(Featured Image: an approximate feel of what our courtroom in Woburn, MA was like. Ours was less fancy. As a quick reminder, the trial is a matter of public record and now that it is concluded I am fully allowed to discuss it. However, I will keep details extremely vague and I ask that you try not to research too far into the case, for the sake of those involved.)
By Zach d’Arbeloff
I like to view everything new as an adventure. Even mundane experiences can become more exciting when it is something new.This past week I embarked on a new adventure that had never crossed my mind. It didn’t take me to wild, or even outside, but rather to a place that is almost universally despised: jury duty at the local Middlesex County Superior Court.
Everyone has heard the horror stories of jury duty, and most Americans, at some point, are summoned to go through the process. Most potential jurors never make it onto a jury, and instead spend between four and six hours sitting in a room before being told to go home. I cannot emphasize how horrendously boring the first day of jury duty is. Bring a book. I did not, out of some foolish idea that it would only be an hour or two and I would be back in the office by lunchtime. I wasn’t.
While the process was intriguing, it was a dreadful crawl to appointment. The judge asks some very vague questions to the prospective jurors, namely whether they are acquainted with any of the involved parties, including witnesses, and then each juror goes up one at a time to the bench, in order of numbers assigned earlier in the day. When your number is called, you are asked a few individual questions that are directly related to the case by the judge, and the two lawyers tell the judge whether they have any issues with the appointment of that juror.
As number 60 out of 84 possible jurors, I had to watch the 59 citizens before me desperately attempt to not get selected for one of the 14 spots. The best excuse I heard was an older woman who claimed to have lost both of her hearing aids.
True to my expectations, there were 13 jurors selected by the time we got to the fifties. If one of the ten people before me made it to the stand, I would be off the hook. I watched with baited breath.
The problem with being an honest person as well as a believer in the potential of the American legal system, is that I knew for certain that I was going to be selected when I went up to the stand. I knew I wouldn’t have any problems being a juror, and I knew that the way I viewed the situation (intellectually, and as a civic duty), meant that I would be able to objectively decide on this case. I wasn’t going to lie to get out of it, either.
So instead, I sat there with dread as the numbers slowly crept towards 60. Eventually, my number was called and I approached the stand.
“Was anybody in your family affected by violent crimes?”
“Would the media coverage surrounding mass shootings affect your ability to be neutral?”
These were the two most interesting questions posed to me and they immediately made me raise an eyebrow regarding this case. Violent crime? Mass shootings? What could I potentially be hearing? I answered as honestly as I could – that I was fairly ambivalent and wouldn’t let media coverage get to me, that I had my own opinions about gun law in the United States but that those beliefs shouldn’t affect my ability to make a rational decision based on evidence. As I expected, my honesty got me a spot on the jury. The last spot: number 14. Everyone else got to go home.
Before we were dismissed, we were addressed by the judge. The bare minimum information was conveyed. This was a case involving the criminal possession of firearms, and we were not to discuss or investigate any aspect of the case on our own until after we had come to a decision. We were now tasked with deciding someone’s future: a task that is not to be taken lightly.
The courtroom was on the seventh floor. I resolved to use the stairs everyday to make up for the fact that I’d be sitting silently for four hours. It was quiet in the jury deliberation morning on our first official morning of duty. We were uncomfortable with each other, and, unable to talk about the case and afraid to actually have an enjoyable social interaction, we all stared glumly at screens, pretending that we were actually frustrated by missing work.
The case itself started around 9:08 with a whole lot of pomp and circumstance. Standing for people, procedure to follow, and, of course, long opening statements from each lawyer describing how they would form their case. The lawyer from the District Attorney’s office, a tall, good looking man with short black hair that was speckled with gray, described the process of proving the defendants guilt: first, it had to be established that the gun was a gun, and second, that he was in possession of that gun. Seemed simple. The Defendant’s lawyer was a loud, bald, grandfather from the city with a wry sense of humor and an unspoken confidence in himself. He discussed with us the varying inconsistencies in the case and why, at the end, we would have no choice but to find him innocent. Game on. This was going to be interesting.
Unfortunately, it turns out that proving a gun is a gun requires about two and a half hours of testimony from witness officers, verifying the ammo, that it was tested, that it fired, that it was properly transported from the crime scene, etc. This painfully boring segment of the trial all amounted to one thing: the gun was a gun. We agreed.
It’s about here I should take a quick diatribe to describe how absurd this trial was. On the one hand, the subject matter definitely could have been exciting, but on the other, all the crazy components of this case made it entertaining and intriguing all the same.
First off, the gun in question was pink. None of the officers had ever seen a pink gun before and they clearly all thought the color was quite funny. However, beyond the pink gun actually being a pink gun, it was after the firearms existence was established that the case got interesting.
It turns out that this case was tangentially related to a cooperative effort in 2013 between federal, state, and local agents to take down a gang run by several mid-twenties Vietnamese residents in a suburb north of Boston. Having spent months on surveillance, and finally able to offer up enough evidence for a warrant, the police raided multiple suspected locations in a unilateral effort to arrest all of the lead players. For the most part, it worked. Every one of the high-ranking game members they arrested is in jail. This was the final bit that needed to be cleaned up – two and a half years after the actual raid.
Our defendant, however, was not accused in any way of association of the local gang. He was a customer of the auto body shop where the gun was found, and, essentially, six months after the raids went down, during the fallout, the owner of the auto body shop, who was more mixed up in the gang mess, told the police that the gun had been given to him by our guy to paint black, where he had forgotten about it (he originally told police he found it in a snow bank outside).
The end result was that, through three days of testimony, we had several conflicting reports involving the gun. The shop owner claimed the defendant had given it to him to paint. The police officers who first talked to the defendant (sixth months after the gun was found) testified that the defendant had admitted to being given the gun to hold for a few hours by the leader of the associated gang. The defendant claimed that he’d never seen the gun. The prosecution painted this as overwhelming evidence: regardless of the conflicting elements of the story, we should believe beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant, at some point, possessed the weapon.
The defense lawyer did a very good job in this case: our defendant had everything go through a Vietnamese translator, because his English wasn’t that good (and we never heard him speak a word in English – for all I know he could have been a fairly natural English speaker). He did a good job painting the non-police witnesses as untrustworthy, and even had a character witness come in to testify that his client had trouble speaking and understanding English when figures of authority were involved. A lot of it was easy-to-see through legal strategy, but some of it really stuck.
How this guy ended up with the misfortune of getting dragged into this is unclear. It honestly may have been his gun. At the end of the day, as the judge made very clear in his directions to us before deliberation, it was not our job to decide the likeliness of the defendant owning the gun. It was our job to decide whether he definitely, beyond a reasonable doubt, possessed the gun. Anything less than that would necessitate a “not guilty” verdict. With an intelligent, skeptical jury, that is a very high bar to meet in a criminal case.
Deliberation was probably the most exciting part of the whole experience (and we got free pizza). Our jury was composed very intelligent people – we had multiple school teachers, and I think everyone but maybe one had a college education. We treated our task very seriously and spent several hours discussing the varying scenarios and how the evidence fit together, but from the start there were only two of us who thought that he was guilty. At the end of the day, between conflicting testimony and a lack of credibility from the main witness, our decision was pretty easy. The judge, talking to us afterwards, agreed. Regardless of the percentage chance that our defendant had, at some point, possessed that gun outside of his home or business, we couldn’t convict him on a hunch. And we may very well have saved the local businessman and father of three some jail time. Mostly, I felt proud to take part in a duty that has been performed in this country since it’s inception, and I hope that if I ever, god forbid, have to stand before a jury, that my peers will treat me with the same intellect and thoroughness that our jury approached this case.
The best part of the whole case was after it was over. The judge sat down with us to talk about the case – he praised our intellect and said that he was lucky to have such a smart jury. He bemoaned the juries he would get as a circuit judge in Lowell and Worcester, and thanked us profusely for taking our jobs so seriously. It was a nice feeling, to be appreciated for completing my civic duty. A few days later, I received a letter from the Judge in the mail, thanking me again for my service. The feelings I was left with were both immense satisfaction and patriotism. I had participated in a duty that was the cornerstone of our “innocent unless proven guilty” legal system and I felt like a much better person for it. It was not what I expected.
So, if you’ve recently received a jury duty summons in the mail: try not to avoid it, you never know, you might enjoy it.