rebuttal of the evidence by the Defense with an open mind.  If I can find any reasonable doubt, I will not convict.

Here’s why every juror should adopt that creed:  It’s how our system is designed to work.  Almost everything about a criminal trial, in theory, is designed to put the Prosecutor at a disadvantage.  The burden of proof?  “Beyond a reasonable doubt.”  Think about that.  It’s huge.  If there is ANY reasonable doubt, the jury should acquit.  The composition of the jury? Peers of the accused (at least in theory, but that’s another rant entirely).  Have you ever thought about why we’re supposed to have a jury of our peers?  There are a lot of theories about what that concept means, but here’s my opinion: the jury is supposed to be able to see the circumstances of the case from the same perspective the accused would have.  They should be able to understand the state of mind and surroundings involved.  That level of understanding is almost never going to favor the Prosecutor.

There’s a part of us that assumes that someone would not be charged unless they were guilty.  That’s crap.  People get arrested for being in the wrong place at the wrong time every single day.  When someone is charged with a particularly heinous crime like child molest, rape, or murder – it’s tough to even start on their side.  Guess what – no one ever said jury duty was supposed to be easy and it shouldn’t be.  Someone’s life is at stake.  Leave the moral outrage and the emotional pain to the parties, the victims and their families where it belongs.  Jury duty should be tedious, boring, morally difficult work.  If it’s not, you’re doing it wrong.  In the horrible cases, more than in any others, jurors should be hyper-vigilant in their role to protect the accused until convinced by the evidence to do otherwise – with a case like child molest, even a person accused and proven innocent is going to have a tough time going back to work, to church, to home, to their neighborhood, and to a normal life.

The Prosecutor is trying to take away someone’s freedom, reputation, and money.  Not to mention, potentially, their spouse, children, job, house, car and everything else they may have.  If they’re guilty, fine, there are circumstances to crime.  But it’s not supposed to be easy for the Prosecutor; it should be incredibly hard.  There are a lot of people in jail or prison right now because they feared how easy it has become to convict and they took a deal.  Guess what? At least some of those people are innocent.  I’ve met people who served more than a decade in prison for a crime they didn’t commit and were only released because of dumb luck and DNA that proved their innocence.

I’m not saying a jury should never rule against the accused.  Of course I’m not saying that.  Many of the people charged with a crime, maybe even most, are guilty of that crime.  I’m saying that at the outset of the trial jurors should be very skeptical of the charges and completely on the side of the accused – if not in their heart, at least in their state of mind.  Jurors should force the Prosecutor and Police to do the work to convict.  If they don’t do the job, they should acquit.

By the way, I’m not trying to belittle Prosecutors or imply that they’re evil.  They’re doing what they’re supposed to do at a criminal trial – they are seeking convictions.  That’s their job and most of them work diligently to accomplish their goal.  The problem isn’t with the Prosecution, the Defense, the Police, the Judge or even the system.  Our system is an adversarial one and if it seems to outsiders at times as if everyone is working against everyone else, then that’s proof that our system is working is designed.  The problem is with the jurors and the laws.  You’ve always had the power to affect the laws with your vote.  Now you know how to affect the jurors as well.

So if you made it through this whole post, I’ll give you a little bonus prize: The next time you get called to jury duty, come back to this blog and print out the part in bold above.  Take that statement with you to jury selection.  The first time either side asks you a question, calmly take out your paper and read it verbatim.  I guarantee you will be excused.  In fact, if the Prosecutor can manage it, most likely everyone else in the room who heard what you read will be excused as well.  Why is that so? After all, it’s true, fair and encapsulates the way our system is designed to work and every lawyer in that room will know as much.

You will be excused because by reading that statement you’ll have demonstrated that you not only know your role, but that you’re capable of “infecting” others with that knowledge and the very last thing any Prosecutor wants is a juror who knows what he or she is supposed to do … and that is probably the best argument I can make in favor of my position.

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Weeding the Garden in My Mind

This image is from, and linked to, Olofson Design (http://olofsondesign.wordpress.com/ and http://www.olofsondesign.com), a clearly very talented maker of wedding cakes based in London, UK. To the artisan – You do amazing work and this image was perfect for my post – if you have any concerns with my using your image, please let me know and I’ll be happy to take it down.

This year for my birthday, I’m weeding the garden in my mind:

  • I’m forgiving myself for the things I’ve attempted that didn’t quite work out the way I’d hoped.  I’m choosing to view those events not as failures but as (sometimes rocky) detours that led me to where I am, and I’m recognizing that without these detours I may not have any of the good people or things I have in my life now.
  • I’m giving myself the lessons I’ve learned from mistakes I’ve made and letting every other aspect of those mistakes go away.  I cannot live in a state of fear or paranoia.
  • I’m evicting the two tenants in my mind.  One constantly reminds me of the flaws in others.  One constantly reminds me of the flaws in myself.  Neither has ever paid a dime in rent.
  • I’m giving myself the ability to grow by letting go of anger and resentment; toward others, yes – but mostly toward myself.  Nothing good ever grows in piss and vinegar and what does grow is contagious.
  • I’m allowing myself to not give up on my dreams; No matter how unrealistic or distant.
  • I’m giving myself to right to appreciate the things I have. I will not feel guilty for having what others do not and I will not obsess over the things I still want. Things are things.
  • I’m giving myself the right to be proud of my five beautiful children.  Who are brilliant little sparks that need my care and my help to grow to their full potential.  I will not be apologetic for letting them be who they are, I will appreciate who they are becoming and I will focus more on encouragement and less on correction.
  • I’m giving myself the chance to appreciate my wife.  She is the most wonderful partner in life that anyone could ever hope to have and realizing that without her companionship, support and love, I would have burned myself away long ago.
  • I’m giving myself pride in what I have accomplished in my life.
    • I’m an Army veteran who served proudly in a unit distinguished throughout its history for its courage, flexibility, daring and skill.
    • I earned two degrees in fields I’m passionate about.
    • I have a house, a beautiful family, and make a good living working with some of the brightest minds in the country for a company I still believe in and I’m one of the ten best in the country at doing the job.
    • I’ve taken control of my physical health to the extent that I can and over the last few years I’ve gotten myself into great shape with a lot of hard work.
    • I’ve bounced from hobby to hobby and interest to interest since I was a young kid and I’ve been learning and storing knowledge all the way.  The unintended result is a good foundation of knowledge and experience with which I can usually tackle any situation.
  • I’m letting myself embrace the things that make me a nerd.  I love fantasy and science fiction at least as much as I love classic literature and poetry.  I’m a huge Woody Allen fan.  I have an active presence on almost every social network and I’d rather read than watch football.  I’m a hypocritical grammar nazi (which means that I love to point out others’ mistakes even while I make my own).  I still dig hair bands.  I can read a book and listen to an audiobook at the same time and enjoy both immensely.  I really enjoy legal research.  I have a goal of growing, gathering, hunting and raising all of the food for our family.  I love to tend my garden.  I watch politics like most men watch sports, and, nerdiest of all, for about 3 months a year starting in June, I drop almost everything and obsess about the reality show Big Brother.  I even watch the live feeds.
  • I’m giving myself a minimum of 30 minutes a day to write.   There are at least four novels and several short stories I’ve been kicking around in my head for the past decade – it’s time to put them on paper.

Oh, and I’m giving myself an opportunity to take my sons to see Star Trek at the theater.  Tonight.

Memorial Day

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Not just today, but every day: to all of my fallen brothers and sisters, I thank you, I’m proud of you and I will teach my children about your sacrifice.

Airborne.

On the Menace of Gore – Part I

With Screen Free week coming up, I wanted to address some things about the screen. This is Part 1.

I’ve walked out of two movies in my life. The first was Natural Born Killers. The laugh track attached to a scene of forcible incest at the beginning of the movie was just too much for me.

The other was the remake of Evil Dead that came out this year.

I didn’t walk out of Evil Dead because it was offensive, and certainly not because it was scary (it wasn’t – I think Hollywood has forgotten how to be scary). I walked out because all I could think about during the movie was the fact that those hyper-realistic images of extreme gore are now forever burned into my brain and the more I watched, the more that would be in there.

We’ve always had “gore porn” in horror movies, but I don’t remember an effort to make it hyper-realistic until about 10-15 years ago and it seems like they have become quite adept at it. The last gorror movie I watched before Evil Dead was one of the Saw movies and that was about a 3 on the 1-10 scale now redefined and dominated by Evil Dead. I had no idea how far behind I was. Gore is so much of a focus now that the scripts suffer for it and it is stomach-turningly realistic.

But so what? You could say the same thing about morphing when it first came out as a special effect, or the rotation shot from The Matrix. The current thing is 3D. They’re remaking movies that were only mediocre when they came out twenty years ago just so they can redo them in 3D. When new effects are developed, movie makers exploit them with the same abandon as kids who have learned a new word that makes them feel smart.

The difference is that the gore desensitizes us to the value of human life. The more realistic it is, the more effectively it does that. The current generation of teenagers has seen a level of violence that most of their parents can’t even comprehend. Their brains are so full of horrific images that they’re not even shockable anymore. If you’re a parent of a teen and you think I’m exaggerating, go see the new Evil Dead and then realize that your kid probably wouldn’t even flinch.

I’d argue that it’s physiologically and psychologically impossible to have seen human beings die in hundreds of ways in an “entertainment” setting (and therefore take some sort of joy from watching) and still value a human life at the same level that you did prior to seeing all of that.

Your brain is an electro-chemical machine. When you see something, your brain’s response is an electro-chemical one. If you are scared, you get a hit of adrenalin. Your respiration rate increases, your pulse goes up, you may start to sweat and you’ve learned to interpret this response verbally as fear, disgust and/or excitement. That’s part of the fight or flight response and it’s important. But it also expends a lot of energy and the brain seeks efficiency. So, when you see similar things hundreds of times, your brain learns to adjust its response (and that of your body) for efficiency. You no longer get an increase in respiration, adrenalin, pulse, etc. You are no longer as afraid, disgusted or excited.

Now think about that – if the spectacle of a human being being ripped to shreds in a realistic and graphic way no longer concerns you, do you still value human life as much as before?

Video is powerful. That’s why the stuff on your TV is referred to as programming.

I’d argue that if you want to try to explain the mass shooting phenomenon, you should look to Hollywood before you look to the gun shop. The primary problem is the fact that the shooters were willing to kill in the first place, which method they chose and how they got it is a secondary problem.

Another way to think about this …

When you sit down to watch something, whether it’s a movie, a TV show, the news, a commercial or a school play – realize that that thing is “programming” and then ask yourself what it’s programming you to do.

Boston News Coverage

Dear News Talking Head People:

I really wish you would stop trying to give the terrorists a cute name.  They are not “Boston Bombers” or “Beantown Boomers,” nor are they “Marathon Bombers,” “Chechnyan Childkillers,” “Finish Line Fanatics” or even “Radicals on the Run.”  Stop it.  They are terrorists.  Misguided, radical, heartless killers who don’t deserve to share the air on this earth with the rest of us.

I don’t care what religion they are, because it’s irrelevant to what they did.  I don’t care what country they immigrated from, because that’s irrelevant to what they did.  I do care whether they acted alone and whether the other one we know about is dead yet.

Also, I think it’s perfectly acceptable to say “We really don’t know anything more now than we did 10 minutes ago.  We will now return you to your mindless local programming.”

Finally, I know that people say stupid things when they’re asked to speak non-stop for a given period of time and not allow any dead air.  I get that.  Heck, I’ve even done that.  But one comment from Richard Engel on NBC this morning was really disturbing to me.  The Uncle of the bombers gave his statement to the press and the news people started talking about it afterward and Engel said something like “He certainly was outraged … or at least he wanted to project outrage … it could have been fake.”  I find that comment despicable.

Take a step back for a minute and imagine that same treatment being given to almost anyone else.  “We just heard a statement delivered by the mother of the young teen driver who it is believed caused this traffic accident because she was texting while driving.  She was very upset … or at least she seemed upset … she may have been faking.”

The man was outraged.  Two members of his family committed a heinous and horrible act of senseless violence against innocent people for the purpose of causing terror.  It brought shame and suspicion to his family (and his religion and his ethnicity).  He wasn’t faking it.