Approximately 94 percent of state criminal cases end in a plea bargain. Until last week I had no idea how frustrating this can be for potential jurors. Read to the end to see why…
Last week I got summoned for jury duty for the first time. I was partly surprised to be called because I had just moved to the city a few months ago, but they do have to go through a lot of trials here, so it’s not entirely unexpected. Initially, I was excited to see what the jury selection process was like because, as a law student and future lawyer, I wanted to know what I would be getting myself into if I end up going into criminal litigation.
On the day I went in, it was obvious that I was one of the few people excited to be there. After going through the metal detectors, they have all of the potential jurors sit in a room before being called on to a panel from which jurors are chosen for a particular case. Less than 20 minutes after I arrived, I was called onto the first panel and was escorted with a group of 59 of my peers to another room in the courthouse.
We sat in that room for hours with limited information about what was going on outside. As people started getting bored, they began complaining about how frustrating this process is. I had brought my law school homework and a book to read because I knew that there would be a lot of down time, but some people only had their phones to keep them entertained, which became ineffective around hour two. Many complained that they shouldn’t have to show up for jury duty, that jury service should be voluntary, that our legal system is messed up, and that all of our time spent there was worth more than the nine dollars we got paid at the end of the day. As a result, I had many conversations with the people around me about how the legal system works and why I think the process is so slow, without ever mentioning that I was a law student (though if they saw the work I was doing, they could have deduced that). Many people who were passing judgments on the system beforehand softened their stance when I explained the basics of how it all works.
While we were seated in this dimly lit room, another panel was seated in the rows on the other side of the room and was dismissed before we had been moved anywhere (their case ended in a plea deal). We later found out there was a legitimate reason for our waiting. Apparently, the first case assigned to our judge had ended in a plea deal, but the judge then immediately had another case transferred to her which needed a jury, so we were waiting to be selected for this second case. By the time we got into the courtroom and met the judge, it was time for lunch, so we were then immediately escorted out for our lunch break.
After lunch we came back in to start the voir dire process. Voir dire is the legal term for the process of asking potential jurors questions in order to narrow down the pool. In this instance, it was the judge who asked us questions while the prosecutor, defense counsel, and the defendant were seated at their tables. When the judge asked a question, we would have to raise the card with our number on it to answer her questions. Many of the questions were tilted towards seeing if any of the potential jurors had bias towards the law, the legal system, the type of case involved, etc. Some people were obviously raising their card more often to attempt to get out of it. When the cards were raised, the court would put in the record who raised their card for what questions and counsel would scribble down notes as we went along. At the end of this round of questioning, they split us into two groups. At this point I noticed that the people around me who had put up their cards a lot were being put in the other group, so I suspected that my group might be the ones more likely to be selected for the jury.
Next, the judge asked us individually about the answers we gave to the voir dire and the questionnaire we completed at the beginning of the day. This was largely uneventful, except I’m pretty sure I’m now on the record saying to the judge “if you say so” and “yes, I know lawyers”. Also, one of the potential jurors did not know that they were arrested when they had been handcuffed, brought to the precinct, and put in front of a lineup. After this round of questions, ten out of the fourteen jurors they wanted were picked (fourteen because they needed twelve jurors and wanted two alternates, but in the end they couldn’t decide on fourteen, so there ended up being only one alternate). I was picked as one of those ten jurors, so they gave me a new juror number, a juror badge, and told me what time to show up the next day. After a long day, I was excited to see what the trial would hold for me and I was optimistic about the things I could learn from sitting on a jury and watching the lawyers, judges, and other court staff at work.
The next day I show up bright and early to get ready for the trial. We are brought to the jury room next to the courtroom where they give us some instructions, take our phones away, and tell us to wait for the signal to enter the courtroom. After an uncomfortable amount of time and no signal, my fellow jurors started wondering what was taking so long. I speculated that maybe they were trying to reach a plea deal or maybe they were talking about evidence that they did not want to be presented to us. The other jurors were very friendly and we seemed to get along well considering we were trapped in a room together waiting for something to happen. We knew something serious was going on when one of the court staff came in to tell us they were working on some “legal things” in the courtroom and they would get back to us in a little bit. These suspicions were confirmed when the judge came into the room to describe the whole situation to us.
Here’s what happened: The Defendant, Samuel Santiago, was being charged with raping his wife. According to the judge, he had sex with her while she was sleeping and she immediately went to the police and wanted to press charges. Shortly afterwards, they got divorced, for obvious reasons. Through this whole process, the court had assumed he wanted to go through the trial to the end, but there were other factors at play. Mr. Santiago was convicted of murder in 1997 and was on parole at the time of this incident, something that the jury could not be before this trial. He knew that in addition to facing the criminal court, he would also have to face the parole board, who could give him an incredibly long sentence because this would clearly be a violation of his parole. In addition, the judge explained that the ex-wife was hesitant to testify because the assault was invasive and embarrassing and she would’ve faced a lot of intense scrutiny if she had to testify in open court. Because of these reasons (and probably many more) Mr. Santiago plead guilty on the day the trial was supposed to begin. He plead guilty to unlawful restraint, with 1-2 years of incarceration and a maximum of 3 years probation. He will have to go in front of the parole board soon. I don’t know the penalties for violating parole, but I’m sure they could be harsh, especially considering that it was for a murder conviction.
So, because the defendant plead guilty before we jurors entered the room, we didn’t get to see any of what happened during the plea bargain and sentencing process. Looking back, I sort of felt like Aaron Burr in “The Room Where It Happens”, wanting to participate in the process, but being forced to wait my turn. I had hoped to get a lot out of this experience and I believe I did, but not what I had expected to learn. The jury selection process is incredibly frustrating for jurors. Waiting around for hours without being well informed of what is going on does not make people more willing to participate in the criminal justice system. However, I did learn that these cases can be a lot more complicated than we think and we should appreciate the people who have to deal with the frustration from the other side. I’m glad the judge took the time to talk to us jurors about what happened in the case and even though it may be a little while until my next summons for jury duty, I am still looking forward to it.
If you want to see the Docket Sheet for this case, it is available here: https://ujsportal.pacourts.us/DocketSheets/CPReport.ashx?docketNumber=CP-51-CR-0006399-2017
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