Thursday, May 30, 2013

Roger and me

Whenever a jury is picked for a case the judge will admonish the panelists that their decision is to be made based solely on the evidence presented in the courtroom. She will warn them not to conduct any research or investigations on their own.
Do jurors listen and follow the admonishments of the court? Who the hell knows. As one colleague of mine up in the Dallas area would say - most of them probably do because they're a bunch of rule followers. And where does she come up with that notion? Well, let's see, they received a piece of paper asking them to show up and they answer a bunch of personal questions asked by a couple of strangers. Being that, at least in Harris County, only about one in five folks show up for jury duty, it's a pretty good bet that most of the folks that do are obsessed with following rules.

But not everyone heeds the warnings. Let's face it, if they did, there would be no reason to warn them so many times, and in so many ways, to follow the law.

Chris Green of Harris County was one of those folks who didn't do a very good job of following the rules. He was one of 13 jurors (one was an alternate) selected to hear the capital murder case of Jorge Amezquita. Now I'm not going to get into the facts of what Mr. Amezquita is accused of because it isn't germane to this piece.

Even though during the voir dire process, the judge and the attorneys would have talked about what capital murder is and what the possible range of punishment is (dying in prison or being murdered in prison), Mr. Green was still confused when he went home for the day. Instead of asking questions during the selection process, he waited until he got home and typed "capital murder" into his search box. What he found out must have knocked him senseless.

He was so worried that, due to the seriousness of the charge, that someone might be a tad bit upset should Mr. Amezquita be convicted and that that someone might come after members of the jury. He then mailed a letter to district judge Maria Jackson expressing his concerns.

But that wasn't all. Mr. Green then spoke to the other members of the panel, as well as the alternate, and convinced them that their identities should be kept confidential. He then persuaded his fellow jurors to put their signatures on a revised letter that asked the judge to do just that.

Now this might come as a bit of a surprise to Mr. Green and his fellow jurors, but our jury system is one of the most important forms of democracy. Everyone who is charged with a crime, whether they be wealthy or dirt poor, black or white, male or female or any other distinction you wish to make, is entitled to have their case heard by a group of their fellow citizens (forget about that "jury of you peers" nonsense, however). And these folks, with little or no legal training, will make a decision that is binding on everyone in the courtroom.

But a defendant has a right to know who is deciding his case. We can't have secret jury panels making those decisions because then there is no accountability. The system depends upon transparency. Making sausage can be a nasty business, but it's best to do it in the light in front of people so that everyone knows what's going through that grinder.

If Mr. Green didn't feel that he would be a good juror on a murder case, he should have told the judge, the prosecutor or the defense attorneys. He had the perfect opportunity to do so - and no one would have thought any lesser of him had he expressed his concerns at that time.

And I can guarantee y'all that Mr. Green wasn't the only juror that day who wasn't entirely honest during voir dire. I can guarantee he wasn't the only one who didn't express his concerns about his ability to sit in judgment in a particular case. He's just the one who's conduct was outrageous enough to merit attention.

After she received the letter, Judge Jackson ordered a hearing to determine whether Mr. Green could remain on the jury. And that's when things got even weirder. It turns out that Mr. Green wrote the letter after he spoke with a family friend about his concerns about serving on the jury. That family friend was a former state district judge. That family friend lost his bench during the Democratic landslide in 2008. That family friend took a position as the top assistant to then-District Attorney Pat Lykos.

That family friend was Roger Bridgwater.

And now the jury selection process begins anew. Judge Jackson will once again admonish a panel of jurors to base their decision solely on the evidence presented in court and not to conduct any outside investigation of the facts of the case. And someone else will be tempted to type some words into a search box, but this time we won't hear about it.

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