View from the fray
Scary memories of intra-jury debates
Last week’s jury indecision in the Peter Bergna murder trial made my stomach churn. Not because I have an opinion on Bergna’s guilt. I don’t. But I do have an opinion about serving on a jury. A few years ago, I was an annoying lone dissenter on a jury.
The case involved a nice older Reno woman who got mugged and, later, a forged check was written from her account. By the time of the trial, the defendant had moved to the East Coast, but came back voluntarily to get the charges over with. The courtroom scenes lasted a couple of days. I took copious notes.
It had been dark the night of the robbery, and the woman hadn’t gotten a good look at the thief. But he drove off in a blue pick-up truck. She didn’t get the license. Her descriptions of the robber and the truck were inconsistent. She saw a blue truck later—a blue truck, not the blue truck—at the Bonanza Casino and called the police. The truck belonged to the defendant.
The case languished for a few years. At one point, the police concocted a “photo line-up” of half a dozen mug shots and a summer snapshot of the defendant. And, out of this flimsy line-up idea, an “eyewitness” to the check forgery—a dopey blonde guy who didn’t seem terribly credible—picked the defendant.
The case seemed flimsy. How many blue trucks are there in Reno? Plenty. And the photo line-up was completely flawed. I didn’t even think there’d be much discussion.
The jury consisted of nine white 50-something guys, one 30-ish guy, one 50-something woman and myself. The foreman directed an hour or two of discussion. It was clear he thought the defendant was guilty. The eight other older guys agreed. The woman wasn’t following the conversation. Her body language screamed, “Whatever you strong, competent men decide is fine by me.”
I didn’t argue. When asked, I weighed in with a “not guilty” on both counts, the robbery and the forged check. So did the younger guy. The old guys asked me to defend my vote. I went over the stupidity of the blue truck connection, the unreliability of the woman’s description, the pathetic attempt at a photo line-up. The men condescended. I tried photojournalism theory out on them—the psychology of photo manipulation. I emoted. The younger guy caved to the majority. I was by myself, frustrated. We ordered lunch. We ate. We went back at it.
Finally, I caved halfway, agreeing that I believed the blonde dude really had taken a check from the defendant—after all, the dude did identify the defendant in the photo line-up! The rest of the jury caved in the defendant’s favor, agreeing that there really was no proof that this guy robbed the woman. Sure, this decision made no sense. The judge and lawyers looked perplexed.
I’d never fought so rhetorically hard in my life. I felt drained, exhausted. And if that was justice in our grimy palms, it was looking a bit wrung-out.