I was summoned for jury duty and, like most people, I didn’t want to go. The idea of sitting on a jury actually did interest me, but the biggest problem was that there’s no way of knowing how long a trial will last. You legally can’t get fired for having to serve on a jury, but I’m a freelancer—so that doesn’t help me at all. If I’m not home, I’m not working, and no one will care why.
But it ended up being a great experience, and now that it’s over I can talk all about the case. First, I’ll talk about the whole process (in Chicago, at least), for anyone interested. Feel free to skip down if you’ve already served, or are only interested in this specific case: Skip to The Trial Begins
Arriving At the Courthouse
I woke up at 6:45am (ugh), and left at 8 to get there at 8:30. They make you empty your pockets into a bin to put on the x-ray conveyor belt thing, and I also had to take off my belt and walk through the metal detector. For those of you wondering, you are allowed to bring bags and pretty much anything you want that isn’t a weapon. I had snacks, a drink, a yo-yo, umbrella, phone, ipod touch, etc. The summons letter said you couldn’t bring a camera, but everything has a camera built-in nowadays.
I took the elevator up to the 17th floor, gave my summons to the guy at the counter (who was very friendly), and sat down at a table. There were over a hundred people just sitting around. After an hour, they played an orientation video featuring a young Lester Holt (with mustache!), and it was exactly what you’re imagining it was.
Each person is given a panel number, which I guess is twelve people each. I was in the third panel called, so I actually didn’t wait too long. We took the elevator down to the courtroom, the judge introduced himself, and explained what would happen.
Voir Dire (Selecting the Final Jury)
As I said, I actually was interested in being on a jury, but not for an unknown amount of time. But this was a civil court, not a criminal court, so the burden of proof was much lower, and the trials, I guessed, were much quicker. In this particular case, the judge told us he was “90% sure” the trial would finish that day, because it was a fairly simple case. This was perfect. It was early in the day (10:30am at that point), so if I was picked, I could serve on the jury like I wanted, but be done at the end of the day! If I didn’t get picked, that meant being sent back upstairs to the “pool,” getting assigned a new panel number, and starting the process again. If I was then picked later in the day, I might get a longer trial that certainly wouldn’t finish that day. If I wasn’t picked by 4:30pm, I would be done and go home.
There were 36 of us in the courtroom. Twelve people (selected randomly) were called to sit in the jury. I did not get picked. The judge called a quick break, and said to return at 10:45. We all went into the hall, and a guy named Lawrence asked me, “so can we leave now that they picked the jury?”
“No,” I replied, “they have to interview them and see if they want them all.” There was no reason he should think I knew what was going on, but whatever. I yo-yoed in the halls, then returned.
We waited. Apparently the judge got called to fill in for some other judge who was sick, so he didn’t come back until 11:30. Now the “interviews” began. We had all filled out our summons forms ahead of time, so the judge asked the jury questions based on those. The case involved a three-car accident, and the plaintiff was seeking monetary compensation for bills. She went to a chiropractor after the accident, so the judge asked if anyone was a chiropractor, personal injury attorney, and so forth. Had anyone on the jury been in an accident and sued someone? Been sued? This could skew their judgment. This process took forever. One guy, a cabbie, clearly did not want to be there.
Cabbie: “Well yeah, I’ve been in accidents before.”
Judge: “But you have no skin in the game, correct?”
Cabbie: “Other than being here.”
The judge chewed him out for a while. A young DJ had been to a chiropractor a couple times for a minor neck issue. Others had been on either side of a lawsuit from an accident.
After the judge finished talking to everyone, both attorneys had their turn to question the jury. One question they asked everyone was, “where do you get your news, and what’s your favorite TV show?” I don’t know why. Does your favorite show really say much about you that’s relevant to this case? Did they expect someone to say, “I love that show where everyone sues each other for frivolous reasons and gets a wad of cash!” It seemed more like the attorney asked that so he could say, “oh, I love [character from that show]!” and get us to like him/favor his client. Another question was, “my client is a war veteran; would that cause you to favor one side over the other? No? Great.” Pretty blatant, Mr. Attorney.
It was now around 1pm, and the judge and attorneys went into the back room so they could discuss the jury.
“So what happens now?” Lawrence asked me.
“Now they have to agree on which jurors they actually want to keep, then do the process again.”
They came back, and read off a list of jurors who would be sent back upstairs to the pool. It was more than half of them. They got rid of anyone who had even a tenuous connection to anything related, although they kept DJ for some reason.
Ugh. That took way longer than I expected, and my hopes of the case finishing that day were rapidly diminishing. Did I want to be on the jury anymore? It was getting late, and this case sounded pretty dull. I wanted something I could really sink my teeth into. A case where at the end I would stand up and shout, “Ahah! That’s not a ghost at all! It’s the school groundskeeper, Mr. McGregory, in disguise!” (Television has not skewed my concept of reality.)
They called twelve new people to sit on the jury for interviews. I was picked. Same questions, but faster. The judge wanted to speed things up.
“Where do you get your news?”
“The Daily Show, if that counts?” I replied with a smile. Yeah, I’ll be that guy. I don’t care. I ain’t frontin’. “Also NPR.”
Another “quick” break for them to discuss this round. We had come to learn that “quick” meant something different to them than it did to us. They finally returned, and I was in. Lawrence was out. I could have gotten out of it, I’m sure. I could have mentioned minor accidents I was in as a child, but I didn’t.
The jury was now full. We took a break for lunch, and had to be back at 2pm, which gave us 45 minutes. I’m vegan, so I wasn’t going to bother going to the food court across the street as they suggested. I knew Native Foods was somewhere near the loop, but didn’t know the address. I sent a txt on my dumbphone to ChaCha, and it returned the address as I was walking out the door. Thank you, ChaCha! Native Foods is on Clark. I was on Clark! But how far? I entered the address into my GPS (not smartphone), and started walking south. No signal. I kept walking. Uh oh, this might be a lot farther than I thought. Come on, GPS! No signal. Stupid buildings. I had walked five (short) blocks, and still no signal. I looked up, and there it was across the street! Score! I turned off my useless GPS.
I ate, took my fries to go, ran back, and the trial started.
The Trial Begins
We were given notepads and pens, but were not required to use them. Most of us, including me, took lots of notes. Both sides had their turn to give “Opening Statements.” These are basically short speeches by the attorneys that tell you what will be presented and why it clearly shows their side should win. Rather than go through the same info again and again, let me just give a quick overview of the case, and then I’ll talk about the inconsistencies. Because the case is over, I’m free to talk about it “with anyone,” and the judge gave no restrictions, surprisingly. However, I will change the names (I’m using first names to simplify, but of course we only used last names in the trial).
The defense had one attorney, but the prosecution had two—although the younger one didn’t talk much. I suspected he was there to learn. The plaintiff, “Rebecca,” was an older black woman. She was seeking money for medical bills after her car was rear-ended, giving her whiplash and lots of pain. The defendant, “Charles,” was an older black man.
Here are the facts—or at least the things both sides agree on, and what we know from evidence. Rebecca was driving home at 30mph in clear, dry conditions. There was a car behind her (Car #2, “Barton”), and the car behind that was the defendant, Charles (Car #3). Charles hit Car #2, which then hit Car #1 (Rebecca). No one swerved into other lanes, and no one else was involved. All cars stopped near each other. They got out, asked if anyone was hurt, and called the police. Everyone said they were not hurt. The police didn’t show up, so they all drove to the police station in their own cars. They filled out a police report. Everyone said they were not hurt. Everyone went home.
Rebecca was home for 30 minutes, and made a sandwich. She then drove herself to the ER and got a catscan, a shot for pain, and some pills. The doctors said she had full range of motion in her neck. (The ER documents reportedly mentioned whiplash, but I didn’t read that directly.) That trip cost $5,600, and she was released the same day. She was told to follow up with her primary care physician, which she did not do. Two days later she went to a chiropractor. She did not make an appointment; she just walked in. She went to him for three months, having 38 treatments that lasted 15 minutes each, racking up $4,000 in bills. These treatmeants consisted of mild electric currents, and hot packs (“like the ones you can buy at Walgreens”). After those three months she felt fine.
Here is where things get muddy. This accident happened three years ago. Human memory is extremely unreliable, and everyone’s recollection changes as time passes. Memories can be manipulated and implanted. How confident you are that a memory is accurate gives no indication as to its actual veracity. This is compounded when you have spent three years discussing an accident, and have had lawyers telling you what you should and should not say. Even if the accident had happened the day before, I would still put much less weight on witness testimony, especially when they have something to gain. Therefore, I was much more interested in actual evidence, and piecing together this event from what we knew. But here are some of the statements made. Each side had a turn to question each witness.
Summary of the Testimony:
Car #2 stopped suddenly, causing him to crash into it. Rebecca’s car only moved 3ft after the impact (later he said 1-2ft). It was a light impact.
At this point DJ leaned over and whispered to me, “I want to hear what Rebecca has to say. I’m not buyin’ it.” Not buying Rebecca’s story that hasn’t been told yet? I wouldn’t expect you to.
She was driving, heard a noise (the crash between Cars 2 and 3 behind her), then felt the impact. It was a heavy impact. Her wig flew off into the back seat. She had been driving 25-30mph, and her foot was on the gas when she was hit. After the impact, she applied the brakes. When she went to the ER it was because her neck pain was a “9 out of 10,” similar to (or worse than, I forget) childbirth.
Does any of that sound strange? Any laws of physics being violated? This drove me crazy all day, because no one mentioned or addressed this problem: If all three cars were traveling at the same speed, and the second car stopped and got hit, the first car would be way ahead of the other two! So how did Rebecca get hit? And even if she was hit, she claimed her foot was still on the gas, which would have put her car far ahead when she finally stopped—but all three cars stopped together. There are various (unlikely) scenarios where this is possible, but things just weren’t adding up. More on this later.
During both testimonies the prosecuting attorney was constantly getting objections from the defense, which made the judge repeat the same instructions to him and us:
“The attorney’s statements are not evidence. If you find that any statements contradict testimony or evidence, you should disregard those statements.”
The prosecution kept asking leading questions. It went something like:
Prosecutor: “When you were driving home from church, did–”
Defense: “Objection! Leading the witness.”
Prosecutor: “You were driving home from church, correct?”
Defense: “Same objection, your honor.”
Prosecutor: “Uh, okay, you were, when, um…”
Judge: “How about, ‘where were you coming from?'”
This seemed to happen with every new question. We all liked the judge. One new fact emerged from all this testimony: The defense had a way better attorney.
Both sides gave plenty of appeals to emotion, though. Charles is a war veteran! Rebecca was driving home from church! She used to be a nurse!
We, the jury, find these details irrelevant.
The defense was also smacked down by the judge a few times:
Defense: “Rebecca, did you walk into the ER under your own power?”
Defense: “You didn’t have any assistance?”
Defense: “You weren’t put in a wheelchair, or given crutches?”
Judge: “She already said she walked in. Obviously if she walked in she wasn’t in a wheelchair. Give the jury some credit! Ask your next question.”
The defense brought up questions that Rebecca was asked a year ago, and how her answers were slightly different now (accusing her of perjury). Again, that’s to be expected, and only wasted time (and it wasn’t perjury because she said she didn’t remember being asked those questions). Next up was the chiropractor, who did not actually come to the trial. Instead, they questioned him ahead of time, and simply read the transcript to us. So we were treated to a three-act play, with the young prosecutor playing the part of the chiropractor. The main prosecutor kept stressing the importance of the chiropractor’s testimony, so it made me happy when it started something like this:
Prosecutor: “Are you a medical doctor?”
Prosecutor: “Do you have a medical degree?”
Prosecutor: “Can you work in a hospital?”
Chiropractor: “No, I cannot.”
Prosecutor: “Can you prescribe medicine?”
Prosecutor: “Can you perform surgery?”
Chiropractor: “No, I cannot.”
Prosecutor: “What do you do for your patients?”
Chiropractor: “We can diagnose and provide treatment.”
As he admitted, chiropractors are not doctors. Chiropractic is an alternative medicine that was invented by a magnetic healer. The tenets of chiropractic are pseudoscience. The defense went on to talk about how a lot of afflictions are self-terminating, and Rebecca probably would have gotten better on her own (of course the chiropractor denied some of this). The facts remained that Rebecca was not told to go to a chiropractor, the chiropractor knew nothing of her accident, and did not know her range of motion before the accident.
We, the jury, find this doctor to not be a doctor.
This was the final testimony of the day. It was around 5pm, so the judge told us that unfortunately we’d have to come back the next day. He figured we wouldn’t finish that night, so there was no point in making everyone stay late. We were not allowed to take our notes home, and we were told not to do any “original research” on this case (Wikipedia says hello).
We were given our checks for a whopping $17.20 (for the day—it literally doesn’t even pay for parking!), and went home.
The final witness was Barton, the driver of the middle car. He, also, wasn’t at the trial, so his testimony was performed by the attorneys. His testimony basically said that Rebecca was stopped, so he stopped behind her. After 10-15 seconds he was hit, which caused him to hit Rebecca. He was not hurt. He was not being sued, and he was not suing anyone.
Now things made more sense. If the cars were both stopped, everything works out. He was hit, Rebecca was hit, and the cars were grouped together.
Now it was time for “Closing Arguments” from both sides. These are 15-30 minutes long, and are supposed to stick to the evidence to plead their case. More appeals to emotion, and lots of “the defense is going to tell you ___________!” type of statements from the prosecution, which were objected to, and sustained. The prosecution kept saying, “we have a testimony from a real doctor saying she was in pain!”, referring to the chiropractor. I later found out that I wasn’t the only one suppressing laughter.
The prosecution was asking for this:
$5,600 Medical Bills (ER)
$10,000 Pain and Suffering
The defense pointed out that the chiropractor “had skin in the game,” because he had not been paid by Rebecca. So winning this lawsuit would get him his $4,000.
We then retired to the back room to begin deliberations. At this point it was our job to decide how much money, if any, Rebecca should be awarded. We actually got to decide the exact numbers for each item listed above. I didn’t know it worked that way. We were told to appoint a foreman to lead the deliberations. It was around 11am.
As soon as we walked into the room, someone said, “so who’s going to be the foreman? Rock, Paper, Scissors for it?”
“I’ll do it!” I nearly shouted. No one objected. Everyone took the job seriously, but I may have been the most excited person there. “I have a ton of things to say about this case,” I mentioned, and it seemed like everyone was itching to talk about it (we had not had a chance to discuss it or ask any questions that whole time). People took turns using the two bathrooms in the room, so I stopped anyone from discussing the case until everyone was finished. The Extremely Attractive Girl (EAG) to my right said, “I’m worried we’re going to take forever if we go around the room getting everyone’s opinion one-by-one, you know because there are twelve people here, so we should come up with a system or order to discuss the process in which to decide to–” I finally just cut her off, because we would have been finished already if she hadn’t started that whole speech.
“Don’t worry, we’ll just talk it out!”
I was fully prepared to start drawing diagrams of the cars, and go off on a rant about chiropractors, but luckily it didn’t come to that. We were all mostly on the same page. I will say, having twelve people talking at once is a bit unwieldy, but we managed to keep it together.
I mentioned the issue about the cars in motion, and everyone agreed. I stressed the point, which I thought was one of the most important, that the second car took the brunt of the impact, which would not have left much energy for the impact with Rebecca.
“Oh, I didn’t even think of that!” said EAG. I loved it every time someone said that to me, because I really felt like I was affecting the outcome.
We briefly discussed chiropractors, and everyone agreed three months was way too long for something like that, and the cost was way too high for getting simple hot packs. Many jurors thought she waited too long to go to the ER. We joked about the sandwich. The other thing everyone seemed to latch onto was the “9/10 pain” remark. Many of the jurors had been in situations where they had that much pain, and “you can’t walk, you can’t think, and you certainly can’t drive! I lost ten pounds because I couldn’t even move a fork up to my mouth!”
I wanted to take the items in reverse order. I got out a notepad. “First up, pain and suffering. Who votes for no money?” Everyone raised their hand. I wrote a big zero. “Chiropractic. Who votes for no money?” Everyone raised their hand. “Okay, last item then. Medical bills. Who votes for no money?” A little over half of us raised our hands. “Great, so we just need to discuss this, then.”
A few people said, “what about half the money?” ($2,800) The problem was, they seemed to either be trying to compromise, or were speaking from emotion.
“Okay, but why?” I asked them.
“Well she was in an accident, and she did go to the ER,” said the guy next to me.
“But was the accident actually that bad? Was she really injured from it? Barton is fine, and isn’t suing, and he got most of the impact,” I argued.
“And he’s impartial because he has nothing to gain. He said the impact was light,” another juror added.
We came to the conclusion that Rebecca likely had pre-existing conditions, and this could have been an excuse to get someone else to pay for them. Why did she wait so long before going to the ER? “I think she called a friend, told them what happened, and they said to go to the ER because you could get some money out of it!” one juror said. Seemed like a risky gambit to me, but possible.
There were still some holdouts. We stressed that this decision should not be made because you “feel bad” for her. You need to remove emotion from it, and just look at the evidence. EAG said, without sarcasm, “okay, when you say it that way, yeah. You’re right. I’m an extremely emotional person!” She was sweet.
Everyone agreed: No money. It felt great to reach a consensus. The whole experience made me feel like I was playing some mystery board game, except it was real life and the outcome actually mattered. We were genuinely deciding someone’s fate.
There were two forms on the table. One had lines for the dollar amounts, and the other simply said:
We, the jury, rule against Rebecca and in favor of Charles.
I couldn’t wait to read that out loud in the courtroom. I signed my name on the first line, marked “Foreman.” We passed the sheet around, and everyone signed. We called the bailiff in and I was instructed to stack all the papers, with the verdict on top, and hold it to my chest so the attorneys couldn’t see it. We walked back into the courtroom, and I sat in the first chair. Rebecca and the older prosecutor had left. Apparently they didn’t care about the verdict, or thought they knew how it would end.
This was it. I was gonna read that line so hard.
Judge: “Has the jury reached a unanimous verdict?”
Me: “Yes, we have.” Here it comes here it comes here it comes!
Judge: “Please hand me the verdict.”
WHAT?! No! That’s not how it works! WE, THE JURY! Son of a. The judge read the verdict, and that was it. We retired back into the deliberations room to wait for our checks, and the judge came and talked to us. He answered any questions we had, and told us about the attorneys: This was the defense attorney’s first trial, and the prosecution left because they’re a “high volume” office that just churns these things out.
You may be wondering: Weren’t there photos of the cars? Yes, but we never saw them. One thing I never mentioned was that the defense kept asking for “sidebars,” where the attorneys and judge would go in the back room and discuss something. We later found out it was because the defense wanted to show photos of the cars, which showed very little damage. Because no one was being charged with a crime, the photos weren’t allowed. Seems odd.
I talked to the attorneys afterwards, and mentioned the issues I had with the testimony. I mentioned the physics problem, and how Rebecca said her foot was on the gas when she was hit.
The younger attorney smiled and said, “Yeah, we knew that didn’t make sense.”
Thoughts On the System
After going through this process, I think there are a lot of problems with our system. As I mentioned earlier, human memory and eyewitness testimony is highly fallible, yet it is heavily focused on in a trial. A better system would be to get written accounts of the event as soon as possible. When someone fills out a police report, have them write down everything they can about the event. Then present that written account to the jury, from both the plaintiff and defendant.
Don’t even let the jury meet the two parties, because that’s just inviting bias. There are legitimate reasons you may need to see the plaintiff or defendant. In our case, the plaintiff was old, which meant a) she probably injured more easily, and b) she may have had pre-existing conditions. The defendant was also old—did he have poor vision? Did he have slower reaction speeds? In other cases it may be important to know how quickly a person can run, or how strong they are. But these are things that could be written down, in many cases.
So much of the process seems to come down to who has the better lawyer, and who is smarter on the witness stand. But none of that should matter when we’re supposed to be looking at facts and evidence. They say justice is blind, and then put a witness in a spotlight to make an emotional plea. It doesn’t make sense.