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Bible thumping aside, juries follow own rules - Bob Paslay

I have served on two juries in my life, one a DUI case in magistrate's court and another civil case in big court in which a young guy hired to detail a car took it out at 1 a.m., wrecked it and got sued. He contended another car ran him off the road and the insurance lawyer contended he was just joyriding and lost control.

The DUI case was sort of circumventing the system since my mother was the secretary to the magistrate and I told my mom I really, really wanted the experience of serving on a jury and presto, my name got picked out of a hat.

I love all the movies about jury deliberations like "Twelve Angry Men" with Henry Fonda.

The decision by the Colorado Supreme Court in throwing out a death penalty sentence against a killer because one of the jurors brought a Bible to the jury room and consulted the "eye for an eye" passage is interesting. The court basically said that you shouldn't have outside influences other than what is introduced into testimony and it commuted the sentence to life in prison. First, the tradition I come from is when the high court vacates the death penalty then it is retried. Why Colorado doesn't do that I don't know. But in any case, I am opposed to the death penalty and so this part doesn't bother me as much as the court's assumption that the jury system works the way it should.

The way it should work is that the jurors pay close attention, understanding that democracy works when a jury of a person's peers, impartially chosen, weighs each fact and reaches an impartial decision. Wrong.

The saying is you don't want to watch how sausage and laws are made. I would add that you don't really want to go inside a jury room and watch how a verdict is reached either. I am not saying that thousands of innocent people are convicted or thousands of guilty are turned loose. The O.J. Simpson trial, back in the news because of the death of Johnnie Cochran, is a glaring exception. But it was not just in the jury room but all throughout the trial that this disaster of justice occurred.

Here is my experience. On the DUI trial, one juror told us as we began deliberating: "That guy looks just like an uncle I had. Same facial expressions, same know-it-all attitude. And that man couldn't stay away from a bottle five minutes. Ruined his whole family's life." Another juror, a rather distraught woman who, obviously unlike me, didn't want to be there at all costs. She said emphatically one minute into deliberations. "Look, my son is home with a raging fever. I should be there tending to him and I am really worried about him. I don't want this thing hung up and taking a long time. Whichever way you decide I will vote that way."

I am just old enough to vote, I am just old enough by a week or two to serve on a jury and I am full of the do-the-right-thing vinegar. I got a cold shower of reality quickly.

My father and grandfather were long-time lawyers and my father explained in detail to me once how he picked a jury, how he used his strikes. And while it has been years it was basically you don't put uneducated people on civil cases that involve complicated issues but you put them on trials against "the man" like finance companies and other harassing businesses because they have experience first-hand with dealing with them.

But after all this maneuvering it is a world unlike no other inside the jury room. In the civil case, the judge made me foreman, again an inside job since he knew my family forever. I thought I was being smart and so I said as we entered the jury room: "Before we begin deliberating let's take a secret vote and see how we stand." You guessed. Just like the old deodorant commercial. Six for the plaintiff, six for the defendant. And we proceeded over three days to yell at each other, whine, pout, speechify and everything else to reach a verdict. We finally did and no one was happy. My fellow jurors wouldn't even talk or look at each other, muttering under their breaths about the others.

Here is also some of my experience. The judge admonishes the jury: The defendant is not required to take the stand and you can't make any assumptions about his guilt or innocence based on this decision." Fifteen minutes into our deliberations, one juror says, "If he was so innocent why didn't he take the stand?" Another juror chimed in: "Yeah."

The judge also tells people to disregard certain evidence. And that is the first thing they start talking about as soon as the door closes. I was talking to a long-time local lawyer and he was telling me about how cleverly you do this. Since there is so much consternation over objecting and throwing out the testimony it freezes in the jurors' minds even harder.

Jurors talk about how the person looked, what his or her facial expressions were, they bring in past experiences and yes, I even had one person on my jury who got in the corner and prayed for divine guidance in making the decision.

I tell you all this not to take a serious stand on the Colorado case. Against the backdrop of the religious right and its influence on elections and politicians, this Bible story got national attention. I am often accused of being too flip about very serious issues. My answer to prayer in school is that I never took a test, especially one I didn't study much for, without praying like a bandit. I just did it to myself and didn't make a show of it. I tell you all this about my jury experience just to show that it just isn't the way the Law School 101 textbooks say it is. I guess there isn't anything terrible wrong with it since every day juries deliberate and reach decisions. Somehow it all works out.

Bob Paslay is assistant managing editor of the News Daily and Daily Herald and can be reached at (770) 478-5753 Ext. 257 or at bpaslay@news-daily.com .