Thursday, June 4, 2009

Jury Duty & Verdict

(June 4, 2009)
I'm going to take a break from posts about iPhone poker apps to let the world know that I was on jury duty this week. We just had the verdict today, and I can now legally blab about it. And that is exactly what I am going to do.

The charge was possession of crack cocaine. The defendant had been arrested by the anti-narcotics team doing surveillance in Occidental Park in Pioneer Square in Seattle. Those of you who know Seattle will not be at all surprised that there are many and frequent drug arrests made in this park.
Anyway, the surveillance officer watched the suspect from the 2nd floor of a building across the park using big binoculars. He saw the defendant make three 'transactions' where something small was taken out of one pocket, handed to the customer who inspected it, then paid cash which was put in his other pocket. He then called in the 'arrest team' which arrived about 30 seconds later. During those 30 seconds, a 4th transaction was made.
The suspect was arrested along with at least one other person in the park. This other person resisted and so the arresting officer for our defendant had to go help once our defendant was handcuffed. He was found to have just over $100 in the pocket where the surveillance officer saw him putting the money from the transactions.
However, when they got to the station, all they found was drug residue in the other pocket where he had been removing the drugs--not vials or bags with crack.

I believe this is why he was only charged with possession and not dealing; which is undoubtedly what the police were hoping for.

Two police officers testified (the surveillance guy and the primary arresting officer) their testimony differed somewhat, but I believed that the differences were the result of their different vantage points and also that they were describing events that happened very fast. The surveillance officer testified the he never lost sight of the defendant from the time he supposedly made the transactions to the time he was arrested.

The prosecution also had testimony from the lab technician who tested the residue and found it to be cocaine.

The defense tried to argue that the police were confused and arrested the wrong guy, but we were not convinced. The defense made this assertion using the (slightly) conflicting police reports, supposedly vague description given by the surveillance officer and that it was a dark night in a crowded park.

The defense then offered two stories to explain the unknown and unwitting source of the cocaine residue in the defendant's pocket.
The first was that nearly every dollar bill in circulation has very minute traces of cocaine on it. This is true. The bills in the pockets or purses of everyone reading this probably have trace amounts of cocaine on them. However, we did not believe that this amount rubbed off of money (micrograms) was enough to account for the (still very small) amount found in his pocket.

The second theory was that the defendant often traded clothes with his brothers, who live with him, and he may have been wearing a pair of his pants belonging to someone else and did not know there was cocaine residue in his pocket.
No brother was produced to testify about this. And the defendant said he could not remember if the pants were his own or not. It seemed to us that if someone innocently borrowed an article of clothing and was later arrested for felony possession of drugs found in that borrowed clothing that person would remember who loaned it to them!

The defendant also said that he had just been paid and withdrew the $160-$200 from an ATM and that accounted for the money in his pocket. No receipt or bank statement was shown to corroborate this. If the defense had produced a bank statement showing an ATM withdrawal in the week leading up the arrest, I believe we would have had a much harder time deliberating.
The same would have been true if either one of his brothers that he was supposedly meeting to go bar hopping with had testified to that.

The defense also had an expert witness testify who had tested the substance and had also found it to be cocaine. She tried to testify that she believed the amount in his pocket could have gotten there by rubbing off contaminated money, but the prosecution's cross examination really cut into her credibility and we rejected most of her testimony. While she seemed to be a credible scientist and evidence tester, her actual knowledge about transmission of drugs from dollar bills to fabric seemed to be little more than reading a Wikipedia page about it.
The scientist for the prosecution who had tested the residue initially seemed much more credible and knowledgeable.

What was troubling for all of us on the jury was how small the residue in his possession was. It looked like about 10 grains of salt or sugar.
However, we generally believed that he was dealing drugs and thus either had more and dumped them without the police seeing or there was some problem making them inadmissible. Or he had someone else holding his big stash of drugs and he just took a few at a time to sell, and had (luckily for him) just sold the last rock on him when the cops pulled up.

I tried not to let this effect me, but the prosecution was much more organized and prepared than the defense. I guess it is possible that the defense was using a scattered and confused approach in order to try and make things seem more confusing than they really were. If that's the case; she needs to work on her shtick. If that's not the case; she needs to work on her public speaking and organization skills.

One note to either side (not sure which) is that if the actual money was still in evidence, the jury would have liked to see it. $100 obtained from several crack sales would probably look very different than $100 fresh out of an ATM. Whichever it was in this case, the money would have helped one side's arguments and that side should have admitted it, if possible.

Again, the difficulty in the case was that he was being tried for possession of such a small amount of drugs. There had to be much more to the story that we were not told.

Also, many on the jury (including me) believe that the drug laws in this country are ill-conceived and should be changed. But that was not at issue. We were to uphold the law as it IS, not as it SHOULD BE.

We found him guilty of possession of crack cocaine.

I looked at the defendant right as the word "guilty" was read by the clerk. His reaction was not that of an innocent person who had just been wrongly convicted. It was that of a guy who thought maybe he could beat the charge and didn't.

We would have liked to offer suggestion for a lenient sentence and our sincere hope that the defendant could get his life together and get away from drugs and dealing. But, contrary to what is often shown on TV, juries don't get to do that.

And now, back to iPhone apps & playing poker.
Can't wait to go to Vegas on June 22-26!!

-Pete

3 comments:

Bo J. Howell said...

Peter,

Thank you for providing an interesting perspective on our judicial litigation system. I was called to jury duty a fews months ago, but unfortunately the parties settled before trial. As a lawyer, there is almost no chance I will ever get to serve as a jury member. Yet I am still fascinated to know more about that perspective.

Also, from the vantage point of an appellate court, I can tell you that there is a lot of court activity that the jury never hears about. Generally, at the beginning and ending of each day the court and parties are involved in various hearings and objections. But the jury is never in the room for these discussions. In addition, the judge in your case may have dismissed the jury for a short while during the trial. If he or she did, I can tell you that these disucssins are almost always the juiciest parts of the trial. The issues on appeal generally refer to events that occur outside the presence of the jury.

Kudos for serving on the jury. I'm glad you had an interesting, albeit routine, trial.

Peter Burford said...

Bo:
Yes, nearly every day we arrived at 9:00 to start and waited 20-45 minutes in the jury room before coming in to the court. Often there were similar waits when returning from lunch. We weren't ever sent out of the room except for normal breaks, but a few times the judge and lawyers went to the judge's chambers to discuss objections and other things privately.

It certainly was a very interesting look into the judicial system.

Alice said...

Try SIX WEEKS of a friggin' trial, as an ALTERNATE who has no decision in what happens but has to sit through the whole blasted thing, missing work and life committments. Oh, for $10/day. Unbelievable.