On Tuesday, March 9, I was called in for jury duty. I have been called twice before, and each time I sat around for a few hours, and then was dismissed without so much as speaking to anyone. So I figured this would be the same. However, things are working somewhat differently with COVID precautions, so it turned out that being called in at least guaranteed that you would be set before the panel of lawyers and the judge for jury selection. I was juror #21 out of 30 jurors at this particular panel, and they only needed 14 (12 jurors and 2 alternates). The lawyers spent the majority of their time speaking to jurors 1-15, ignoring my half of the room completely unless they were asking for hands raised regarding something they were asking all jurors assembled. So I figured I would not be picked.
I was wrong.
I was juror #14, the last pick (flash back to being picked last in kickball), which did not guarantee that I was an alternate. Alternates were not selected until after all court proceedings, right before jury deliberation, and were chosen at random. I was also not selected to be an alternate. To top off everything, I was voted as jury foreman (well, I volunteered, but the rest of the jury agreed). Deliberations went for about 12 hours, and resulted in a “hung jury” or a deadlock. This results in a mistrial, and there will likely be another trial in a few weeks with a new jury. I have been told since that this is the second mistrial for this case.
So that’s the summary. What follows will be the complete experience detailed for your entertainment. It is likely to be long, but hopefully interesting as it gives a glimpse into real court proceedings outside of TV documentaries. I was both impressed and dismayed by what I experienced in equal measure; I am glad to have a justice system that allows such trials, but am dismayed at some of the incompetence and lack of reason that can be involved. If you choose to read this, know that it will be heavily injected with my own opinion. This is not an unbiased account.
The trial in question was for this particular case:
I don’t know if that link will always be viable, so here’s a summary: On May 23, 2019, a man named Ivan Coronel-Cabrera drove about 9 hours from Vancouver, WA, to Boise, ID, when he was pulled over for illegal lane change. Cabrera had signaled only while changing lanes, not prior to making the lane change. Once pulled over, the officers found that the man did not have a valid driver’s license (he had a photocopy of Mexican driver’s license) and the man was in the country on a tourist visa. The officers took the driver out of his vehicle, and a drug sniffing K9 unit arrived on the scene. The dog “alerted” on the car, and after a search, the officers found a fire extinguisher that had been converted into a drug transport device. Inside was 637 grams of heroin.
When I posted about this case on Facebook, one of my friends stated that it sounds pretty open and shut. And I would agree that if I read that summary above, I would think so as well. This is one of the lessons I have learned from this experience. People have a tendency to believe that those accused are guilty. It really doesn’t take much to make someone sound guilty when the end result is “something bad happened” or “the circumstances broke the law.” Any association, once the end result is considered, makes a person seem guilty. This is why there are so many innocent people sitting in prison.
In addition to the details posted in the article and summary above, here are pertinent facts that we were presented to consider:
- The car did not belong to the defendant (he stated it was his uncle’s).
- The car was not registered to him.
- The car had a recent receipt for the purchase of new tires, also not in the defendant’s name (illustrating the vehicle had been something of a community property, in control of multiple individuals).
- The car did have insurance in the defendant’s name, purchased 2 1/2 months previous.
- The defendant had been in the country 2 1/2 months. He had his passport and a photocopy of his Mexican driver’s license, and stated he was in the country on a tourist visa.
- The defendant told the police his wallet had been stolen (hence the photocopy of the license rather than the real thing). He had a slip with a police report number on it from the reported theft of the wallet.
- The defendant had a new wallet with no paperwork in it, but over $600 in cash.
- The defendant stated he was driving to his cousin’s home, 5 minutes from where he was pulled over. He had his phone on a windshield mount with Google Maps pulled up. He referred to it multiple times.
- No luggage or personal hygiene products were found in the car.
- There was a large-ish, flat-screen TV in the back seat of the car.
- The fire extinguisher in which the drugs were found had two partial fingerprints near the top, both of which were identified as belonging to the defendant after lab analysis (visual comparison by experts).
- The bag of drugs inside the extinguisher had one identifiable fingerprint, not belonging to the defendant.
- The fire extinguisher was of the “dry chemical” variety, and there was a powdery white residue from that chemical found inside along with the bag of drugs and a bunch of paper towels that had been stuffed in on top.
- The defendant’s socks, just under the tongues of his shoes, had a white, powdery substance on them. When asked by the officers, he said it was medicated powder for foot odor (the defendant did not speak English well, so he actually said something unintelligible on the police body cam, which the officer rephrased as “Stinky Feet” and the defendant agreed).
- The white powder on the socks, though photographed and referred to often during the trial, was never tested in a lab.
The defendant had three charges levied against him: 1. Trafficking in Heroin, 2. Possession of Heroin, and 3. Possession with Intent To Use Drug Paraphernalia. Charge #2 could only be considered if we voted “Not Guilty” on charge #1. #3 was to be considered separately regardless of our findings for #1 or #2.
Starting with jury selection, I was already pretty annoyed with the process. The prosecutor spoke to us like we were children, and was obviously trying to endear herself to us rather than select a jury that would render a fair verdict. I found her immediately off-putting. The questions she asked were almost universally pointless outside of trying to make herself look like a person who cared more for the process than for the state’s victory in this case. She asked few pointed questions, instead preferring things like “Can we all agree that entering into the courtroom with an open mind is important?” (in a tone appropriate for a preschool teacher) and then 30 people would mumble and nod their heads in our masks, as if she was actually taking note of who nodded. Silly as shit, and baldly manipulative.
The defense did a marginally better job with asking the jury questions, but considering we were all wearing masks, they only had 30 minutes to question people, and there were 30 people, I really felt like they had not thought this through much. They spent a lot of time directing questions to people who had spoken previously, asking only a few questions where we could all raise our hands to indicate we might be worthy of speaking to. I spoke to two of these questions, the only times I spoke during jury selection. Had I been juror #2 rather than juror #21, I would have been asked a lot of pointed questions. Some people there did not speak at all. It seemed very haphazard. The man who ultimately ended up torpedoing our deliberations should absolutely have been screened out. He had a reverence for the police and a hard-on for punishment.
Anyway, I was shocked to be selected as a juror, so I guess what I said during jury selection was good enough for the defense, but not bad enough for the prosecution. I was actually really happy about being selected. I came there wanting to be on a jury. It’s an experience that seemed valuable to me as an American and as a writer. We see a lot of court proceedings in movies and on television, but being a part of one in this way just seemed like something worthwhile. And for once, I was in a position where I would not lose pay due to the service (I work for a California employer, which means they are obligated to pay for my time serving on a jury). I put the energy out there, and the universe answered (if you believe in such things).
One of the things I was surprised about was that the trial started immediately. Once the jury was selected, those who were not selected were dismissed, and the prosecution and defense gave their opening statements. We were not told the charges being brought against the defendant, or the exact wording of those charges, which I thought was bullshit. The exact wording was key to our deliberations later, and to listen to all of the evidence without that in mind, I feel, was a huge reason why our jury was unable to reach an unanimous decision (some people cannot change their minds once they are made up).
We were given notepads and pencils to take notes we could refer to. We were told we did not have to take notes, but should do so if it would help us recall the facts of the case. I took extensive notes, writing down much of what each person said, but also my reaction to it. I found myself writing rebuttals to the prosecutor nearly every time she spoke. I wish I still had my notes, but we were not allowed to keep them.
In the prosecutor’s opening statements, she outlined literally every detail of the case and what we would hear from the witnesses. And I do mean EVERY detail, exhaustively, to the point that the witness testimony only existed to show us she wasn’t making shit up. I found this, again, quite off-putting. I only have TV and movies to compare my experience to, so I’m not sure if this was a legal requirement or if this was just the prosecutor’s style. But I didn’t appreciate having to listen to her drone through every detail of the testimony we were going to hear, and then have to hear it all over again from the witnesses. Perhaps she felt the repetition was required for some people to remember. For me personally, I would have liked to hear the bullet points of the state’s case, and get the details from those who were giving their expert or eye-witness testimony.
The state’s version of events was basically this: The defendant helped pack the drugs into the fire extinguisher, getting the white fire retardant powder on his socks in the process. He then drove 9 hours from WA to ID with the intent to drop off the drugs with someone in ID and then return immediately to WA. The fact that he did not have even a change of clothes, let alone toiletries, in the car supported this idea. The fingerprints on the outside of the extinguisher proved he interacted with it, and was a knowing part of placing the drugs in the vehicle. When pulled over, the defendant was very nervous, to the point that he could hardly speak clearly (“cotton mouth” was a term slung about often). This nervousness again supported his knowledge of the drugs. When told that drugs were found on the vehicle, in the state’s opinion, the defendant did not react in a way consistent with a person being surprised to find that there were drugs in their vehicle.
The defense kept it short and sweet. This was appreciated in a way, but also seemed lacking in other ways. We were not really given an alternative narrative as to what the defendant was actually doing. They just cast some doubts on the state’s case. The car was not his, so he did not have control of what was in it. When you borrow a car, do you go through everything inside it? Do you probably touch things in the car without it crossing your mind that might get you into trouble later? He had a lot of other reasons to be nervous that were not drug-related (lack of license, getting pulled out of his vehicle on the side of the freeway, not speaking English well). No physical evidence linked him to the interior of the extinguisher, and the fingerprints on the outside could have been from any point before or after the drugs were placed inside. He could have just leaned into the trunk and touched the extinguisher. The white powder was never tested, so there was no reason to assume it was anything other than “stinky feet” powder.
The trial began with the calling of the first witness, Officer Evans. We heard his testimony, and watched the footage from his on-body camera. He was the officer who dealt with the defendant the most, so his point of view captured the defendant’s demeanor and reactions. To my eye, the person they were describing as beyond nervous seemed remarkably calm considering the circumstances. I found his reactions to the situation mostly in line with how I would expect for someone who did not know about the drugs, and does not fully understand the situation they are now in. This would be a recurring theme in my own thought process: the difference between not understanding and not reacting as expected. Having spent a lot of time around people who don’t speak English very well, much of the defendant’s behavior was very much in line with not understanding the words that were being spoken to him. The state interpreted that as not reacting in a way consistent with innocence.
We saw two more body cams from the officers on the scene, but those really just established the facts. The defendant was driving the vehicle, the fire extinguisher was in the trunk, heroin was found in the extinguisher. These three facts were never in debate, either during the trial or during the jury deliberations. The entire case hinged on the defendant’s knowledge that the drugs were there, which is not something the prosecution addressed much or had concrete proof “beyond a reasonable doubt,” or at least most of us felt so. All of the expert testimony from lab technicians and fingerprint analysis just established the three facts above. The fingerprints proved the defendant touched the extinguisher at some point. The prosecutor was implying they indicated a grip on the top of the extinguisher, probably while helping to fill it with drugs. However, the prints could have been from multiple touches on the extinguisher, and were too few to indicate anything concrete. While the prosecutor was attempting to show us how he probably gripped the extinguisher, she herself touched it about a dozen times. So I was struck by just how few fingerprints were on the thing, even taking into account that it had been handled by a number of people in gloves prior to fingerprinting.
Every single time the prosecution had to show a video or display something using an overhead projector, the clerk struggled with it. Every. Single. Time. For two days. It was insane. For many of the presentations, we simply didn’t have the projector and were forced to squint at a much smaller screen at the side of the courtroom. Well, they do say justice is blind.
We adjourned for the day before closing arguments. At home, I was unable to sleep. I kept going over the details of the case in my head, and decided to work out a method to speak to my fellow jurors and keep deliberations organized. I decided I would volunteer to be the jury foreman (or “head juror” or whatever else they call it) despite my introversion and despite my stuttering, simply because I felt like I could keep the train on the tracks. And having a lot of project management experience, as well as being part of projects where other people were managing, I had been conditioned to expect the worst from others in leadership roles.
Closing arguments, the prosecutor had a Powerpoint slide deck. I kid you not. During this Powerpoint presentation, she again went over every single detail of the case, just in case we had missed it during her opening statement and the witness testimony. I busily wrote down rebuttals for everything she said, which the defense then echoed to a greater or lesser degree in their closing statement. The defense did not call a single witness. This, to me, was a huge failing. I admittedly don’t know much about real court proceedings, but I’m pretty sure the defense could have gathered their own experts to testify. Here are the two things I think the defense should have addressed with their own expert testimony:
- Is it common practice for a drug courier to not be aware of the fact that they are transporting drugs, or at the very least not know the full details of what they are transporting (I will get to this one in a second)? Surely they could find a professional willing to testify to this.
- Could spilling powder on the top of your shoes create the pattern of powder build-up observed on the defendant’s socks? Get a qualified lab tech to conduct an experiment. My guess is, powder would not gather in that pattern (the powder was only under the tongue of the shoes, in a significant amount, and much less significantly on the tops of the socks under the shoes. Nothing around the ankles. Nothing on the shoes themselves).
Anyway, we didn’t get that, it was left to our own imaginations. I think the defense blew off the white powder because it had not been tested (absurdly), so surely the jury would throw that away as credible evidence. I cannot tell you how much time we spent talking about that fucking powder. I weep at the thought of it. And with the entire case hinging on if the defendant knew what was in the extinguisher, I thought a lot more effort should have been made to give us an alternative story. In the end, just calling parts of the state’s case into doubt was not enough to overturn the big picture for the one juror who prevented this from being an unanimous decision.
After closing statements, we finally got the wording of the law and instructions from the judge. To be guilty of the primary charge, the state had to have presented evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant:
- Committed the offense on the date specified
- The offense happened in Idaho
- The defendant knowingly transported heroin into the state (not just a drug, but heroin specifically)
- The defendant knew it was heroin
- The defendant knew it was more than 28 grams of heroin
With that wording, you can see how vitally important it should have been for the prosecutor to highlight the defendant’s knowledge of what was in the extinguisher. I circled the word “knowingly” like three times in my notes. The prosecutor simply did not have the material evidence to show that the defendant knew the details of the interior of that extinguisher. Even if someone had handed it to him and said, “Hey, this is full of drugs. Drive it to Idaho.” under the specific wording we were to consider, that would still be “not guilty” if he had not known it was heroin or over 28 grams. I had already thought about this during my sleepless night, and was just waiting to hear the actual wording to be sure this was the case. I was confident at this point that I could make some logical arguments to sway anyone who felt we should come back with a guilty verdict.
How foolish I was then. How naïve.
I did volunteer to be foreman, and the rest of the folks agreed. We quickly established a rule to raise your hand if you want to speak, so that I could call on each person in turn and nobody would be drowned out by the louder voices. This mostly worked out pretty well. We quickly established that there were facts we could all agree on, so had no reason to debate. We agreed the defendant was the driver, the arrest was made on the date specified, the fire extinguisher was in the car, the heroin was in the fire extinguisher, it was in fact heroin, and it was well over 28 grams. We also agreed that the partial fingerprints on the exterior of the extinguisher belonged to the defendant.
After a fairly short period of discussion, we decided to just take a preliminary vote to see where people were leaning. There was discussion on if we should do this anonymously or just by show of hands. I regret making the choice to do it by show of hands. My logic at the time was that the discussion had indicated most people were leaning “not guilty”, so revealing who was not would allow us to let those individuals make their case so we could focus the discussion on their concerns. It was sound logic. However, what I also did is force people to attach their views to their identity. Some people cannot ever be seen to back down after they have made their opinion known. I fear this might have been the moment that wrecked us as a jury. But I have no real way of knowing if it could have turned out differently.
Initially, there were three people leaning “guilty.” After more discussion, two of those were able to be swayed. Jurors came forward with their own life experiences, revealing that several had gone on long road trips without packing so much as a toothbrush, several had used foot powder in vastly different ways than the others, several had cars insured in their name but registered to a family member, etc. We were able to use the exact same evidence to prove the defendant’s innocence, and the fact was that there really was no material evidence connecting the defendant to the interior of the extinguisher… as long as you throw out the foot powder, which was not tested and should therefor have not been a critical piece of the puzzle.
And let me just pause a moment to consider the fact that the powder was not tested. I mean, really??? We all agreed that this really would have been an open and shut case if the police had bothered to test that powder and it matched the fire extinguisher residue. It really made me wonder if they did have it tested, and it was verified to just be foot powder, so they buried the test, keeping the pictures just to cast more suspicion. If so, that’s pretty dirty. And if it truly was never tested, that’s vast incompetence.
To one juror in particular, that foot power was a key piece of evidence. He claimed to have used foot powder, and you put it in your shoes, not on the tops of your socks. Never mind that others had already told him that they and people they know have used it differently (one lady said her brother pours the powder into his sock first, then places his feet within. Another said they just douse the exterior of their sock with it). Never mind that it was never tested. Never mind the fact that we saw body cam footage of the officer pulling out the contents of the fire extinguisher, and we never once saw powder spill out of it in the quantity that would be required to get it all over one’s socks.
This juror could not be swayed. No matter what. We deliberated for about 12 hours in total, over the course of two days. He came back the second day even more sure than he was leaving after the first day. He actually had a little skip in his step, eager for another day of stone-walling. In my opinion, this juror had attached his identity to the guilty verdict, and could not be seen to back down. In addition, many things he said revealed that he had something of a reverence for the police. They are the experts. If they say it, it’s true. He really loved acts of authority and punishment. At one point, he told us that he raged at drivers who go over the speed limit, and that he takes great joy in seeing speeders get pulled over on the side of the freeway. In an act of desperation toward the end of deliberations, I even brought up the George Floyd video as evidence that police officers are not infallible and that people of color have a lot more to fear from the police than we white folk. His response? “Did you watch the WHOLE video?” He thought what happened to George Floyd was justified, as if the police have justification to pin an unarmed person on the ground and lean on their neck until they are dead because they resisted arrest.
Did I mention this guy was a pastor? Yeah. Think about that for a minute. Thou Shalt Not Kill… I mean unless you’re a cop, I guess.
In the end, what it came down to was that we could just not all agree on what was “reasonable” in the term “reasonable doubt.” We got the man to admit multiple times that it was entirely possible the defendant did not know he was transporting drugs. But, while that appears to be the definition of “reasonable doubt,” it did not seem that way to him. He said, it was not “reasonable” that any other story other than the prosecution’s was true. Basically, he expected us to convince him that not only was another scenario possible, but that it was likely: more likely than the prosecution’s interpretation. In other words, he did not understand, nor could be made to understand, the term “reasonable doubt.” If it was most likely that the defendant was guilty, then he’s guilty in this man’s mind. End of story. We all agreed that he was most likely guilty, but we had enough doubt to not send him to prison on a “probably.”
It was exhausting, and at the risk of sounding overdramatic, a bit soul-crushing. Sending the message to the judge that we were deadlocked felt horrible. We had all invested so much effort into the case that leaving it for another jury to decide in the future was the last thing most of us wanted to do. But, it happens. And I honestly cannot blame anyone (even myself, though I do wonder if anonymous voting might have helped). The pastor who prevented the unanimous verdict was doing what he felt was right. I feel like he had a basic inability to comprehend the task at hand. But he felt like he was doing exactly what he was called there to do. So how can I fault him for that? It was his duty, as was it all of our duties, to uphold justice as we interpreted it.
I am glad for the experience, though I hope to never have it again. It was really interesting, even if completely exhausting, frequently boring, and incredibly frustrating. I am mostly happy with myself in how I handled everything. I never lost my temper, and I never got belligerent, though I did sometimes verge into condescending and irritable. Oh well. We all have improvements we can make, I suppose. The discussion stayed pretty focused most of the time, though I did lose control of the group occasionally, and discussions always stayed civil.
Things I learned from this experience:
- Our justice system has just as many incompetent people in it as any other industry
- A “jury of your peers” is a frightening thing
- You can’t make an unreasonable person see reason
- Bootlickers gonna lick boots
- Most people, given the opportunity, actually can have civil disagreements
- The wording of our laws creates a lot of legal loopholes
- Some people have no ability to think outside of their own direct experience
Plenty of other things, I am sure, but I feel like I have typed enough. I will be keeping an eye out for news about this case, and hope the next jury sees things the way mine did, aside from that one guy.