Hi. I'm Alan, and I'll be deciding your fate today

by Alan J. Claffie

Yeah, it's been a while since anything's been written in this space. We'll try and not let that happen again.

The latest nightmare showed up a couple months ago when the notice that I was selected to do jury duty showed up. I don't have a very good track record with jury duty - two opportunities found me in Berkshire County and I wound up on juries both times. Surely lightning doesn't strike three times in the same place, does it?

Cell phones aren't allowed in the courthouse. But these days, what else is there? Can one fritter away the better part of a morning in a room full of strangers without the benefit of mobile Internet? Well, rules are rules, and the phone stayed in the car. Armed with a copy of ESPN The Magazine, I dealt with the stunning boringness the best way I could: by sleeping.

I don't usually see 8:00 a.m.: that's my excuse.

Stuck in the back of the room, snoozing away, I was awakened by the call to go to the courtroom. The case at hand seemed like a ticky-tacky marijuana possession charge. But there I was, looking like I just woke up (I did) in an ill-fitting polo shirt. Who would want someone like me deciding whether he goes free or becomes subject to a small fine or minimal jail time?

All of us potential jurors were asked if we had previous jury experience. I admitted such, and that might have been my undoing. When they got to me both lawyers said I passed muster and there I was, one of the twelve. But then it got better as I became a leader of men by being named the jury foreman.

The case was supposed to be cut-and-dry but of course it never is. A couple of punks were observed passing around and smoking "something" in a neighborhood by an off-duty cop. Cop called the on-duty cops who stopped a couple of the punks who were walking, and the first cop to arrive supposedly saw one punk drop something that later was found to contain a small amount of the drug. Piece of cake, slam dunk, guilty as charged.

Then the defense attorney took his turn and showed why good defense attorneys make the big bucks. Despite cluttering the proceedings with a lot of minutia that was later judged to be irrelevant, he introduced just enough "maybes" to show why this case wasn't pled down to a lesser charge and wound up disrupting the lives of twelve innocent jurors and one innocent alternate juror. And of course the trial went on long enough that we had to break at the end of the day just to come back the next morning to finish the deal.

What was a slam dunk guilty verdict was quickly not shaping up to survive deliberations. "Reasonable doubt" is a pretty serious wrinkle in criminal cases, and that was why we gave a not guilty verdict in the first case I was impaneled for back in 1989. In this month's case, we had two big questions. The officer who saw the item drop had to take his eyes off it as he was getting the two suspects rounded up and UP AGAINST THE CAR before backup arrived. We figured that if the officer had his eyes on the evidence at all times, we would have felt a lot better that he actually picked up what he thought was dropped. But that was never proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Also, the item was not fingerprinted. With fingerprinting the state probably could have easily put that evidence in the hand of the defendant, but since that was not done, we can't definitively say for certain that the item in question was ever in his possession.

These two things sound pretty specious when described above, but defense lawyers have it relatively easy. It only takes one or two chinks in the armor of the state's case and "reasonable doubt" rears its ugly head and the guy walks. Is the system flawed? Maybe, but it's not going to change anytime soon.

If I saw the defendant tomorrow, I'd tell him what we discussed after we reached our verdict. I'm pretty sure that everyone in that jury room was pretty sure that the evidence found was his, and that he isn't facing a year in jail only because his lawyer did a very good job of pointing out a couple minor flaws in the state's case that were significant enough to make him a free man. If the defendant is smart, he'll know that he dodged a bullet and perhaps he should learn to be more careful with what he keeps on his person when he's out in public.

But the most important thing that happened during this latest jury duty ordeal is that it's over and I should be out of the running for being picked for a repeat appearance for quite some time. But when that time comes, do you think I'll go four-for-four in getting placed on the jury? I do.

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