On the first day of the actual trial, we are sworn in as jurors and given our instructions for the case. Then someone points out that the court reporter isn’t here yet, so we have to wait for him to show up and then we do it all over again.
Our lawyers are Mr. McCarthy and Mr. Kennedy, which confuses me for a moment and makes me think I’m watching really old reruns of C-SPAN.
Our trial is about domestic violence involving a Hispanic man and his wife. I look around the jury and realize that the lawyers have dismissed all the potential jurors with Spanish last names. Well, the joke’s on them: My family was in Spain until the 16th century when my ancestor washed ashore in Scotland amidst the wreckage of the Spanish armada and cunningly changed his last name to blend in. His ignorance of English apparently went unnoticed, seeing as how the Scottish can barely speak it anyway. 400 years later his visionary act of subterfuge is still serving me well.
The prosecuting attorney describes the incident the trial has stemmed from thusly: the defendant came home to his apartment late one Sunday, and his wife refused to let him through the security gate because he had been out drinking with his friends instead of spending the day with her and their children. They argue loudly through the security gate while she holds their baby son, then he gets into his van and rams the gate until the door pops open. He exits the van with a steak knife in hand, walks up to his wife and yells at her while waving the steak knife about, then kicks and slaps her, all while she is holding their son. People in the complex start yelling that they have called the police, so he gets back in his van and drives away, stopping to brandish the steak knife at another resident who is in his own car and impertinently inquires of him what, if anything, he might be looking at. Then the cops arrive on the scene and take him into custody.
The defense attorney’s rebuttal goes a little something like this: sure they had an argument, but what couple doesn’t fight? Sure he hit the gate, but it wasn’t that bad. Steak knife? What steak knife?
At this point I’m starting to think that this guy is a public defender.
All of the witnesses are called by the prosecution, and serve to flesh out each step of the episode. However, because several of the witnesses are the defendant’s family, the prosecutor warns us not to expect them to be entirely forthcoming. In particular the defendant’s wife, the alleged victim, is one of the witnesses, and the prosecutor concedes that he has no idea what she will say once she’s on the stand, but believes that she will lie to try to protect him.
Because many of the witnesses speak Spanish, often times there is a court-supplied interpreter standing beside the witness stand. Although this means questioning and answering takes twice as long, I don’t mind, because this is only prolonging my vacation. It’s not even that distracting because the interpreter is really good and mimics the witnesses’ inflections and tone as well as their words, even going so far as to get annoyed with the lawyers when the witnesses do.
On a few occasions the prosecution asks the defendant’s niece a question and she answers him in English without waiting for the translation, causing the judge to reprimand her and insist that she wait for the interpreter. The ostensible reason for this is that the court has to make sure that everyone has a perfect understanding of what is going on, and if a participant says Spanish is their primary language, they’re damned well going to speak Spanish. You have to follow certain rules in a court, because that’s what courts are for.
The defendant’s niece and nephew pretty much live up to the prosecutor’s warnings, and all they tell us is that they heard some yelling, then what sounded like a car crash, but they didn’t really see anything.
I meet my friend Bert for lunch and he complains about how his work ruined a perfectly good morning of sleeping through his alarm by calling him up and informing him that all their servers were down and they were losing thousands of dollars every minute he wasn’t in the office. I in turn extol the virtues of the jury system and show off the two free trolley passes I have collected today.
If you frequent airports often enough eventually you figure out which articles of clothing will set off the metal detector and which are safe. Being on jury duty is like going through an airport twice a day, every day. My Skechers are not metal detector safe, but my Vans are. My heavy leather belt does not pass, but my cheap cloth belt with the flimsy aluminum buckle does. Juror badges have metal pins with sharp pointy ends and go through the scanner without anyone batting an eye, but apparently they trust jurors not to go around stabbing each other.
After lunch the witnesses are residents of the apartment complex and apparently have very good optometrists because they saw a whole lot more than the defendant’s relatives. Then the man the defendant allegedly threatened with the knife takes the stand.
When the clerk asks the witness to raise his right hand to be sworn in (by way of an interpreter, as the court has informed him that he will be speaking Spanish today) he raises his left briefly before being corrected. The prosecution questions him briefly and he corroborates the prosecution’s description of what happened – he was in his car and defendant drove up alongside him and waved a knife at him and yelled at him. The defense starts questioning him about what he saw of the argument. Thus begins what we in the jury will come to refer to as The Business with the Right and the Left.
“He slapped at her with his right hand.” And what side was the baby on? “She was holding her on the left.” So the baby was never in trouble of being hit. “Well, it looked like he just barely missed the baby.” But you said the baby was on the opposite side from the hand he was using to slap her. “No, I said he swung with his right and the baby was on the left.” Those are opposite sides. “No, because if I’m facing you with my right, your left is on the same side. The baby was on her left side.” So what hand was he holding the knife in? “His right.” The same hand he was slapping her with? “No, sorry, I’m confused. He was holding the knife in his left.” But you just said the right. “I also just said I was confused.” You said he tried to kick her? “Yes, with his right leg.” What was his left leg doing? “Obviously it was staying on the ground, otherwise he would have fallen over.” And he kicked her on the right side? “Yes the right.” So he somehow magically stretched his leg all the way around her and kicked her other side? “No, the right side as I’m facing her, it would be her left side.”
This goes on for an HOUR. All the while the interpreter is translating back and forth, so I keep hearing echoes of Derecha? Izquierdo? Derecha? Izquierdo? The witness is becoming hostile, as is the jury, as we don’t see what this accomplishing other than lulling us to sleep. Finally the defense asks the prosecutor if he will help act out the scene with the defense attorney. The prosecutor looks bewildered at this request for a second, then decides that it beats sitting and listening to this for another hour and stands up. The defense attorney plays the part of the wife and has the witness direct the prosecuting attorney, who is playing the part of the husband, where to stand in relation to her (him).
The witness says, “Yes, just like that, then he kicked her.”
The prosecutor cocks an eyebrow and asks the defense, “Would you like me to demonstrate that too?”
After court my roommate and I are hanging out in the lobby. He’s wearing his sheriff’s uniform and I still have my juror’s badge and we’re discussing our shopping list for the evening, which consists of Guinness, whiskey and Irish cream to mix Car Bombs. Another sheriff walks by in the middle of this and gapes at my juror’s badge. Then she asks “Are you taking your jury drinking?” and he says “No, no, he’s not on my jury” so no one gets fired and I don’t get dismissed.
Many people, regardless of their travels, may have at least a passing familiarity with San Diego because of its appearance in the movie Traffic. In the film the police drive a protected witness from the Hotel San Diego to court. This is hilarious to natives because the Hotel San Diego is literally across the street from the courthouse. When the film crew was shooting exterior shots of the hotel they probably had to stand on the courthouse steps to get the whole building in frame. Despite this one questionable interpretation of topography, Traffic is fun to watch for San Diegans because it brilliantly caricaturizes the stereotypes of various neighborhoods: the posh drug lords live in La Jolla, Chula Vista is nothing but a stretch of freeways and storage sheds, and the federales kidnap the assassin Frankie Flowers in a gay bar in Hillcrest.
This is a welcome contrast to that atrocity of a movie Jurassic Park 2, which has a Tyrannosaurus Rex rampaging through San Diego. Which is not to say that stuff like this doesn’t happen in San Diego; it’s just that we don’t like to talk about it.
Wednesday’s witnesses include a contractor - who estimates the damages to the security gate at around $2,000; the police officers who arrived on the scene - who relate the (much more thorough) statements the defendant’s relatives gave at the scene; and … the defendant’s wife.
Much as the prosecutor predicted, the wife is not very chatty: “We argued, he bumped the gate with the car, I went inside.
“That’s all.” Did he have a knife? “No, there was no knife.” Did he hit you? “No he was just waving his hands around.” Were you injured at all? “No, if I got bumped at all, there was a barbecue, maybe I backed into the grill.” Why are you bringing up the grill? “No reason. I wasn’t injured.”
She cries a lot, and I feel a bit awkward, sitting here judging people for $15 a day, trying to read through their tears, which are honest enough, and discern the motive behind them. There is no interpreter to translate what the witnesses are thinking.
Then, suddenly and without warning, the prosecution rests and testimony is over. I don’t understand what’s happening and become a little bit panicky. It’s only 3 o’clock on Wednesday, I’ve already made plans to meet my friend Jeremy for lunch tomorrow and they’re trying to end the trial? What kind of horrible miscarriage of justice is this, anyway?