Last week, I had to show up at the courthouse in San Francisco to fulfill my civic duty as a potential juror. And, as expected, the process of selecting a jury was excruciating, thanks to the small but vocal nincompoops in the jury pool who were unable to give a yes-or-no answer to questions posed by the judge or the attorneys when asked their views on the legal matters at hand. Honestly, some of them seemed to think they were in a freshman “Philosophy 101” course the way they were pontificating… So dreadful.
At any rate, the twelve jurors were empaneled and I thought to myself, “Thank you Jesus, I’m out of here.” It was about 60 seconds after this that I was chosen as the single alternate juror… Grrrr.
So, the trial started the next day and it appeared to be a pretty straightforward case: a young man was accused of three misdemeanor counts related to possessing and concealing a firearm. The facts of the case were clear; and the defendant had admitted to the police that he’d been in possession of the gun and led them to where he’d disposed of the gun after it discharged accidentally and wounded his girlfriend in the leg (apparently not seriously). Defense counsel, in her opening statement, alluded to the defendant’s fear for his safety as the reason for carrying the weapon – he had been shot ten months earlier by a suspect apparently still at large. So, perhaps some extenuating circumstances, but it was looking pretty likely that the defendant had in fact violated the law.
The district attorney presented his case, calling one witness, the police officer who arrested the defendant and investigated the case. Testimony as expected, including the defendants recorded statement admitting to both possessing and concealing the weapon. What was somewhat unexpected was the forlorn nature of the firearm introduced into evidence: a very old 22-caliber rifle, with the stock and the barrel cut off to make it concealable.
The defense attorney called her first witness, the defendant’s brother. He testified as to the changes he’d seen in his younger brother since he was shot. He’d been a typical 18-year-old who liked to hang out with his friends, go to the movies, joke around – but after he recovered from his injuries, he’d become withdrawn, quiet, very wary about leaving the house. He also testified as to the seriousness of the wounds his brother suffered: five gunshots, a period of paralysis and extensive physical therapy to regain the ability to walk.
The defendant’s sister testified next, and in much the same vein. Both she and her brother spoke about growing up in their tight-knit community in the Mission district – and the fact that, despite having identified his shooter to the police, their brother’s assailant remained at large, their friends reporting when he showed up at parties in the neighborhood or was spotted cruising down the street.
Finally, the defendant himself took the stand. And I have to say, it was very difficult to maintain my composure during his testimony. He was very soft-spoken as he related the facts of his being shot two years ago, at the age of 18: he was hanging out with a group of friends early one evening and someone ran up to them brandishing a gun. Everyone scattered and the gunman took off after the defendant, chasing him down an alley, shooting him in the stomach, then in the face and then three times in the legs. He crawled down the alley, a passing stranger coming to his assistance before an ambulance arrived to take him to SF General for surgery. His recovery took several months.
He also indicated that he had identified the shooter to the police in a photo line-up – and then never heard back from the police. He spoke about his fear of leaving the house, of walking the streets at night, of loud noises; about hearing from friends who’d seen the man who shot him roaming freely through the Mission.
He spoke about how he acquired the gun – he purchased it for $40 from a homeless man. It was on old, beat-up, single action rifle that he altered so he could fit it into his pocket. He fired it into the air once after he bought it to make sure it worked, as he’d never before fired a gun. And he carried it with him when he went out at night, along with two spare bullets in a homemade strap attached to the gun. He wanted to know he’d at least have a chance of surviving if his attacker came after him again.
Frankly, it was heartbreaking. And what I couldn’t figure out was this: why are we all here? Why hadn’t the defense attorney managed to strike a plea bargain for her client? It was three misdemeanor charges and I didn’t get the impression that the prosecution was trying to throw the book at the defendant. In fact, he had originally been charged with a more serious felony related to his discharging the weapon and injuring someone. And there appeared to be no dispute as to the facts of the case. It remains a mystery to me as to why this case made it to trial…
During closing arguments, the prosecutor essentially restated both his case and the law as it pertained to the case. It really was an open-and-shut case, viewed through the lens of the law.
The defense closed by painting a picture of the tragic circumstances that had befallen the defendant – his shooting, the apparent bungling of that case by the SFPD, his difficult recovery. And all of it was true and sad and depressing – but none of it changed the facts of the case. She went on and on to the jurors, about their need to reach their own individual conclusions and to stick with them, no matter what. It was pretty clear she was hoping to elicit sufficient pity from at least one juror to result in a hung jury – or was she actually aiming for jury nullification on misdemeanor charges? Either way, it was fairly distasteful. Don’t get me wrong – I understand that it’s her job to keep her client from being convicted. But there was no disagreement as to facts of the case. As that old chestnut goes, “two wrongs don’t make a right” – but that seemed to me to be the crux of her defense.
Of course, she didn’t do much to bolster her argument by using slides and charts during closing that seemed to be misstating the law as instructed by the judge, but also doing so using misspelled words and incorrect grammar. Or with her decidedly theatrical demeanor, apparently gleaned from repeated viewings of “Law and Order”.
At any rate, I was quite fortunate that none of the jurors joined the choir invisible during the trial – and thus I did not have to participate in the deliberations. The jury reached a similar conclusion to mine, finding the defendant guilty on two of the three counts against him. And I suspect none of them were happy about it.
As with my last interaction with the legal system (when I was sued for hitting a pedestrian with my bicycle – a pedestrian who walked into the street against a red light without looking), I was left with a bad taste in my mouth. The defendants conviction certainly followed the letter of the law – but there sure didn’t seem to be anything fair about it.