Further Thoughts on My Experiences with the Court

I was summoned to jury duty last week and was selected in to the pool for a criminal case.  We met to hear the charge and receive instructions from the judge.  Then we filled out questionnaires and were asked to return this week--unless called and told otherwise.  The charge in the case was rape.  A somber topic.  The outcome of the case is going to affect the lives of many people for years to come.  And I took the responsibility of (at that point only potentially) sitting in judgment very seriously.  Yesterday, when my name was read to sit as juror number 2 "it got real" (as they say).

After sitting through a few hours of voir dire, the defense attorney asked that I be excused from the jury.  They do not give a reason for a juror's excusal.  The few in-person questions directed at me were rather benign.  The defense attorney asked something like, "Is it possible that a police officer may color his remarks to reflect a certain view?" which I agreed with.  The prosecutor asked something like, "How would you feel if you learned there was some piece of information like a police report that would not be available to you?" which I said would probably be frustrating to wonder what was in the report, but I would do my best to work with the facts presented.

Based on the verbal questioning, I would have expected the defense attorney to prioritize other jurors for excusal before me.  For example, the woman who stated she would essentially trust anything a police officer said without question; or the man who admitted he had a hard time seeing the defendant as not having done something if he was here in court; or the woman who said she would, as a default position, believe the testimony of the victim because she felt that a woman wouldn't lie about being raped.

I would have to assume it was the answers I gave in my questionnaire that led to my excusal (I'm just not sure why that didn't happen during the week they reviewed our answers and informed some people they did not need to return).

On the questionnaire they asked if we knew anyone who had been a victim of sexual assault.  I responded that I had a friend in college who was raped by another student while on a date with him.

They also asked if we knew anyone that worked with victims' groups or crisis centers.  I responded that Jess was a volunteer, rape-crisis counselor when we met.

I expected those two responses to put me pretty high on the list of people the defense would not want around; though I do feel I could have acted fairly and conscientiously.  I do not feel angry or have a desire for vengeance that I would misplace on to the defendant.

Once my name was called to take seat number two in the jury box I fully expected to answer further questions about those responses.  Since I didn't, I can only assume that the defense attorney intended to excuse me as soon as he knew I would be called.

The story of my friend who was assaulted is not mine to tell in full, but I want to share some parts and I believe I have sufficiently obfuscated any identifying information to protect her anonymity.

Her attacker was another BYU student, a returned missionary, a supposedly-righteous priesthood holder (for those LDS readers who believe that should mean something).  He threatened her life if she went to the police and she fully believed him capable of following through with the threat.  She came to me for help some days or weeks later, I don't know the exact timeline.  Not that there was anything I could do but try to console her.

She was too scared to go to the police. Not just scared of her attacker (who made repeated threats, in person, over the course of several weeks).  She was scared that she would not be able to remain anonymous.  Scared that if she reported it she had no evidence, would not be believed, and nothing would happen.  Scared no man would want to be with her knowing she had been raped (YW lessons about chewed gum and licked cupcakes are life-destroying, Elizabeth Smart can provide more insight on that).  Scared about her status in school.

(Sadly, that last concern was well founded given that BYU was recently mired in controversy over mishandling sexual assault reports and subsequently taking disciplinary action against women reporting them.)

Were I continuing on as a juror on the trial, I honestly don't know how I would have tried to handle the competing demands of being a compassionate human being, wanting to let a victim know that she will be believed if she speaks up, not be accused of being yet-another-man who oppresses and dismisses women--to balance that with the requirement to hear her testimony as one part of the trial, to presume the defendant innocent, to weigh the facts of the case as a whole.  How can you, potentially, say, "I believe you, but the prosecutor didn't convince me past reasonable doubt?" or, "I don't believe you, but other women should still speak up."  Actions speak louder than words and I can understand why anyone would feel that returning a verdict of not-guilty in such a case is equivalent to saying, "we don't believe women who claim to have been raped."  But at the same time I'm very wary of accepting an accusation per se as sufficient evidence to convict someone.  Unfounded accusations can destroy lives too.

It sucks.  The whole thing sucks.

For my own mental well-being I think it's good I was excused from the jury.  I was burned out when I got home just from grappling with these thoughts throughout voir dire.  I would have been exhausted and beyond stressed out by the time the trial concluded.

I don't have a point I'm trying to make.  I'm just trying to apply some order and closure on to these thoughts that have been keeping me up at night.

Presumption of Innocence

Yesterday I sat as juror number 2 in Department 13 of the Alameda Superior Court of California in Oakland for most of the day.  As the voir dire process was conducted the defense attorney repeated in several formulations that as a jury we were required to start from a presumption of innocence.  A statement I'm sure almost everyone is familiar with.  However, he presented a formulation I had not considered before which made me realize I had been misapplying the concept.

I had always interpreted "presumed to be innocent" as a call to neutrality. That as a juror you are to withhold judgment until having heard the facts of the case and you must require the prosecutor to convince you of the defendant's guilt. But the presumption of innocence is asking you to go further than neutrality.  You are expected to enter the room, not withholding judgment until you've heard the case presented, but to, instead, start with a belief that the defendant has done nothing wrong.

This is almost anathema to what we try to uphold as a societal value: that we shouldn't take a side until we've heard from both parties.  That we should be neutral.  We present the statue of Justitia standing blindfolded with balanced scales as our benchmark.  To have a stranger presented to us and say, "Gee, I don't know this man or what he's capable of.  Maybe he did it; maybe he didn't."  But this is not presumption of innocence.  Justitia's scales should be tilted to one side if we are to presume innocence and require the weight of the evidence to tip it over.

As voir dire continued I thought about this.  How could I, having believed of myself that I could start from a position of neutrality, do as the law asks and, instead, start from a position of presumed innocence towards the defendant?  And what does it really mean to me to presume someone innocent rather than withholding judgment?

I came to the conclusion that to truly presume the accused innocent I must attempt to envision them essentially as I would a spouse; a person I know well enough such that I would initially reject any accusation against them as unfounded; demanding the accuser show sufficient proof as to force me from my previous beliefs.

To say the burden of proof lies with the prosecution does not fully convey the meaning of "presumed innocence."  The prosecution must not simply convince a neutral juror of their case, they must force the juror to abandon a held belief that the accused is innocent.  We are not asked to withhold judgment.  We are asked to pre-judge the defendant to be innocent.  We are to stack the deck in favor of the charged.  The prosecution must drag us from "I believe he did not do it" through "I think he may have done it" to a position where we say, "I was wrong and am now convinced that he did it."

That's a tough thing to ask of twelve arbitrary people.  Neutrality may be the best we can realistically hope for in an arbitrarily selected juror.  But I, at least, have gained a new appreciation and understanding of the phrase "innocent until proven guilty."

--

After we returned from lunch, the defense attorney asked the Court that I be excused from the jury.  Which is why I am now writing this; as I'm no longer required to not talk about the trial.  More discussion about my experience with court will appear in a subsequent post, I wanted to keep this one on just the one topic.

Stop the Escalation of Stupidity

New reports over the weekend discussed that the U.S. Air Force is making preparations to return the global strike force of nuclear-weapon bombers to a 24-hour alert deployment schedule (which hasn't been done since 1991).  This follows weeks of inane bluster from the U.S. President about raining down "fire and fury like the world has never seen" upon North Korea.

Can we please stop with this escalation of stupidity already?

Even a cursory analysis of the situation between North Korea and the United States reveals that North Korea literally has nothing to gain by launching a first strike of nuclear weapons against the United States.  Not only would doing so guarantee their own annihilation, no other country in the world would feel particularly bad about it happening--and many would help carry it out.

For a country in North Korea's position, nuclear weapons can only serve as an insurance policy to encourage other countries (namely, the U.S.) to leave them alone.  If we briefly look at all the nations that have been invaded or bombed by the U.S. in the last 50 years (a disturbingly large number), you'll notice a pretty clear trend that we haven't touched any nation with a nuclear arsenal.  North Korea developing a nuclear arsenal, especially one that can threaten mainland U.S. cities, is an eminently rational move.

I am not remotely concerned about a first-strike nuclear attack from North Korea.

Unfortunately, I am concerned the U.S. President will create a situation where he feels compelled to do something stupid in order to save face.  Or will create a situation where North Korea feels like they are being existentially threatened and decide to take a few million people with them as punishment.

Acting irrationally and unpredictably can be a rational strategy.  North Korea has a good reason for appearing to be irrational and unpredictable because it can keep countries like the U.S. from engaging in overly threatening actions (like say, flying a squadron of nuclear-armed B-52s toward North Korea).  Such an aggressive act could be misinterpreted as an attack and a seemingly irrational and unpredictable leader in North Korea may order a retaliation rather than waiting to see where the planes are going.

Acting irrationally and unpredictably as the leader of the a country like the United States is foolish.  You have nothing to gain.  Instead, you stand to lose credibility on the international stage.  Allies will become reluctant to support your cause if they believe your big mouth is what got you there in the first place.  No one feels particularly bad when the bully is waving his finger in someone's face, yelling, screaming, and threatening and the victim decides to punch them in the nose first.

I have no idea whether Trump really is a petulant child with a short temper and over-inflated sense of self-importance or not.  But acting like it is not making our country or the world a better place to live in.

Heather's First Day of Kindergarten

Heather was very excited for school to start again.  She has some friends in her Kindergarten class from TK last year.  Stress levels have been high all weekend due to a malfunctioning smoke alarm on Saturday morning (Heather has been freaking out about the idea of the house burning down).  But despite her amped up anxiety levels we made it to school on time and she had a good first day.

She got to watch the eclipse at school.  They had the kids watch pinhole cameras and then took them one-at-a-time to use eclipse glasses.  I'm glad the Livermore schools actually made an event out of it and found something that would work for young kids.  The Lab donated enough eclipse glasses to the school system for every student and faculty member.

She finished the day with a smile (and Oreo crumbs all over her mouth).

Solar Eclipse 2017

We had fun watching the eclipse today.  Livermore had ~75% occlusion at peak.  It was also Heather's first day of school (separate post coming).  They took the kids outside to watch pinhole cameras and then let them use eclipse glasses one-at-a-time so they could ensure they were being worn properly.

Heather helped me make eclipse cookies yesterday.

My sugar cookie skills could use some work...

Corinne got a kick out of the eclipse proclaiming, "Moon! I see the moon!" (by which she, of course, meant sun).

We used the colander to get pinhole-camera-style shadows.

And I had my camera set up with filters taking pictures.  I just kind of guessed at settings.  Some came out better than others.  Here's the picture from the peak eclipse:

And here's one I got as it was ending where you can see a line of spots.  I don't know if they're technically sunspots, but they weren't just dust on my lens--they stayed with the sun throughout the event.

My weather station noticed the eclipse too:

The variations in the readings are due to varying cloud cover that, thankfully, almost completely cleared out during the eclipse.

The temperature even dropped a hair: