Okay, so yesterday was jury selection. Today is the trial…
We spent enough time in the jury room to start referring to one juror as Cookie Guy, then they called us back to the courtroom and the trial got underway. First we heard opening arguments.
As far as the case goes, there was a building that burned down almost 7 years ago and an insurance company was suing someone who was smoking 40 feet from the building, claiming that their negligence started the fire. I won’t go into the details of the case more than that because, small town.
After opening arguments, we were dismissed for lunch. The bailiff escorted us to Spare Time (a local bar/bowling alley) and said, “No steaks or alcohol.” I ordered the reuben. I think they are pretty tasty, and if a restaurant has a reuben and I don’t see anything I really want, I’ll order that on the grounds that if a restaurant makes a good reuben, all of their other items tend to be good also.
I’m used to about 15 minutes to eat lunch, so an hour and a half seemed a little bit long. Some of the jurors were talkative and some were not. By the end of lunch a fair number of them had names in my mind: Cigar Lady, Old Tenneco, Young Tenneco, Stay-at-Home Mom, Young Girl, Farmer Kid, Concordia Guy, Larry the Cable Guy (formerly known as Ice Fisherman), and Odd Walker. That left me and two others without names. I’m pretty sure I would have been (a) Tie Guy, (b) Beard Guy or (c) Teacher.
Can you imagine and hour and a half for lunch every day? My general experience was that the law is a pretty laid back profession. Nothing happens quickly or without a certain prerequisite amount of sitting around and waiting.
After lunch we heard all of the witnesses for the plaintiff (“The plaintiff rests, your honor.”) and two witnesses for the defendant. Several times during the trial the attorneys were asked to approach the bench and the jurors were excused to the jury room while they talked about something or other. We spent that time eating cookies and wondering why they called it “The bench”. All of the jurors were good about not discussing any details of the case. We were told not to do so until all of the evidence was presented.
During one of those breaks I asked the bailiff how many jury trials Seward District Court had each year. He looked thoughtful for a minute then said, “Generally 5 or 6.”
The bailiff also offered that we would usually go until 5:00pm. But at 4:30 we were dismissed for the day. We all figured that we would hear from the expert witness for the defense tomorrow and then we would decide the case.
So the next day I also wore “teacher clothes” to the trial, thinking that we would be done by noon and I’d drive in to Lincoln and teach a bit. That also meant that, once again, the defendant, his attorney, the judge (under his robes) and I were the only people wearing ties in the court room. I was pretty sure that I was now “tie guy” in everyone’s mind.
There was a new plaintiff there that morning which I found surprising. Same lawyer for the plaintiff, but a different plaintiff. I thought maybe this guy would be called as a witness, but that didn’t happen. I guess the first guy had something more important to do. If you’re the plaintiff, this is probably not a thought you want a juror to have.
Well, it turns out that there was a whole morning of testimony. At first it seemed like all of the same stuff that we heard before. But there were discrepancies in the testimony. Some of which the lawyers pointed out and some of which they didn’t. We finally got to see color glossy pictures with circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one explaining what each one was to be used as evidence. And that’s not to mention the aerial photography.
The last witness was dismissed and we went for another hour and a half lunch. The bailiff offered us several options, but the determination of the Jury after carefully weighing the evidence was that Spare Time was the right choice once again. I had the Pulled Pork Quesadilla which was delicious and I highly recommend it.
When we returned from lunch the judge handed out 17 pages of instructions to each of us and then read the instructions to us. Then he collected the instructions and we heard the closing arguments. The lawyer for the plaintiff went first. She did a good job and when she was done I was convinced that the defendant was guilty. Then the lawyer for the defendant went and I was convinced that he was innocent. I was surprised that the lawyer for the plaintiff then got to go a second time. You never see that on T.V.
The jury was dismissed to deliberate and our second order of business after passing out water, soda and coffee was to “elect a foreman”. We looked around the room at each other. Odd Walker asked Larry the Cable Guy if he wanted to do it. Larry the Cable Guy said, “no way”.
Now here, I should probably point out that this was not actually Larry the Cable Guy. It is just possible that Larry the Cable Guy lives within the boundaries of the 5th District Court of Nebraska. Larry the Cable Guy is the uncle of one of my former students at Lincoln Lutheran. If you listened to this juror talk and only watched him from the corner of your eye, it would be an easy mistake to make. But Larry the Cable Guy is only how I identified him. It was not his actual name.
Concordia Guy looked across the room at me and mouthed, “Do you want to do it?” I gave the facial expression and upper body movement that says, “Sure, I don’t mind.” He said, “I’d like to nominate Lloyd.” Other people asked, “Do you mean Tie Guy?” Then they asked if that was okay with me and I said I was comfortable doing it if that’s what they wanted. There was a general consensus and I was “elected” foreman.
There were three other people who I think would have made good foremen. Concordia Guy, Cigar Lady and the guy who I would come to think of as Good Reader; although I would not have put Good Reader in that group at the time. But, ultimately, I was the guy wearing the tie.
The first thing I did was write out a request (requests have to be in writing) that we get more copies of the instructions to the jury that we had just had in the courtroom. They sent us in with just the one, official copy. I gave the request to the bailiff who gave it to the clerk of the court who gave it to the judge who ruled on it, gave it back to the clerk of the court who gave it back to the bailiff who brought it back to us. No, we could not have more copies.
The way the plaintiff’s case was worded, there were three areas in which the defendant was negligent and one or more of these three things led to the fire which burned down the building. My thinking was that we look at those three things first, because if we determined that he was not negligent in any of those three ways then it wouldn’t matter if his actions caused the building to burn down. The rest of the jury felt that was reasonable.
The rest of my job as foreman was essentially what any teacher does in keeping a group discussion on track; punctuated with occasional votes to see if we had reached a decision on the topic at hand. There was a lot of discussion and it was obvious that nearly all of the jurors were paying close attention during the trial and took what they were doing quite seriously. Jurors were good about pointing out to each other when we had strayed beyond the evidence and were speculating about what might have happened. They pointed out when testimony was in conflict and discussed possible reasons for that disagreement. I felt like I was with a group of people who cared about reaching the right decision.
We eventually determined that the defendant was not negligent in as far as two of the three items were concerned. In one case we felt that he was doing what any reasonable person would do and in the other we felt like the plaintiff hadn’t established that the conditions at the time mirrored the conditions stipulated in that item. But on the other count, we did not reach a unanimous decision.
We only took one vote on that count and rather than discuss it at that time I asked if we could move on to discussing whether the actions of the defendant caused the fire. I was thinking that if we agreed that his actions didn’t cause the fire then it wouldn’t matter if he was negligent on one of the counts. If we decided that it was likely that his actions caused the fire, we could go back and try to reach a decision on that last count of negligence. The jury agreed and so we moved on.
I took notes, copious notes. 10 pages of notes in my patented “3 lines of notes for every 2 lines on the paper” notes. But I only wrote notes on one side of the page. The other side was for drawing diagrams. Taking notes is a good way to stay focused, and we did end up referring back to our notes at this point.
I wanted to review my notes before we talked about whether the actions of the defendant caused the fire, so I asked the jury if we could take a break so that everyone who wanted to review their notes could.
During the trial I would occasionally mark my notes with an asterisk when I felt like a particular piece of evidence was important enough that it would sway my opinion one way or the other. I didn’t read through all of my notes at that time. I just went through and tallied up the “important parts” to see whether the evidence obviously pointed one way or the other. At the end it was:
- Plaintiff: 10
- Defendant: 10
So much for that idea. We continued talking about what had caused the fire. There were problems with the evidence and testimony in regards to what caused the fire. The expert witness for the defense had never actually been to the scene of the fire. He relied on pictures and testimony. The lawyer for the plaintiff did a good job of making him seem less than credible. But the expert witness for the plaintiff hadn’t been to the fire until after the building had been bulldozed down. There were witnesses who obviously didn’t want to testify in the case at all and the evidence that would have hurt the defendant the most wasn’t read in court.
We wouldn’t have heard it at all but Good Reader we looking through every piece of evidence and came across the deposition of the owner of the building. This was admitted into evidence, but was not read during the trial. It was one of the only eye witness accounts in evidence and looked like good evidence for the plaintiff. Why hadn’t it been read? Was it easy for the defense to rebut? We never did find out. That’s the one question I wish we would have asked the judge when the trial was over.
After about 2 hours we decided that there was not enough evidence to say that the actions of the defendant, whether or not they were negligent, caused the fire. I wrote another note to the bailiff who passed it on to the clerk of the court who brought it to the judge. There was a bit of a delay at this point as the plaintiff and defendant and their lawyers were collected.
Once we were back in the courtroom and seated the judge asked, “Who is the foreman of this jury?” I stood up and said, “I am, your honor.”
“Could you state your name again for the court?”
“Has the jury reached a verdict?”
“We have, your honor.”
“What is the jury’s verdict?”
“We, the jury, find for the defendant, your honor.”
“Would the bailiff please collect the verdict and deliver it to the clerk of the court.”
At this point I thought I was done, so I sat back down. I really wish I wouldn’t have, but it was done and I thought I would just run with the new seated foreman position rather than stand back up and remove any doubt from people’s mind that I shouldn’t have sat down.
“And was the verdict of the jury unanimous?”
“It was, your honor.”
The bailiff had warned us that the old judge might ask each juror in turn if they had reached the same verdict. But this was a new judge in the Seward District and he didn’t know if he would do so. He didn’t.
We were dismissed and went back to the jury room. The bailiff told us that the old judge would come to the jury room and ask if the jury had any questions. But after a bit it was obvious that this judge wasn’t coming. Cigar Lady asked if the bailiff could ask the judge to do so. The bailiff left and a few minutes later came back with the judge, “I understand you have some questions?”
We asked him what he thought of the case. He said that it was a good case to come before a jury, because there were questions about the facts. There was contradictory testimony from witnesses and questions about witness motives.
We asked him if he thought we reached the right verdict. He said, rather diplomatically I thought, “I can not object to the decision that you reached.”
We asked him what they talked about when we were asked to leave the courtroom. He talked a little bit about points of law about what could and could not be admitted into evidence and some lines of questioning.
He volunteered that this was his first jury trial and in the future he would send in multiple copies of the Jury Instructions (which we had asked for). He would have done so for us, but he is required to ask both lawyers before sending anything into the jury room and they were no longer in the courthouse.
I liked that he came in and talked to us. I wish I would have asked him if he knew why that deposition wasn’t read in court. I hope that this set a precedence and he comes in to talk to each of his juries in the future.
I was very impressed with the whole thing, and it makes me think more highly of our judicial system. I was proud to have served on a jury and secretly glad that I was the foreman. I would highly recommend it to those of you who haven’t done so and would like to compare notes with those of you who have.