Saturday, June 28, 2008

A Rigistered Voter's Civic Duty

From June 17th through 23rd, I had the privilege [ahem, obligation] to serve on a jury in the US District Court for the northern district of Georgia. Crimes tried in federal court are different than most, and generally limited in nature - money laundering, counterfeiting, drug trafficking, tax evasion, and other federal crimes. Civil cases are also tried in the district courts.

Even getting called for jury duty in district court is different than for county court (yep, I’ve served on a local court, too). You are sent a summons with a juror number and phone number to call every day for two weeks. Each night, the system will tell you whether you need to show up for jury selection the next day. Six days into my 10-day time frame I thought I was home free, but it was not to be. On the night of Monday, June 16th, I was told by the lovely lady who recorded the message who knows how long ago, that I was to report at 8am the next day.

Now, when it comes to a daily commute, I’m spoiled. I live six miles from the my job in Roswell, and during the summer, this drive takes only 15 minutes. I had no clue how long it was going to take me to get downtown, much less find a parking place and make my way to the right building. I got up on Tuesday, and left the house with about 50 minutes to get to my destination. I knew this was not enough time, but I couldn’t seem to make it out the door quickly enough that morning.

I got stuck in our legendary Atlanta traffic, but it was moving faster than I expected. Maybe I would make it, after all. The directions I had were very detailed, and I made it to a parking spot at 7:55. I made my way up to the street level, and looked around. No building I could see seemed to be the Richard B. Russell Federal Building. Uh-oh. I wandered around for a few minutes before I walked into the Sam Nunn Atlanta Federal Center (or something like that) and asked a security guard. Turns out I was a couple blocks away (I found out later that I could have gotten straight into the right building from that lot; I just went the wrong way). I made my way over to the right building, and made it up to the jury room on the 22nd floor by 8:10. The administrator was just starting to call the roll; I had made it just in time for my name. I didn’t feel too bad once I realized that five people hadn’t even bothered to show up.

It was strange, though, because there were only 10 of us. We were directed to the courtroom for Voir dire. This is the fun part where they ask the prospective jurors several questions that help attorneys select the needed jurors from the pool. They asked lots of questions about favorite TV shows (House, Scrubs), hobbies (Soccer, Cycling, anything outdoors), kids (nope), friendships or acquaintances with police or people in the legal system (yes, but it won’t affect my ability to render a fair judgment). These were just the up-front questionnaire, and then the follow-up questions covered more detailed questions about said favorite shows, especially if those favorite shows were CSI or Law & Order, belief in whether we felt a witness testifying under a plea deal could be trusted, opinions of the Drug Enforcement Agency and the current US drug laws.

So I was listening to the questions as one by one, people were standing up to give more details about their feelings on the various situations. When they asked about our feelings on the current US drug laws, I sheepishly stood up. I told them that I have disagree with the fact that marijuana is illegal and think that it has some benefits that haven’t been fully explored, simply because it’s illegal. They asked if my feelings about marijuana extend to other drugs like cocaine and methamphetimes. I said that it doesn’t. (Spoiler Alert: If I’m asked the follow-up question again, I’ll have a different answer. And that’s not because I want to get out of jury duty, but because this trial further opened my eyes to the futility of our “war on drugs”. The definition of insanity comes to mind.)

After I sat back down, the pastor sitting next to me nudged me and told me that they were searching my car.

After the questions, we were sent back upstairs to wait for the decision.
About 20 minutes later, we were called back down to the courtroom, and three names were called. Clearly, since I’m writing this, mine was one of them. And, clearly, since there were only three of us, the rest of the jury had already been chosen.
We were sent to lunch (at 11am) and told to report back to the jury room at 1:15. I went with my two new cohorts, Marion and Katherine, to lunch in the cafeteria – which was surprisingly tasty with lots to choose from.

We made our way upstairs again, and were then escorted into the jury room where another 11 jurors were waiting (total - 12 jurors and two unidentified alternates). This would be our new home until the trial was over. Our courtroom security officer – US Marshall McCoy – was stern, but very funny (physically, he reminded me of Ernie Hudson from Ghostbusters). Marshall McCoy instructed us that if we ate downstairs during our trial, we would need to eat in Jury Room 3, and that if we saw any of the attorneys or witnesses from our trial, they won’t say anything and may not even make eye contact. We were told absolutely not to get on the elevator with anyone from the trial besides other jurors. We all wore juror stickers so we were easily identifiable.

Once we got our details from Officer McCoy, we were escorted into the courtroom for the beginning of the trial. Unlike the county courthouse of my earlier trial, this federal courtroom was exactly what you would expect after watching legal shows and movies. It was cavernous, lined with wood paneling, a granite wall behind the judge with a giant seal of the district court. It was much more modern than I expected, though, with recessed lighting and white noise pumped into the jury box during conversations at the judge’s bench.

Opening statements assured us that this was a trial about “drugs and money” from the prosecution and, of course, that the defendant was innocent from the defense. Then we got our first witness, a police officer from Oklahoma who had, in 1998, stopped our defendant for speeding, and then found several bricks of marijuana upon searching the car. The defendant later pled guilty to a drug charge. Fifteen minutes, maximum, and the officer was on his way back to Oklahoma. All I was thinking at that point was, “They flew him in from Oklahoma for that?”

There was some conversation at the bench, and we were told that we’d have to come back tomorrow because the translator hadn’t been scheduled for today.

I decided to take MARTA the next day, since the courthouse is 30 miles from my house, and the train station only 10 or so. Maybe I could save a little gas money, and have a much more relaxing trip downtown. Well, since I hadn’t done this before, I had no idea when to leave. And surprise, surprise, this time I arrived at 9:25, late by five minutes, only five minutes before court begins. I walked in, and Officer McCoy told me with a big grin on his face that he was about to come looking for me. I knew that in spite of his smile, he was serious, and I certainly wouldn’t do that again. I arrived no later than 8:30am any other day during the trial - for the 9:30 start time.

The second day was filled with witness testimony from someone deeply involved in a huge drug ring in Atlanta that was busted in the fall of 2005. “Gordo” spoke only Spanish, and his translator stayed at the witness stand with him. He was surprisingly charming at times, very quiet, and answered all the questions he was asked. In what seemed the most boring way possible, the prosecution asked him about his experiences and role in this organization from April through September, 2005. He confirmed that he recognized the defendant and that the defendant had stopped his tractor trailer at one of the organization’s locations in August 2005 and loaded almost a million dollars into the truck, hiding them amid pork shoulders he was hauling to Mexico. According to the witness, the defendant had done a few similar pick-ups before, picking up money - but never picking up drugs.

“Gordo” never shifted his eyes, and seemed to be telling the truth. The defense confirmed with him that he was hoping for a lighter sentence, which was why he was here testifying. But at the same time, the defense counsel confirmed with the witness that he was only telling the truth. It seemed an odd confirmation from the defense, since he was testifying for the government side, but it would become clear later.

As we moved through the trial, the prosecution called several government agents involved in the sting operation that nabbed this group. It was a huge operation involving the DEA, local police, and Georgia State Patrol. We learned a lot of interesting things about how these sorts of operations (both on the police and criminal side) are orchestrated and run, commercial trucking procedures, and what not to do at traffic stops. We saw pictures of the $785,000 found in the defendant's truck (vacuum-sealed in food-saver bags), and were even shown some of the cocaine seized in other parts of this bust – a couple of large bags and still more in "bricks".

This was a huge organization, and the larger bust was headline news nationally. Our defendant’s role was even mentioned in that short piece on

The defendant was charged with conspiracy to possess cocaine with the intent to distribute and conspiracy to launder money with the intent to commit unlawful acts. In the big picture, it was an interesting and exciting trial, but inside day-to-day, it was excruciatingly boring. The minutiae of what attorneys can and can’t ask, what constitutes an expert witness, and how witnesses can and can’t answer is just unbearable.

After several days of testimony by more law-enforcement folks, the prosecution rested its case. Then the defense rested its case without defendant testimony or calling any witnesses. We were told that we would need to report Monday for summations, jury instructions, and deliberation. We were almost done!

So, we arrived on Monday, and sat through the summations. The government painted the picture of this organization – the people involved, their processes, how much cocaine they were bringing into Atlanta on a regular basis. They even used PowerPoint with a circle graphic of how the drugs start in Mexico, come to Atlanta, then the money goes from Atlanta back to Mexico. (It was a very different circle graphic than I’m used to seeing at work, that’s for sure.) They were clearly trying to tie the defendant to the drug operation and the conspiracy to distribute cocaine.

The defense attorney was up next and gave his summation. The prosecution went through their rebuttal, and then the judge gave us our instructions. I think it was about 10 or 10:30am when we got the case for deliberation. When we made it into the jury room, Officer McCoy asked two of the jurors to leave – the two women with whom I was selected on Tuesday. They were the alternates, and since deliberations were beginning, were no longer needed. I have to admit that even though I could have gone home earlier, I’m glad I wasn’t an alternate. I would hate to sit through all that, and then not be a part of the decision and not even know what happened.

As we started deliberations, we discussed picking a foreperson. We decided that if anyone wanted to volunteer, we’d be ok with that. Otherwise, we’d have to nominate someone and vote. The woman sitting next to me said she’d be willing to do it, and we all supported her decision. “A.” was now our foreperson. One decision down, two to go.

From there, we decided to anonymously vote on the first count, just to see where we stood. We found a flower vase in a cabinet, and everyone voted. While “A.” counted, it was actually pretty tense. It seemed to go back and forth until we had the initial total on count one – conspiracy to possess cocaine with the intent to distribute – four guilty, one undecided, and seven not guilty. As we started to discuss the count, we discovered that we were all probably leaning the same way on the second charge. So we decided to take a vote on that one.

As our foreperson read the votes out, every one was the same. We had 12 “guilty” verdicts on conspiracy to launder money with intent to commit unlawful acts. Ok, two decisions down, one to go. When it came down to it, there really was no question that he was taking the money to Mexico, and that he knew it was illegal. He never showed his stop in Atlanta on his log books, but it somehow took him 12 hours to get from his last stop in South Carolina to the Georgia/Alabama border. He also had $785,000 hidden within a load of pork deep inside his truck, and the seal on the back of the truck was broken. This one was clear.

What was a bit fuzzier, though, was his involvement in the conspiracy to possess and distribute cocaine. I guess I should say that upon the initial vote, I was one of the "not guilty" voters. My reasoning was that in all of the recorded phone calls, documents and witness testimony, our defendant and the drugs were never mentioned together. As a matter of fact, the witness from the organization had specifically said that the defendant never had anything to do with the drug side of the operation; he only dealt with the money.

But there were still four people who thought he was involved, and another person who was undecided. As we started discussing, it all came down to the definition of conspiracy, along with our understanding of “knowing” and “unknowing.” We all basically believed the same thing, but needed to come to an understanding about what the charge of conspiracy to possess cocaine really meant and what the prosecution had proven.

We also realized that without the definition of conspiracy, which the judge had read to us in our instructions, we wouldn’t get anywhere. We asked the judge to send us the charges and definition of conspiracy from the transcripts. When we received the documents, we read and re-read them, we read them out loud, and we passed them around for anyone to read for themselves. The definition seemed to contradict itself, mentioning in one place that the defendant had to do one thing knowingly, but could be a part of the conspiracy either knowingly or unknowingly. It seemed absurd.

We knew that the government's argument was that simply being one part of the circle made our defendant party to the entire cocaine operation. They defined it in their summation as being on the defense in football, and never actually scoring touchdowns (outside of turnovers), but still being a part of the larger goal to win the game.

Honestly, we all realized that the defendant most likely knew the money he was carrying was proceeds from drug sales, but we kept coming back around to a few things. First of all, he was never arrested carrying any drugs (as part of this operation). Secondly, in all the phone calls he was a part of, cocaine was never mentioned – not even generically referred to as drugs. Yes, they spoke in code most of the time, but even the code words for drugs weren’t used. And, then there was the sticky situation about burden of proof. The government had to prove that he was part of this conspiracy. Clearly, they thought they had, but as we reviewed the definition, we felt like they had to prove that he at least knew this money was from cocaine or drugs. That last point of proof and the inclusion/placement of “knowing” in the definition of “conspiracy” is what it really came down to.

In the most beneficial scenario to the defendant, he was simply a guy with a truck who was paid to carry some money in his load to Mexico. He didn’t know the big picture, and he didn’t ask any questions. We all felt that wasn’t really the case.

One juror in particular was adamant that the defendant knew exactly what was going on. But had the prosecution proven that he knew? Most of us didn’t think so. From the evidence that was actually tied to the defendant, the money could have been from anything illegal – not necessarily drugs.

We debated some more, and then at 12:30 were told to go to lunch – where we would not be able to discuss the case. We ate quickly.

At about 1:10, we headed back upstairs to continue discussions, but it seemed we had said all we could say. We decided to take another vote, just to see where we were.
As “A.” unfolded each piece of paper – not guilty, not guilty, not guilty, innocent – the tension grew. I realized I had butterflies in my stomach. She started unfolding and reading a bit faster – not guilty, not guilty, not guilty, not guilty, not guilty, not guilty, not guilty. And then finally, as she unfolded the last piece, I think we all held our breath – not guilty. There was a huge sigh, and we let the judge know that we’d made our decision.

The lawyers came back from lunch at 1:30, and we entered the courtroom to give our verdict.

As the court administrator read the verdict, “On the first count of conspiracy to possess cocaine with the intent to distribute, we the jury find the defendant ‘not guilty’.” I watched the prosecuting attorney’s eyes bulge. Then, “On the second count of conspiracy to launder money with the intent to commit unlawful acts, we the jury find the defendant ‘guilty’.” There was a sigh from the prosecution table, and big smiles and high fives from the defendant and his attorney. I speculate that the defendant expected the guilty on money laundering and had only hoped for not guilty on the drug charge. I also wonder if the prosecution hadn’t originally offered a plea deal that included some lesser drug charge, so he actually “won” by taking this to court.

We were dismissed, and we quickly gathered our things, heading downstairs to the parking lot and the MARTA station. It was strange to peel off one-by-one from these people with whom I’d spent the last five days – knowing that together we’d had an impact someone’s life, and that we’d most likely never see each other again.

1 comment:

Bean said...

Wow, what a story! I've never been on jury duty (knock on wood), but I can't imagine how weird it would be to decide someone's future in such a way.