Jury Duty: Done

Jury duty is over, which means I am now free to talk about the trial. It was a criminal case, United States vs. an Ethiopian (whose name I will leave out of here), on three counts: possession of a dangerous weapon, assault with a dangerous weapon, and a separate, lesser charge of assault. Presiding was Judge Robert R. Rigsby, government prosecutor was Angela Hart-Edwards, and defense was Warren Gorman.

(More after the jump.)

In a grossly simplified nutshell, based on testimony by prosecution witnesses, defendant was accused of using a broken Heineken bottle to cut someone in the face after an altercation broke out at Dukem on U Street. When the victim’s friend chased the defendant out the back of the establishment, defendant and his companions began to beat him up, but were stopped by a passing police officer on foot beat. Defendant’s companions ran off, but defendant was arrested, and was was positively identified by two witnesses as the one brandishing the broken bottle earlier.

Defense witnesses, however, claimed that they simply came to Dukem after shooting pool at Adams Morgan, hung around at the restaurant for ten minutes, then left when told the kitchen was closed for the night. As they were driving away, according to defense, they stopped to check out a disturbance at the front of the restaurant, and the defendant was suddenly arrested for no reason.

Witness testimony and statements from prosecution and defense ran from Tuesday morning to Wednesday morning, then jury deliberations went from Wednesday afternoon to Monday afternoon. A unanimous verdict was quickly reached on the third count — the assault in front of the restaurant — since the beating victim’s testimony was independently corroborated by an external witness: the apprehending police officer. Defense witnesses — who claimed that absolutely nothing had happened — were clearly lying, based also on the positive identification from the police officer, and also significant discrepancies in testimony. (Most damning was the huge discrepancy between the time they claimed to have left Dukem and the time that the defendant was arrested.)

However, the first two counts — possession of and attack with a broken beer bottle — were far more contentious, as the lighting and crowd in Dukem were diverting factors, the cutting victim himself did not see his own assailant, and the two witnesses who identified the defendant were shown to be somewhat unreliable on cross-examination by defense — one had said that she would not recognize him by face but by build and complexion, and the other witness was prone to embellish his assertions with self-aggrandizement.

At the end of it, the jury came to a vote of 10-1-1 (guilty, not guilty, undecided). I was with the majority, reasoning that corroboration of testimony from both prosecution witnesses left some consistent kernel of truth which proved the defendant guilty beyond reasonable doubt. Even those prosecution witnesses who had not directly seen the broken bottle cut the first victim’s face, were still firm that the defendant was the clear aggressor in the altercation, and the only one with hands free to perform the action (as he was being pulled back by his companions). The not guilty vote, however, would not be swayed, on grounds of reasonable doubt, and the undecided vote stayed on the fence for the same reason. At the end of the day yesterday, defendant was convicted on the third charge, and the first two charges would be retried.

I must say, I’m not sure I trust the trial-by-jury system because of this experience. The jurors themselves were all sensible and articulate, and the overall experience was far better than I expected, but I’m now a lot more skeptical that twelve average grumpy people haphazardly plucked from their life routine, locked in a room with evidence but no transcripts, and made to decide facts by committee and argue themselves to a unanimous verdict, will always be able to deliver justice swiftly and impartially. IANAL, of course.

(In case you were wondering, racial makeup of the jury was 9 black, 2 Filipino — me and a local hillstaffer — and 1 Pakistani. White people never stayed in the jury box very long during selection, for some reason.)