(Former Potential) Juror Number 34 Reports
~ by Dracoverdi
somewhat random impressions of the Michael Jackson jury selection process
I arrived early to avoid complications, but mostly to avoid being late, which I was pretty sure would be a mistake. Nobody gets away with being late to court, not even Mr Jackson. Those of us who were told to report at 8:00 am were divided into two groups A-L and M-Z. Some people inevitably got into the wrong room, some people were late and at least one had gotten married with a name change that moved her from one room to the other.
One of the precautions they made for the sake of jurors' privacy was to assign a number, at first it was the jury summons number, a nine-digit number, instead of our name. The idea was that in court we would only be referred to by number, and hopefully this would protect our identity.
Another precaution is passing everyone through a metal detector on the way into the courtroom. Anyone who has traveled by air, gone to a rock concert, or large theme park will be familiar with this kind of screening. The first day they had bags for us to put our valuables, and sharp objects in, to be restored in exchange for a claim ticket after the courtroom visit. Any days after that, we were told, we would be likely to lose any proscribed items uncovered by the scanners.
After being told about the numbers, scanners, bags and seeing the little movie explaining the jury system in general, we walked over to the courtroom. I noticed on the walk over that the cherry trees were in bloom. We were waiting around a lot, so I had time to notice things like the huge press vans which look like Borg RVs; they have three-foot diameter, pop-up dishes on top. They are probably big so that they can transmit, but still I'll bet they'd get really good cable reception. We got to the courtroom though a little fenced off courtyard. I could hear people chanting slogans on the other side of the fence. Try to picture this scene: A courtyard surrounded by a canvas-covered chain link fence. Outside about 300 fans and protestors earnestly wishing they were inside, and on the inside 300 or so of us jurors earnestly wishing we were outside. We had been carefully, randomly selected but they were pretty random in their own right.
On first entering the courtroom, we could see two groups of about six people standing on the other side of a low wooden room divider. Most were obviously lawyers, and there was one person in white with a gold armband and long black hair. I couldn't keep myself from thinking "Hey! That guy looks like Michael Jackson". Well, yes he did, because... he *was* Michael Jackson. Who were you expecting? Remember that this was after hours of processing, and a movie, all with strangers who looked like people I might know, but that turned out not to be.
Judge Melville explained some more about jury service being a responsibility of citizenship and neatly comparing it to the military service that many were performing in Iraq. He then asked if there were any who were willing to serve on the jury and an impressive portion of us were. He said he was pleased at the number that raised their hands, and we were dismissed to go finish processing while the people who didn't raise their hands tried their luck for the rest of the day defending various reasons for being deferred. My way turned out shorter. We went back to the jury assembly building and filled out the questionnaire and were assigned a color group (yellow in my case) and a number (our questionnaire number -- 34 in my case), and were instructed to call after 5 pm to find out when to report next. I got out early enough to meet my wife and daughter at another government building to sign my daughter's passport application. Since she is under fifteen, all of us are required to sign. This somehow prevents kidnapping. I'm just glad neither our cat or dog were required to sign. They are a bit active for a government building.
The next day we found out that the trial was recessed due to a death in one of the defense lawyers' family. We jurors were counted and taken over in groups to the nearby Abel Maldenado youth center for more processing. Most of the morning was assigning us to a letter group (A) and then Judge Melville and a court recorder came and Judge Melville gave us our mass admonition. He explained again how important it was for us not to form any opinions until we had received all the evidence, in the event we ended up on the jury. He told us not to talk to anybody, even other jurors about the case and not to watch or read anything about the trial. He explained that if someone persisted in discussing the trial even after we attempted to avoid the conversation, then we were to report to him. Once we were dismissed, or the trial was concluded in the case of eventual jurors, we would be free to discuss the trial. He recommended having someone save newspaper clippings during the trial for us to read afterwards. Amazingly, food was provided, but I had already eaten. This was the only time that food was provided. Judge Melville had selected a schedule that would have court in session from 8:30am to 2:30 with no lunch but three 10-minute breaks. Good enough if you are a guy, but the ladies restroom typically had a twenty-minute line for each of the ten-minute breaks.
The first couple days, I left the courthouse using the back exit (on to McClelland) but then drove around the block and down Miller to see some of the circus. Everybody outside seemed to be behaving oddly, but the press took the cake. The press had formed a sort of high tech camp from the front gate, and all along the parking lot to the north of the courthouse. Some press vans and the outhouses were clustered around the trashcan enclosure for the courthouse, which bizarrely is the only part of the complex protected by barbed wire. Several scaffold-supported platforms have been erected around the court's parking lots. These are skinned in canvas and contain cameras on dolly tripods and resemble dovecots for hunting very tall prey. Most of the time the cameras were covered in what appeared to be large trash bags. Barbed wire to protect trash, and trash bags to protect the presumably expensive cameras? The first day one, of the local channels had apparently rented a scissor lift platform, just big enough for a brave newswoman and her intrepid cameraman to film a segment with the courthouse as a backdrop. The higher ground is obviously imperative to this sort of reporting.
I can't remember the exact sequence, but sometime this day the two sides read their list of potential witnesses. This process took about an hour and a half. The defense list was more interesting and much longer. Jay Leno, Kobe Bryant! , Ed Bradley, Quincey Jones, Deepak Chopra, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, Uri Geller, Larry King, a lot more I can't remember. I wonder if there is a non-zero group of people that are both on the potential witness list for this trial and on Paris Hilton's cell phone. Whatever the order, we also started jury selection this day. First, eighteen potential jurors were called from a randomized list to fill the twelve jurors' box seats and six additional seats in front of the box. Judge Melville read the charges and explained that Mr. Jackson had pled not guilty and what that meant. He also explained the concept of the presumption of innocence.
Next, Judge Melville asked them a series of general questions intended to consider any undue hardship conditions, weed out various types of juror prejudice, and establish a minimum fitness to be a juror. These questions were asked of the whole group of eighteen being considered, with people asked to raise their hand if the question applied significantly to them. Any who raise their hand are asked for particulars. Some people with sufficiently compelling hardship cases were dismissed at this point, occasionally after consultation with lawyers for the two sides. More prospective jurors ("PJ's") were called to fill up to eighteen.
After the judge's questions, it was time for the lawyers to question. The lawyers for each side asked all of the eighteen a series of questions of their own. All of these are intended to establish whether the potential jurors would be able to consider the facts impartially under a set of conditions posed by the question. We were part-way through these questions on the first group when we recessed overnight.
The next day, we all showed up, some early, some late but all there. PJs, lawyers, bailiffs, Judge, but no Mr. Jackson or Mr. Jackson's bodyguard. It turned out Mr. Jackson had the flu and had driven directly to the one legally unassailable refuge -- the hospital. Once admitted by the medical profession, he could negotiate to the legal profession. I don't think he could have done anything to make the case of being sick at the courthouse. Barf on the judge? Probably not. The doctor said it would take 3-4 days to recover. Judge Melville decided if he took the longer period, four days, he would get two weekend days and the President's day holiday for free. Time enough for Mr. Jackson to recover and for the jurors to get sick. He's not a judge for nothing.
In the intervening week, they replaced half the seats in the jury box and put in a new sound system. The new seats look like theater seats, complete with drink holders in the handles. I don't suppose they will ever offer popcorn -- probably better if they didn't. They fiddled with the new sound system at every break. Apparently the people in the overflow room couldn't hear properly. At one point the microphone for the lawyer's podium needed to be moved closer. When they put it on the podium, all the lawyerly hand gestures were amplified as thumps, so they rigged a sound isolation base out of a roll of masking tape and a piece of foam rubber. Later, when the prosecutors were trying to hold the press-to-speak button on their desk mike in the down position, I suggested the masking tape from the roll might help, pointing out that duct tape would be more appropriate for this task (general agreement on this point). The new sound system already had at least two hacks on the first day.
One thing I didn't notice until I was in the front of the courtroom was that the bailiff has a jar of cough drops on her desk. This is brilliant because, like most public gatherings, somebody always has a cough going, especially in the winter.
After both sides have asked their questions, any jurors who have said they couldn't be impartial for some reason are dismissed "for cause" -- any number of jurors may be dismissed this way for obvious cause. After that, each side has a certain number of "peremptory challenges" (ten I think) that they can use to dismiss PJ's without stating the reason. (It was one of these, by the defense, late in jury selection that released me later to write this in a timely fashion). There are limits on the reasons for peremptory challenges. You can't, for instance, dismiss a prospective juror for race. I think a few of the discussions following challenges in this case might have been to verify a challenge wasn't just on the basis of race. Any PJ dismissed from the jury box is replaced from the six extra seats. Every time they empty seven seats they call seven more random PJ's to fill the gaps, the first going into the empty seat in the box and the next six filling the extra seats. (My number was called twenty-fifth, the last called for first seven replacements). Either side can accept the jury as constituted at any time, and the prosecution had done this twice before I was dismissed.
When I was first called up I was in seat eighteen (yet another numbering system). This seat is the closest geographically to the prosecution lawyer handling jury selection. Close enough that he ran over my feet twice. However, having failed to run over me, he made no attempt to dismiss me. Later after the Juror in seat number six was dismissed, I moved up to take that. They filled a second time and had started questioning by the time we recessed Monday the 21st. The next day they finished questioning the new group, and I noticed that the defense attorney asked the new person in seat eighteen what should have been a follow-up question for me from the day before. I think he must note by seat number and must have missed the follow-up somewhere in questioning.
I'm pretty sure I was dismissed for not displaying evidence of reasonable doubt at the propositions that it was unlikely for a celebrity to get a fair trial and that a teenage witness would be likely to be influenced to lie by their parents, which were two defense questions.
I was asked if I thought children (teenagers) made reliable witnesses. I said that it depended on the child, the situation, and the question. The lawyer (Mr. Mesereau I believe) asked me to explain. I said some children would be more honest than others, that although children lie, they would know the difference between a tall tale to a friend and being under oath in court, and that they might respond differently depending on the wording of the question.
Then I was asked if I thought a parent might influence their child to lie. I said that I had never known anybody to do this. That most parents I know wouldn't do this for fear of the damage it would do to their child.
Finally, I was asked if I felt the tremendous media attention to the case was damaging Mr. Jackson's chances of getting a fair trial (and more generally if the media attention to high profile cases was distorting the whole legal process).
To the specific question about Mr. Jackson, I said that media attention does have an influence on a potential juror's "knowledge" of the case. But that this negative effect was somewhat offset by a famous (and presumably rich) person's ability to command superior legal representation (this last was probably too smart alecky). In general I said media coverage ahead of jury selection undoubtedly has some effect. But that the sort of extra precautions taken for this case to provide a big jury pool and protect the prospective jurors during the trial help offset the effect during the trial.
Whenever Mr. Jackson goes out on a break on come the lights and the cameras are rolling. But when we come out, the deputies call "Juror!" and the camera lighting is turned off, and the cameras are pointed at our feet. They must have a lot of good "juror shoe" footage. It's a good idea for Jurors to wear shoes that aren't too shiny. Any time we went out to the bathroom a deputy went in ahead of us to make sure nobody was there. I know why they did this, but I'm still amused by the concept of "securing the bathroom".
In court, before I was called up, I was sitting near the assigned seven press seats when I overheard a conversation between two reporters. One said that he lives within blocks of the courthouse, close enough to walk to the courthouse in the morning or go home for lunch. He pointed out that when he moved to Santa Maria a few years ago, he had no idea he would be living at the center of the media universe. If that is where we are, then it is a moving center. It reminds me more of the Eye of Sauron and I'll be more comfortable when it moves on.
At least for jury selection, the press have been assigned seven seats in the front row, but way off to the left, as seen from the gallery. Some are actually behind the jury box from the judge where he is sitting in the witness stand. It's as if somebody demanded the press get front row seats and so they were assigned the most remote possible front row seats.
Mr. Jackson always had interesting stuff to wear: colorful clothes, watch chain with crowns, medallion on the lapel, armbands -- everything you would expect. But the coolest person in court by a large margin is Mr. Jackson's bodyguard. Everything about him says cool, professional, in charge. Don't get me wrong, the court security people are well-equipped and know what they are doing, but this guy has a job that allows (demands?) a fashion statement as well. If you saw him in a movie, you would say he was too cool to be real.
On a technical note, I noticed that the Judge and prosecutors all had IBM and HP laptops, while the defense had at least one large screened Sony Vaio. I know it's a small sample group, but I wonder if the county is constrained to purchase from US companies.
I'm surprised by how effectively the Jury selection questions can be used to precondition jurors. As an example the defense attorney asked two or three questions that undeniably aided in weeding out biased jurors but also planted the seed for reasonable doubt to grow. Can a person in Mr. Jackson's situation get a fair trial? Are children reliable witnesses? Could a child witness be influenced by their parents to lie? It reads like a scaffold for their case.
The best advice I can give someone reporting for jury duty is: bring a book. There is a lot of waiting in the process of preparing you to serve. Even in court, although you have to pay attention to the proceedings, there are extended periods when the Judge and lawyers are discussing things in private. You learn a lot of interesting things about your fellow PJs because you have lots of time to talk but you are not allowed to discuss what is happening in the court.
When I was leaving the courtroom after being dismissed, a friend sitting on the aisle quietly commented "back to work". It reset my mind. "Exactly" I thought. This is now somebody else's job.
A few minutes later, in the parking lot, a reporter - from CBS I think ‚ approached me and asked if I wanted to share my experiences in court. I declined. He commented that there would be a lot of other people asking me (was this intended as a threat?). I don't think there will be much interest. The Eye of Sauron will follow Mr. Jackson.
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