Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Verdict Is In

For the last week or so, I have been serving on a jury in Department 45 of the Stanley Mosk Courthouse in downtown Los Angeles. Now that the trial is over, I am able to talk/blog/pontificate about my experience.

This was my first time actually serving on a jury, despite having come close a couple of times in the past. The case itself was a canonical example of how ridiculous big companies can be when fighting over money. The dispute was about billings between two very large insurance companies. Like you probably just did, my first comment was "a plague on both their houses." However, after executing the mental gymnastics for days of maintaining equipoise, once I had heard all of the evidence presented by both sides, I felt that the plaintiff had actually been wronged by the defendant. Both attorneys did an excellent job arguing their clients' positions, but the facts seemed reasonably clear to me from the evidence and testimony. At least as clear as anything can be almost ten years after the events had originally transpired.

Anyhow, this post is not about the case. It is actually an ode to my fellow jurors, and the legal system. I have had a slightly negative view of our legal system, like many citizens. But a duty is a duty, and so when the summons arrives, we all must answer. However, most people view it as a kind of 'reverse lottery', and dread jury service like an impending root canal.

The experience of actually serving on a jury, and seeing the legal system from the inside, has altered my perspective quite a bit. Despite coming from very different walks of life, all my fellow jurors had a real dedication to our task, as absurd as we all felt it to be. Nonetheless, we fell to our work with an amazing level of morale. We tried to smile at each other, and remain happy and attentive, even as the hours of hearing and seeing the evidence in the case wore on.

Here I have to remark on an odd, and to me extremely entertaining, coincidence. Ruby programmer and father of Rubinius Evan Phoenix was on the same jury. We had known each other superficially from RubyConf etc., but had never had a chance to hang out together, despite living in the same city. Lunching every day together really relieved the boredom of enduring the testimony, and bad PowerPoint, of the trial. Thanks for putting up with my loud comments!

The lawyers and judge projected a calm friendliness, even to each other, that defined 'professional courtesy'. Even after the cross-examination starting getting bloody. Yes, this was a kind of trial by combat, albeit one of words instead of arms, as I was slightly surprised to discover, after the pomp and ceremony of the opening statements, where the opposing counsel were merely thumping their chests and circling each other.

When the time came that we jurors could finally discuss the facts in the case, after not being able to discuss it with anyone, including each other, it was an incredible release. This was the logic in not permitting us to speak openly until the deliberation had begun. We each had already really defined where we stood relative to the evidence we had seen. The level of mutual respect that we had during this special conversation known as deliberating, was remarkable.

Credit to Evan who served as our lead juror. He did a great job keeping the forum open, and also moving us along to the final verdict.

As I leave my jury experience behind me, and return to my normal slew of programming stuff, I am reminded of Churchill's quote about democracy "the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried." E Pluribus Unum!

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