Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Jury-duty post-mortem

It has been a busy past week or so here in Meridian-land: the wrapping up of the trial on which I served as a juror; the final week of summer school; my getting moved into a smaller apartment (part of which is lovingly documented here); and moving Mrs. Meridian up to Topeka so she can begin law school and she and I can begin experiencing the wonders of a commuter marriage. Hoo-boy!

And speaking of law . . . those who take the time to read the comments at this post through to their end will find the rather impatient bidding of the esteemed R. Sherman of Musings from the Hinterland to get on with it already and share with the world my observations about the jury system. Seeing as Mr. Sherman is in the lawyering game himself, perhaps he seeks some insight into jury-room machinations, the better to manipul make his case in court. So that I do all that I can not to run the risk of losing one of my few readers, I'll share here, first of all, the basic facts of the case, and then the general tenor of the jury's deliberations as we reached a decision.

The basic facts: I must comfess that when those of us who went through voir dire were led into the courtroom and I saw the name of the case displayed on one of the lawyers' laptop screens, the chant "Frivolous lawsuit! Frivolous lawsuit!" began ringing in my head. I was afraid that this would be some sort of dispute between some development and a guy who was insisting on putting in a chain-link fence when the convenant called for privacy fencing. This was not to be that sort of case.

On April 7, 2003, a woman signed a lease for an apartment here in town and moved in. On August 3 of that same year, she was raped in her apartment. Her attacker had gained entry into her apartment via her sliding-glass patio door, which was locked, but which did not have a security bar like the one you see here. The man who attacked her was arrested and convicted and most likely will die in prison (he'll first be eligible for release when he is 88 years old). In this case, though, the woman brought suit against the apartment complex--more specifically, the company that manages the property. Her claim was that when she signed the lease, she had requested that the complex install a security bar on her patio door, and it was her understanding that the leasing agent she spoke with said that it would be done. The complex claimed that no such request had been made; that at the very least there certainly was no paperwork to that effect, and in any event nothing in the lease she signed prevented her from placing a dowel rod in the track of the patio door. It was the claimant's task to prove that it was more than likely that the property manager was aware enough of crime in the area that not providing security bars was an act of negligence that led to this rape.

Deliberations: Many of us have heard stories about juries whose members could barely fog up a piece of chilled glass, much less render a verdict based on the evidence presented in a courtroom. I cannot say that this was the case with the 11 people I served with. There was one member who said certain things regarding matters associated with his profession that, if I may be frank, he should just flat should have known better than to have thought or believed to be true (rather than go into detail here, I'll just send you here for one example of his thinking, and thence to the aforementioned Mr. Sherman's take on the matter); he was otherwise a thoughtful person, though, as were the rest of us.

So: no 12 Angry Men-like dynamics in this jury. We all wanted to go home--the trial had already run two days longer than the attorneys had assurred the judge it would--yet we steadily deliberated for over 2 hours, no one ever saying that we should just get it over with. We worked as a group, making sure we understood our instructions, and we reached a true consensus. We all felt sympathy for the woman but did not let that play into our decision; similarly, we felt that because the attacker had been tried and convicted, the crime proper had already been dealt with and was not an issue for us as far as the apartment complex was concerned. As defined in our instructions, we felt there was a good bit of negligence on the part of both the plaintiff and the defendant: the woman could have more vigorously pursued the matter of the security bar if indeed she had requested it; for its part, the complex apparently had a practice, prior to 2003, of gradually installing security bars on all the apartments but stopped doing so for some reason, and it was extremely reluctant to have data on crime in the area entered into evidence in this trial.

But as to whether we could find fault with either party--that is, if the negligence of either party caused or contributed to the events of August 3, 2003--we could not say, based on the evidence presented. So, we determined that neither party was at fault.

I am glad I experienced this process. I have a better understanding of how it works and--even more important--how it should work. But despite feeling that we arrived at the right decision in accordance with the instructions we received, there's still a lingering sense of unfinished business because of the decision we rendered. After all, that decision left the door open for an appeal. Although the jury didn't get to witness much of the legal wrangling between the attorneys, I get the strong sense that the plaintiff couldn't mount as strong a case as it could have because of objections from the defense to certain pieces of evidence. But that will be business to be taken up in another courtroom by another judge.


R. Sherman said...

I hate Blogger.

I just wrote several paragraphs in response and they disappeared.

Now, I have to leave. I'll be back.


R. Sherman said...

Good post and good luck to Mrs. M. in her first year.

This is interesting to me because I avoid talking to jurors for the simple fact that I really don't want to know what goes on in there.

My guess is most lawyers would be shocked. That is we think things are important which jurors could not care less about. Yet insignificant details are deemed case dispositive.

Nonetheless, justice is done the vast majority of the time. "Runaway juries" are a very rare occurance. That's why they make headlines.

I don't want this comment to become too long, and I may address some additional stuff at Musings but Kansas law is different than Missouri in cases like this. That is, absent a contractual obligation to make a modification or repair on the part of the Landlord, the tenant takes the demised premises as s/he finds it. Based on what you've written, I doubt such a case would go to trial here, if the injury did not occur in a "common" area like a hallway or parking lot.

Tell Mrs. M to remember these four words: Facts, Issue, Holding, Rational. Those are what first year is all about.


Winston said...

Glad you survived your citizen obligations to return to Blogland.

The geographically challenged marriage can be tough. Can also be a strengthening and growth opportunity.

Roomie recently served on jury duty for her first time ever and wrote about it. She was as impressed with the process, the protocol, the venue and the decorum, as she was the case itself.

meg said...

Great! Now I don't have to read all of those "how to do law school" books. Mr. Sherman, I'd like to shake your hand. ;)