Everybody deserves a day in court – on the jury
Had I not been kicked out, I would have enjoyed jury duty last week in Carson City.
I was one of 40-something prospective jurors ordered to report to Judge Michael Fondi’s District Court. They got my name from cross-referencing the DMV and voter registration records. So if you never want to get selected, don’t drive or vote.
Actually, the jury selection process is a beautiful thing. Especially when you have a judge explaining the ins and outs as thoroughly as Judge Fondi did. That process pretty much involves whittling down the 40 or so folks who were summoned down to 13 (including one alternate) who will actually serve.
The judge begins the process by determining how many ought to be disqualified outright and there are lots of reasons for that. Maybe the guy on trial is a coworker or friend. Perhaps his lawyer is your brother or mother. Or it could be the prosecutor is the guy who threw you in jail last year for mooning your neighbor.
Then there’s the chance prospective jurors are lawyers, judges, doctors, cops, or locomotive engineers. They can be excused if they want under Nevada law. The train guys were thrown into the mix by a former lawmaker who was a railroad brakeman by day.
Judge Fondi also took the time to determine if the three days of jury duty might create a hardship for any of the prospects. He excused a couple of women who were coming down with the flu and another who would have had a problem finding someone to care for her children.
By the time the judge had completed his inquiries the field had been narrowed to about 38. The remaining names were put into a hat, so to speak, and 23 names were randomly drawn. When my name was called I was asked to take a seat in the jury box, from where the 23 prospective jurors are grilled by the attorneys. The prosecutor looks for people like me, who never met a guy he wouldn’t convict. And the defense attorney looks for weak-kneed bunny huggers, or people who still believe you are innocent until proven guilty.
Before I drove to the courtroom I got some great advice from a coworker. “Think about this,” he said. “If the guy was really innocent, it probably wouldn’t have gotten this far.”
It made sense to me, but I was still determined to keep an open mind. A recent survey said 99.9 percent of all inmates in America today claim they are innocent.
The defendant in this case was accused of having sex with a girl under 16. The issue wasn’t whether he did or didn’t have sex with the girl. He admitted that. The jury was going to have to determine if the sex was consensual.
Never mind that the defendant was a man and that the sex might have started when the girl was 12 or so.
And never mind that the defendant was a “father figure” to the young girl.
When it came around to me, I told the defense attorney that I had a real problem with the consent issue. I don’t happen to believe that consent is relevant when it comes to a grown man having sex with a 12, 13 or 14-year-old girl. Especially when that grown man has influence over that young girl.
Unfortunately, consent is relevant by Nevada law. It’s the difference between sexual assault and sexual seduction.
“At what age do you think a girl is able to make up her own mind about sex?” the defense attorney wanted to know.
“Oh … I don’t know,” I said. “It probably depends on the girl, but I’d have to say she’d at least need to be old enough to legally drive, name three members of the Beatles and be able to point to New York on a map.”
The defense attorney jotted some notes on his yellow legal pad, probably along the lines of, “get rid of Ackerman at all costs.”
Some guy behind me told the defense lawyer that he had sex with a 15-year-old girl when he was 25 and would have a problem convicting a guy for pretty much doing the same thing.
“It would be like convicting myself,” he said.
“So be it,” I thought. “Maybe we can convict two for the price of one.”
The fellow prospective juror didn’t stop there. He went on to tell us all about the relationship that he had back in the ’70s with this 15-year-old girl and how she had been “hot for him” and that her father said it was OK for the two of them to “get it on,” or something like that. He said she was still on his Christmas list, but that he’d been thinking of scratching her off.
Fortunately, the prosecutor threw him out before he could get into the real nitty gritty of the relationship that was obviously still very much on his mind.
Each attorney gets to kick five jurors off the list. They go back and forth like some Fantasy Football Draft Day until there are only 13 prospective jurors remaining.
I was the third person kicked off by the defense lawyer. “Thank you very much,” he said as I reluctantly left the courtroom.
I say reluctantly because I really did want to serve. I think everyone should serve on a jury one time in his life. It may not be the perfect system, but I haven’t seen a better one out there.
By way of a postscript … the defendant was eventually convicted without my help. It took the jury two hours to return a guilty verdict on two charges of sexual assault.
Jeff Ackerman is publisher and editor of the Nevada Appeal