After many years of waiting, I finally received a jury summons to serve at the Loudoun County Circuit Court. My date was yesterday, Friday February 10.
I was one of about 25 people who actually had to show up at the court house yesterday (many more were dismissed ahead of time and did not have to appear). I arrived well before the required 8am time, went through security, and proceeded to the jury waiting room where I sat reading my Kindle for nearly an hour. We then received an orientation from the jury coordinator who told us how we were all selected (randomly by computer from voter and DMV records) and what we should expect from the day. She also told us that there was only one jury trial on the schedule for the day, so most of us would be sent home.
The judge in the case requested that only 14 of us go back into the courtroom, so the first 14 of us (alphabetically by last name) were lined up while the rest were dismissed and free to leave around 9:15am.
Once in the court room, the charges were read and jury selection began. The judge asked us all a number of questions (as a group), mostly related to basics like, ‘Does anybody have a problem with the legal doctrine that the accused is innocent until proven guilty?’ After that, an assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney asked us a number of her own questions, followed by a third series of questions from one of the defense attorneys. The defense attorney seemed particularly concerned with whether any of us were biased in favor of law-enforcement officers; we were asked if any close friends or relatives worked in law enforcement, and we were also asked if we felt the testimony of a law enforcement officer automatically has more weight than anybody else’s testimony (it doesn’t, in my opinion).
The attorneys then made their strikes. Because the charges were misdemeanors, only seven of us would be selected to serve on the jury (Virginia has 7 jurors in misdemeanor and civil trials, and 12 in felony trials). After all the strikes were made by both sides, the final juror list was announced, and my name was included. The seven of us were then moved to the jury box and formally impaneled, while the other seven were dismissed and free to leave.
The defendant was a gentleman named Oscar Darnell Jordan, and he was accused of two misdemeanor crimes: dumping trash or litter (case number CR00022113-00) and disregarding a law enforcement signal to stop with the intent of escaping or eluding (case number CR00022114-00). The accusation involved an incident that occurred in August 2009 at the arrivals gate at Dulles International Airport, which is located in Loudoun County (just barely).
According to the prosecution, Jordan pulled up to the arrivals gate and approached a Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) police officer to inquire if he could leave his car there while he went into the terminal. The officer informed his that no, he would need to park in the hourly parking area. Jordan then asked whether, if he were blind (!!?), would he be allowed to leave his car there then? The officer again told him that no, he would need to park in hourly parking. At this point, Jordan returned to his car, appeared to write something down on a pad of paper, left his car, and went into the airport terminal.
At this point, the WMAA officer wrote a parking ticket for Jordan’s vehicle. As he completed the ticket, Jordan allegedly returned to his car, at which point the officer handed him the parking ticket. Jordan was accused of looking at the ticket, saying, “No disrespect, but . . . ,’ and then tossing the ticket to the ground (hence the littering charge). The officer then asked for Jordan’s license and registration. Jordan returned to the car, presumably to retrieve his paperwork, but then sped away. The officer jumped back to avoid being hit by the car, then returned to his patrol car and gave chase.
Jordan continued driving with the MWAA officer in pursuit (with lights and siren) for about two or three miles at speeds up to 80 or 90 miles-per-hour before the officer called-off the chase for safety reasons. The MWAA police then ran the tags and obtained the driver’s license photograph of the registered owner, Oscar Darnell Jordan, who the officer recognized as the man he had interacted with at the arrivals gate. This was the case as presented by the prosecution, corroborated by the testimony of the MWAA police officer (the prosecution’s sole witness and, indeed, the only witness presented by either side).
During the defense’s opening statements and their cross-examination of the officer, they called into question the officer’s recollection of events and focused on whether he had investigated whether anybody else, perhaps another member of Jordan’s family, might have been driving Jordan’s car at the time. It came out that the person the officer had interacted with had been wearing a hat and large sunglasses. The defense also pointed out that the warrant obtained for Jordan’s arrest had an incorrect date, and identified the accused’s eye color as brown even though he had been wearing sunglasses when they interacted.
The officer, who (like the accused) was African-American, pointed out that it is usually safe to assume that an African-American man will have brown eyes, and conceded that he had based the warrant information on that assumption.
The defense never disputed the core elements of the WMAA officer’s testimony, nor did they bring forth any evidence that Jordan wasn’t the one driving the car that day. They did, however, repeatedly imply that the officer could not be certain that Jordan committed the crime. Perhaps cognizant of the fact that the officer’s testimony against the defendant was pretty solid, and that the officer made a positive identification from a photo very soon after the incident, the defense spent a good portion of their closing statement arguing that if we did find the defendant guilty, the crime was not serious enough to warrant jail time.
We seven jurors were then removed to a room to deliberate on the case. In Virginia, the jury is responsible for determining if the defendant is guilty or not-guilty, and, if guilty, what the punishment should be (within the guidelines provided to us in the jury instructions).
Once in the jury room, the seven of us pretty quickly came to the conclusion that the only possible cause for finding the defendant not-guilty (on either charge) would be if we had reasonable doubt about the officer’s testimony regarding the accused’s identity. There were two jurors who were initially concerned about this, while the rest (myself included) were comfortable with the officer’s recollection and identification of the suspect (not because he is a cop, but because of how unique and memorable the interaction had been). This was the main topic of discussion at the beginning. After discussion, we all felt that the officer’s memory was almost certainly reliable enough to make a positive identification of the suspect from a photograph soon after the event. This is especially true when combined with the circumstantial evidence that the car, which was positively identified from the beginning, was registered to the accused.
After the discussion wound down, we went around the table with an informal poll: was the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt on the littering charge? We all agreed unanimously on the first vote that he was.
Rather than moving directly to the second charge, we decided to discuss punishment for the first charge. We had the option of jailing him for up to one year, fining him between $250 and $2,500, or a some combination of the two. We agreed right-off that littering charge was a very minor offense and warranted only a small fine; indeed, on our first poll around the table had a mix of $250 fines (including my vote) and $300 fines. Those advocating the higher $300 fine argued that, although the crime itself was exceedingly minor, the show of disrespect to the police officer warranted increasing the fine by $50. After discussion—and the realization that the accused had asked if he could park there, was told he couldn’t, and did it anyway—we unanimously agreed that the $300 fine was probably more appropriate.
We then proceeded directly to another informal poll: was the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt on the charge of disregarding a law enforcement signal to stop? Again, we all agreed unanimously on the first vote that he was. We then proceeded to discuss the appropriate punishment.
Again, we had several options. We could jail him for up to six months, fine him up-to $1,000, or some combination of both. We unanimously agreed that it was insane that littering comes with higher possible punishments than running from the police, and wondered among ourselves what on earth the Virginia General Assembly was thinking. Regardless, the discussion here was the most challenging of the four things we had to consider. On the initial informal poll, three jurors (myself included) voted for both jail time and a fine, while the other four voted just for a fine.
I argued that the severity of running from the police warranted at least some jail time, considering the safety risks to the defendant, the pursuing officer, and other drivers. I also felt that jail time would serve as a stronger deterrent against future criminal behavior than a fine. What I had in mind was something like 7 days in jail and a $400-$500 fine. One of the advocates for fine-only pointed out that nobody was hurt, but I responded saying that was only because the defendant got lucky, not because what he did wasn’t really dangerous. Regardless, it soon became clear that I was in a shrinking minority—one of the other pro-jailers switched to fine-only, and the other (besides me) seemed to be wavering. It was pretty clear that I was the only one strongly in favor of jail . . . while several were strongly opposed.
The fine-only contingent, however, was in agreement with me that the crime was severe, and was willing to levy the maximum $1,000 fine. Rather than deadlocking the jury on such a relatively minor area of concern, the wavering holdout and I both agreed with the others to the maximum fine with no jail time.
We filled out the jury paperwork, completing our deliberations, about five minutes before noon. In fact, as the foreman was getting up to notify the bailiff that we were ready, the bailiff knocked on the door to let us know it was time to break for lunch. We told him we had reached a verdict, and he rushed back into the courtroom to let the judge know before everybody left.
We then proceeded back into the courtroom, where the foreman was asked if the jury had reached a verdict. She responded, “Yes, Your Honor,” and the bailiff delivered our paperwork to the bench. The judge reviewed it, and then had the clerk read it aloud. Paraphrasing from memory, “On the charge of dumping trash or litter, we the jury find the defendant guilty, and recommend the sentence of a $300 fine. . . . On the charge of disregarding a law enforcement signal to stop, we the jury find the defendant guilty, and recommend the sentence of a $1,000 fine.”
The judge thanked us for our time, at which point we were ushered back into the deliberation room to retrieve our belongings and then be escorted out of the court house through a back door (presumably to reduce the likelihood of our needing to interact with anybody else involved with the trial). Our work was finished before 12:30 p.m., and I had the rest of the day to go home and relax. And for my troubles, I should receive a $30 check from the Commonwealth of Virginia some time in the next month for one day of jury service.
Was this a hassle? Well, in a sense, yes. It took me out of my comfort zone, made me get up too early in the morning, and so on. But we mustn’t forget that our legal system, requiring the accused to be convicted by an impartial jury of his peers, is an important part of our free republican system of government. You can’t be thrown in prison willy-nilly; 7 or 12 people have to be convinced by the evidence that you are guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. This system only works as long as random folks like you and me are willing to participate honestly and fairly in the process. Your participation, when called, is your duty as a citizen of this great nation. I am proud to have been a part of the process of justice in this way. It was an honor much more than it was an inconvenience.