Jury Duty I

published by Eric Mill on

A couple weeks ago, I was on a jury here in DC. It was a "petit" jury (standard 12 person jury, with 2 alternates) for a criminal case in the DC Superior Court. I've never done jury duty before, but I was looking forward to it and I hoped I'd be selected. DC uses a "one day or one trial" system where your obligation may be as little as a day, and many people show up for the day and get impaneled once or twice, but not selected. As it happened, I was selected on my first impanelment, and the trial began immediately.

It was a drug trial, the USA vs. two defendants. Each had two counts; one for possession and distribution of cocaine, the other for possession of marijuana and distribution of cocaine. Each had their own public defender, and each plead not guilty to all charges.

The situation, essentially undisputed by all parties, was this: last fall, an undercover DC cop approached a man (the first defendant) in a parking lot in northeast DC and said he was looking for "some dimes" (i.e. dimebags). The man said he was looking for some too, and said he knew where they could both get some. The man got into the cop's car, and told him to go to a separate location in northeastern DC. The cop drove them there, and the man got out of the car.

This man went into a courtyard and purchased cocaine for the both of them from another man (the second defendant), and brought it back to the car. This was the basis of the charge for the first man's count of possession, and the second man's count of distribution. Later, when the second man was arrested, a bag of marijuana was found underneath his hand on the street as he was being handcuffed. This was the basis of the charge for possession of marijuana. When the first man returned to the car, he handed the cop's share of the cocaine over to the cop. This handoff was the basis of the charge for the first man's count of distribution of cocaine.

Despite the pleas of not guilty, the public defender for the first man (the drug user) conceded in his opening statement that his client had possessed cocaine, and bought the cocaine, and that in fact, handing that cocaine across the car to the cop constituted distribution according to the letter of the law. What he was seeking was to persuade us that his client was not a drug dealer, and did not deserve this charge. The second man (the drug dealer)'s attorney simply sought to introduce reasonable doubt about the evidence of the dealing, something which he largely failed to do during the course of the trial.

It was a fairly short trial, 2 and 1/2 days, and the final testimony belonged to the first defendant, the drug user. In his testimony he backed up everything his attorney and the prosecution said about the story, and didn't question the cop's recollection of events. He talked about his grandkids (he was in his 50's or 60's), his two jobs, and about how he was just trying to get high. But he insisted that he is not a drug dealer, and that it doesn't fit the charge. Distribution is a far more serious crime than possession.

In closing statements, we were reminded by the prosecution that the defendant has admitted to doing both of the charges against him. In jury instructions, we were reminded by the judge that jurors are finders of facts.

As we began deliberations, it became clear that every single member of the jury was persuaded of two things: that the first defendant technically distributed cocaine, and that the first defendant is not a drug dealer. We had to weigh those things and reach one verdict.

What would you have done?

(followup: Part II)


  1. Trapper

    Yeah I think in this situation, I would have acquitted the man of the distribution charges. It's trying to follow the letter of the law as opposed to the spirit of the law.

    How this was motivated and executed is not a subject I would have factored into my decision. I wouldn't have been there to deliberate on if the law or methods were correct.

  2. Eric Mill

    Entrapment was briefly brought up by a defense attorney, though he didn't take it anywhere. We requested a definition or elaboration on entrapment from the court during our deliberations, and received a note saying "Entrapment is not a valid legal defense and you may not consider it in your deliberations."

  3. meeee

    nobody tired to argue entrapment there?

  4. Anthony

    This trial sounds like a massive waste of everyone's time and money, including your own. The police chose to run an operation that creates a crime where there was none before, and then arrest and prosecute the people swept up in that operation. That this happens once is bad enough, that this happens hundreds of times a day, across every state and town in the US makes me sick. It is difficult enough to be part of a cultural or ethnic minority and/or part of the economic underclass of this country without the police actively preying on you.

    I would move for jury nullification or, lacking support from my fellow jurors, refuse to vote to convict in an effort to hang the jury.

  5. Ed S.

    I would have acquitted the first man of the distribution charge. He was not a drug dealer, and this was clearly an overreach by the cops.

  6. chrisrhoden

    http://www.rmcortes.com/books/jury/Jury-Illustrated.pdf

    Not guilty on drug charges. Not saying it's the right thing for everyone, but that's absolutely what I would have done.