Archive for November, 2007

The People Call….

Monday, November 26th, 2007

Let’s get right into the witnesses that took the stand. The Prosecution (the DA representing “the people” of California) get to go first. We are told several times during the case that the burden rests on the people to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty of the crimes she is charged with. So let’s see how they tried to do that…

The people call…. The Victim. and the victim takes the stand. He enters from the door behind the judge, and he’s dressed all in orange. No, that’s not a picture of him in a previous post, but that is just what he was wearing. In case it’s not clear, the victim was now serving time. At this point it wasn’t clear for what and I’m not sure it was ever made clear, but it was strongly implied that it was for drug-related charges.

The first question they ask every witness (after swearing them in) is to state and spell their name. The victim did this upon request. I believe the next question was trying to establish the victim’s relationship with the defendant. He responded to that question by saying something along the lines of “before we go any further I just want to say that I won’t answer any other questions because of the fifth… my fifth amendment right.” The victim had a lawyer present and some whispering took place between the two. The judge explained that he wasn’t on trial and was obligated to answer the questions. I think he replied that he was worried for his safety. At that point we took a break.

15 minute break – the first of many. I don’t know how common it is, but in this case circumstances arose on several occasions where the jurors were asked to leave so the attorneys, judge, and possibly witness could have a pow wow in private. When we came back from this break, the victim was no longer on the witness stand. The judge said that he had ordered the victim to answer the questions asked, and he refused. So much for the first witness.

The people call…The Deputy Sheriff. We lucked out on this one. The original plan was for the entire morning to be taken up with questioning for the victim. When he was in and out in under 10 minutes, it was starting to look like we were going to have a 4-hour lunch break. Luckily the Deputy works in the same building as the case was taking place, so it was easy to track him down.

He was the only witness for the rest of the day. Here are the details he relayed from the incident.

  • -When he pulled up in his car next to the victim and the neighbor, the (to be) victim was agitated and seemed scared, claiming a baby mama was trying to kill him.
  • -He backed up, parked his car and walked up to where the other two were looking at their car.
  • -He claimed he saw a 3/4 profile of the defendant as she shot, and he reiterated his identification of her by pointing her out in the courtroom.
  • -He claimed the shooter was driving a dark colored Infiniti Q45, and that he had seen the victim driving that car before.
  • -He described the gun as “blue steel,” and claimed that the shot shattered the rear passenger window of the shooters car (the Infiniti)
  • -When he pulled up in the first place, his girlfriend was in the car with him, but after parking she went a different direction to her house when he started walking towards the victim. That girlfriend’s contact information was never provided to either legal team.
  • -When the shot was fired, he hit the ground, walked (while crouched) out into the street and placed his hand on his gun in preparation to return fire. The car drove off before he had a chance.
  • -The point was made that since he is a police officer and he was on the scene, he had the responsibility to treat the scene according to his police training. The fact that he was technically off-duty was irrelevant.
  • -He claimed that the victim called 911 and the police arrived around 35 minutes after the incident.

All of this information came out between the people’s examination, the defense’s cross-examination, and I believe one additional round from each (at least one of which was referred to as “re-cross”). Prior to this experience, I think I had assumed that there was a finite amount of “examinations” afforded to each side, but in this case it seemed there was no limit. Both sides had to have “no further questions” before a witness is dismissed.

This witness took the remainder of the day. The following morning we showed up and expected to hear from the next witness.

The people call… The Neighbor. The neighbor no-showed. He was the only witness scheduled for the day. So after arriving at 9 AM, we were released for the day at around 9:30 or 9:45. Awesome system this legal system. And I still got paid my $17.50 for that day!


1) I noticed when they were swearing in the witness, they didn’t say “so help you God.” Has this been eliminated in all states? or just San Francisco?

2) Just how broad is the power of the 5th amendment? If a witness claims that certain questions could incriminate him even though it is hard to imagine how, will that fly? We never heard any threat of contempt of court when the victim refused to answer questions.

Next Post – I’ll recap the remainder of the witnesses for the prosecution.

The Meat of the Case

Saturday, November 24th, 2007

Ok, ok enough buildup. Let’s get right into the story and details of this case.

The Players: Here’s a list of the main characters in the case. More witnesses will be called to the stand at some point, but I’ll introduce them as they come up. I think I could probably use their real names, but it seems impolite so I’ll use more generic descriptive terms.

  • The Defendant – a light skinned black woman probably in her mid 30’s (though I’m not a good judge of age) who we know up front has at least one child. She does not live in San Francisco, but rather about 90 miles away from San Francisco.
  • The Victim – lives on the block where the incident occurred. Presumably about the same age as the defendant.
  • The Neighbor – one of the primary witnesses to the incident. He is a neighbor of the Victim’s and he was out in the street looking at a car with the victim when the incident occurred.
  • The Deputy Sheriff – also a neighbor of the two men mentioned above. Works as a deputy sheriff at the courthouse where the case was tried.
  • The Inspector – this is the guy from the DA’s office who was responsible for this case. From what I can infer, he does everything after the police and before the District Attorney. I believe he worked specifically for the Domestic Violence unit.
  • The Defense Attorney – a tall lanky black guy who had a bit of a lazy strut when he walked – more about him later. He also had an assistant with him for the whole case who looked like he was about 17 years old.
  • The District Attorney – he might have actually been an assistant district attorney, I’m not sure. This guy was probably late 30’s or early 40’s, wore nicer suits than the Defense Attorney and had a hard to pinpoint accent. He was a cool character.
  • The Judge – a balding guy with a beard. He looked exactly like you’d expect a judge to look (except when we saw him in passing without the robes on he looked significantly less regal).

The Incident: I’ll tell the prosecution’s version of the incident since it’s the most interesting. The incident happened mid-April of 2005. The prosecution claims that the victim and the neighbor were out in front of their houses working on a parallel-parked car and trying to get it working so the victim could flee town to avoid being shot. While they were looking under the hood, the deputy drove up and was flagged down by the other two. The victim was in an agitated state and claimed “you aren’t going to believe this – one of my baby’s mammas is trying to shoot me” (I use quotes, but that’s a paraphrase). The deputy then backs his car up and finds a parallel parking spot further back on the same street. He gets out of his car and starts walking to the other two. About the time he arrives there a dark green Infiniti Q45 drives up and stops slightly in front of the car they were working on. The drive holds a gun in her right hand and aims back over her right shoulder. She fires one shot which shatters the rear passenger window. All three men on the scene hit the ground, and by the time they are looking up to see what’s going on, the car starts driving off and takes a left at the first intersection. The car is seen minutes later on the other side of the bloc, implying that the shooter had circled the block and was heading off in the other direction. In case it’s not clear, no one was hit by the shot.

The 911 Call – the victim places a call to 911 and claims “a baby mama just shot at me” and that she is driving a “green Infiniti Q45” and is heading towards (her hometown). He claims he has the drivers license and/or registration for the car. While he is on the phone, the operator tells him that police have arrived on the scene and asks if he can go talk to them. The police are on the scene 2-3 minutes after the call is placed.

The Investigation – The police on the scene talk extensively to the victim and briefly to the two witnesses. They search the area for bullets, shell casings and broken glass – finding none. Three days later, the two witnesses (who are neighbors) drive down to the courthouse together to speak with the investigator on the case. They are interviewed separately, and both identify the defendant from a photo lineup of six pictures (known in the biz as a six-pack). We are later played excerpts from a taped interview with the neighbor and he is asked “how do you know that woman?” He replies “I met her in (her hometown) and that’s the who shot at us from the car.” When asked if he is sure, he replies “100%” Remember this takes place 3 days after the incident.

Those are the basics – there is also evidence from CSI which will be disclosed later, but the above summarizes the basic facts of the case that were available right around the time of the incident.

I’ve been pondering the best way to tell this story. I think it makes the most sense if I just tell it chronologically as it unfolded for us in the courtroom. I’ll of course add some commentary along the way.

Next Post:  So the next post will start to describe the testimony we heard from the witnesses who took the stand. The case may seem cut and dry so far, but I assure you it won’t seem that way for long.

Jury Selection

Monday, November 19th, 2007

I have never even been summoned for Jury Duty before I lived in San Francisco. Since I’ve lived in so many different places in the past decade I’ve been kind of a moving target and I guess I’ve always dodged the bullet. I don’t have any idea how other cities do their jury selection, but here’s how it went down for me.

Summons in the Mail – I always take notice when I get mail that has my full name on it, and in this case it was a jury summons. Along with my name and address, it assigned me a group number and a juror number. I was instructed to call in or check their website on Monday Oct 29th to see if my group needed to report for JD. My group was actually originally scheduled to report to a different building for civic trials. I checked on Mon-Wed and got a bye every day, with instructions to check back the following day.

I guess what happened is the criminal folks used up all of their assigned jurors and by Thursday they decided they needed to borrow the civic ones. So Thursday AM I went down to the Hall of Justice where I sat in a big juror room and was played a DVD on the importance of our jury system. Then they read a list of names that needed to report to a specific courtroom for possible selection for a case. That list was about 80% of the people in the room.

One day or one case – that’s how they describe the commitment they require of you each year for JD in San Francisco. If you come down and wait in the jury room but aren’t needed on a specific case, you’re done for the year. I was sent to a case for possible selection.

The courtroom looks roughly like what you’ve seen on TV, just maybe not as nice. In the back of the room there are seats for 100 -120 people, and that’s where everyone initially sat. Then they called up 20 names from an apparently randomly-ordered list. Those people are instructed to sit in seats labeled 1-20. We heard a little about the case (it was related to Domestic Violence) and then the Judge started to ask some standard questions of all of the potential jurors like if they have any experience with domestic violence or assault – either personally or someone close to them. I wasn’t called up in the first batch of 20, but they instructed all of us to pay attention to all of the questions because if we wound up being called up we would be asked to give our answers to any relevant questions that had already been asked.

“Can I approach?” – For the most part you’re expected to answer all of the questions loud enough so everyone can hear you. However, you’re told up front that if anything is too personal to discuss publicly you may ask to speak to the Judge privately. Some people answered publicly that they had personally been the victim of domestic violence, or that they had only negative experiences with police officers. The judge’s follow up question to that was always “will you be able to set that aside and judge the facts of this case fairly and impartially?” Most people said yes, but even the folks that hedged their answers with an “I’ll try” or even an outright “I don’t know if I can” – those folks still weren’t necessarily excused (at least not yet, and not by the judge). But if you had something private that you wanted to discuss, you could ask “may I approach?”

Everyone’s request to approach the bench was granted. When this happened both attorneys had to approach the bench as well where the potential juror would whisper for a while and everyone in the audience was encouraged to chit-chat (so the private conversation would remain private). I don’t know what those people said to the judge, but they had a 100% success rate at getting excused. I’m guessing they said stuff along the lines of “I hate black people” or “I hate cops” or “I’m a heroin addict.” Whatever it was, it always worked and you head “Mr. XXX will be excused.”

“The people thank and excuse…” After the judge asked all of his questions, both attorneys had the chance to ask questions of the potential jurors. Most of them were about what you’d expect, but some seemed silly like “do you watch CSI/Law & Order?” and “do you believe eyewitness testimony is always valid?”

If the judge excused anyone (i.e. if they had approached the bench), then they immediately call a next name on the list to fill their spot in seats 1-20. Once both attorneys had asked questions of everyone from seats 1-20, they ask everyone to answer some boilerplate questions – name, neighborhood, occupation, marital status, occupation of spouse/kids, previous jury experience. When everyone had answered those questions, the attorneys had a chance to excuse potential jurors without giving a reason.

This ability seemed to alternate back and forth between the people and the defense. In general, the prosecution (the people) were ok with most jurors. When the defense had his chance, he always said “the defense thanks and excuses juror #X: Mr. Y.” If they excused number 6, they would then ask whoever was sitting in chair #13 to come down and fill #6 (with an obvious focus on the importance of the first 12 spots).

With no previous experience, I assumed that both sides were allowed to excuse a fixed number of juror candidates – like maybe 5 or 6. I was wrong. They’d go back and forth excusing candidates until they were both ok with the ones that remained. They probably got rid of over half of the first 20 candidates. This replenishing and excusing went on for the rest of the afternoon.

I left Thursday afternoon thinking surely they were almost done. Came back Friday AM and sat near some people I had met who lived in my neighborhood where we played Yahtzee on my Treo whenever we had a break. Then I got called up to seat #20. I thought to myself that they would have to excuse at least 8 more people for me to wind up in the Jury.

I answered the question that they asked of me, and even though I think I’m much more comfortable with public speaking than most, I must say I was really nervous answering those questions in front of everyone. Then I finished answering the questions and realized that I hadn’t said anything even slightly offensive. I didn’t give them half of a reason to excuse me. Oh well, they still had to eliminate 8 others for me to make it to the big 12. Then I blinked and bam, bam, bam, bam…. Numbers 12-19 were thanked and excused. I was in the big time, and sure enough they had no problem with me. They whipped up 3 alternates and then jury selection was completed. Everyone else in the audience was excused.

I had joked with my friends that I wanted to get picked, since I had never been on a jury before and had always been curious. Plus, since I was unemployed it seemed like a convenient time. However, once I found myself in seat 12 and looked around at my fellow jurors and looked at the calendar I started to second guess that wish which had just come true. This case was supposed to last until the last week of November, and I was going to have a voice in the responsibility of determining someone’s fate. Still, I was looking forward to the experience.

Question – does anyone reading this know if attorneys have any limit to the number of juror candidates they can excuse? I would honestly estimate that the defense excused over 20 candidates and the prosecution maybe 5 or so. By the end, I had to assume that they could go through the whole audience of around 100 people if they were so inclined.

Next Post – In my next post I’ll get into the opening arguments, the attorneys trying the case and the players in the story. I also promise it will be more entertaining and have more color commentary. I’m just getting to the good stuff…