by D. Patrick Miller
The recent appeal of a Facebook friend asking for suggestions about how she might legitimately avoid jury duty jiggled an oddly fond memory of mine: the one week in my life that I spent executing my patriotic duty as a citizen guardian of justice.
Upon the close of the trial in which I served, we were instructed by the judge not to publicize any detail of the case, which fell far below the radar of any media. But as 20+ years have passed now, I feel free of this injunction. This is a story that absolutely does not have to be told. And as my recollection is based on a notes-free assemblage of aged memories, it may be fanciful in some respects — yet nonetheless mostly true and questionably educational.
Before my jury service, I had successfully avoided several calls to duty with the legitimate defense of professional hardship. As a freelance writer living on a dubious cash flow, I could conscientiously claim that I simply couldn't afford the risk of a week or more of unpaid citizen service. But when I received a jury notice in the millennial year 2000, I felt financially secure enough — and sufficiently curious — to heed the call of justice. And on the day that I reported to the Superior Court of Oakland, California I was quickly selected for a case involving the charge of assault.
The cast of characters was immediately intriguing. Although I have little memory of the judge, I can still recall the achingly bored assistant District Attorney; the boyish and excitable defense attorney who admitted in his opening statement that this was his first solo trial; the tall, lanky African-American defendant; and, although they were not seen until the fourth day of the trial, the aging, diminutive pair of married Caucasian plaintiffs, both retired academics. To avoid any racial overtones (which really did not seem to be a factor in the case) I shall henceforth refer to the litigants as the Tall Man and Short Professors.
In retrospect, I'm amazed that it took five days for this case to be laid out and tried. (Be grateful that I can outline it for you quickly.) Tall Man lived in a mobile home in El Cerrito CA, renting driveway space from the Short Professors. (This rental agreement was probably in violation of all kinds of local regulations, but that issue was not raised.) For the most part, the two parties lived separate lives. However, Tall Man was apparently a health nut and sometimes used the Short Professors' kitchen for specialty cooking. He also stored some old-fashioned 5-gallon glass jars of purified water on their back porch behind the kitchen (see Exhibit A).
I don't recall what Tall Man did for a living. It rapidly became clear that the Short Professors were swimming through a besotted retirement, spending a lot of time in front of their TV with cocktails. How the jury came to know of the Professors' drinking habits was likely the master stroke of the defense attorney, who wasted no time in bringing the articulate and decidedly peeved defendant to testify. When Tall Man made a forceful remark about how the plaintiffs spent most of their time in the company of liquid spirits, the DA immediately objected and called for the testimony to be stricken from the record.
"Sustained," agreed the judge, directing us jury folk to forget what we'd just heard — but of course the damage to their character was done.
Tall Man's life also intersected with the Short Professors on the one night weekly when he would come into their living room to use their radio and listen to Art Bell's interview show. The problem with that arrangement was that the Professors watched their TV in the same room and, as their hearing was not optimal, they watched it with the volume way up. Tall Man testified that this was a chronic problem that eventually led to the assault charge. One night he asked several times for the lowering of the TV noise while he tuned into Art Bell, and the Short Professors apparently just cackled. Finally fed up, Tall Man stood and walked over to face the Professors on the couch, warning "If you don't turn the volume down I'm gonna kill your damn TV!" As he reported to the courtroom, they just shook their heads stubbornly in response.
Not one to make an empty threat, Tall Man promptly walked to the kitchen porch, grabbed one of his empty glass water bottles, and returned with it to smash the television screen, just as he'd threatened. The impact broke the water bottle, and in a gesture that would prove to be fateful, Tall Man then held a jaggedly broken fragment of the bottle before the Professors' faces, shaking it wordlessly but with obvious aggravation. He then left the scene of the crime and returned to his trailer, missing his beloved Art Bell.
Apparently frightened out of their wits, the Short Professors promptly drove to the El Cerrito police station, described the incident to an officer there, and ended up filing an assault charge. (The one thing I learned about the law from my jury experience was that "assault" can consist of any threat with a potentially harmful weapon but does not require physical contact; an assault is “an act that puts the victim in reasonable apprehension of harmful or offensive contact.” If such an act continues with physical violence upon the victim, that's assault AND battery.)
Two factors would substantially undermine the plaintiffs' charge that they were placed in reasonable apprehension of harmful contact. The major one came on the third day of the trial, when the jury was shown, for some mysterious reason, photographs of the properties of both the Professors and Tall Man, i.e. the house and mobile home. Their joint address was inadvertently revealed, leading the judge to issue a stern warning to the jury at the close of the day: We were not to go gawk at the scene of the crime because, two months after the filing of the asssault charge, Tall Man was still renting the Short Professors' driveway! This revelation caused a wave of amused murmuring and head-shaking among us juryfolk.
Then on the fourth day, the Short Professors made a long-awaited appearance, and it was decidedly not to their benefit. The couple had the freshly-scrubbed, newly-sober, red-eyed look of veteran alcoholics who had just been groomed for their first public appearance in years. Their responses to inquiries from both attorneys were halting and uncertain. When the defense attorney zeroed in on the wife asking whether Tall Man had said anything specifically threatening to them she murmured, "Oh no, I don't think he'd do that." Seeing the district attorney shake his head in frustration, she quickly added, "But we were really scared!"
On the fifth day, a Friday, the testimony mercifully ended and the judge handed the case to the jury. In our meeting room we quickly selected a middle-aged African-American man as our jury foreman who spoke for all us when he said, "Unless I'm way off about what we've heard, I think we're probably in agreement about the verdict — and what a waste of time this has been. But we need to kill a little more time so it looks like we've deliberated. Does anyone have any questions to discuss?"
"Yes," said a young woman with a puzzled look on her face. "Who is Art Bell?"
We all scanned each others' faces and after a short round of head-shaking, I realized that I was the only one who could speak up with pertinent information. Art Bell, I explained, was the host of a popular late-night radio show entitled "Coast to Coast AM" that focused on a wide range of esoterica: UFOs, Bigfoot, ghosts & hauntings, Atlantis & Lemuria, and a variety of progressive psychology topics like hypnotherapy and dream interpretation. The show ran from 10pm til 2 in the morning on the West Coast (1am to 5 Eastern time) and commanded a large and loyal audience via hundreds of radio stations. "His fans are really dedicated," I added. The young woman exclaimed, "Apparently!"
After that revelation one wag spoke up and said, "You know, if this guy had been charged with the murder of a television we'd have him dead to rights." Everyone laughed, we chatted aimlessly for a while to fill out a respectable thirty minutes, then voted unanimously for acquittal. Upon sharing it with the courtroom, we all watched the young defense attorney pump both fists into the air and exclaim, "YES!!" His trial record was now 1-0. Both the judge and district attorney tiredly shook their heads and retired from the scene. Tall Man rolled his eyes, stood up and stretched, and sauntered out of the courtroom without speaking to anyone.
Needless to say, this experience did not lend me a great deal of faith in the American system of justice. In fact, I wonder to this day how much of the court system is gummed up with such absurd failures in human communication. (And I'm glad to say I haven't had to fulfill jury duty since.) On the upside, after Art Bell's retirement the "Coast to Coast AM" show was ably picked up by George Noory and continues to provide engaging information & entertainment to insomniacs everywhere. Best enjoyed with your favorite brand of purified water....
Copyright 2023 by D. Patrick Miller. All rights reserved.
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