Back when I was engaged to my future ex-wife, she asked me one
evening if I would serve as a juror in a mock trial at her law
school. The mock trial was part of Melinda’s finals, she explained,
and 12 students were chosen at random to bring a loved one to serve
on the jury.
Her performance in the trial would count for a third of her grade.
“What kind of case is it?” I asked.
“A murder trial!” she said happily. “A death-penalty case! You get
to send two people to the chair!”
“Oh, what makes you so sure I’ll convict them?”
Melinda smiled mischievously. “Because I’m the prosecutor.”
Two weeks later found me sitting in the jury box with a panel of
11 other significant others -- husbands, wives, girlfriends,
boyfriends of the students, plus a 74-year-old retired construction
worker named Earl, who was the grandfather of the “public defender.”
Melinda had stressed to me that the trial would be an elaborately
authentic undertaking, the facts of the case taken from actual case
law and the students presenting their arguments exactly as they would
in real life. But what she hadn’t anticipated was that only the law
students would take the proceedings seriously. For everyone else, it
was comic theater.
The “judge,” a professor from Melinda’s criminal law class,
observed the opening arguments while seeing how high he could flip
his gavel in the air and still catch it. The “bailiff” -- a petite
blond girl in a U2 T-shirt and jeans -- openly flirted with the one
of the “defendants.” The “jurors” passed notes and snapped gum and
took turns nudging Earl, who kept drifting off to sleep.
But no one took the proceedings less seriously than the
“defendants,” who made funny faces at the jurors and who broke into
paroxysms of laughter when “Prosecutor” Melinda described them as “a
pair of murderous scoundrels with not an ounce of common decency
It was a bit surreal, really, given the gravity of the crimes of
which the defendants were accused: On the night of such-and-such,
Melinda explained in her opening remarks, defendant “Smith” and
defendant “Wesson” were in the act of robbing a convenience store
when Sheriff’s Deputy “Fife” walked in to buy some Twinkies.
Defendant Smith immediately shot Fife point-blank with a
“Saturday-night Special,” then the bandits fled the store and rode a
cross-town bus to their apartment, where they were arrested a few
hours later after their landlady overheard them bragging about the
shootings. Found inside the apartment were a Saturday-night Special,
$200 in small bills and a note in Smith’s handwriting that read “Kill
“Guiiilteeee,” sighed Kate, one of the jurors and the girlfriend
of Melinda’s co-prosecutor. The judge smiled at her and wagged an
After the prosecution and the defense finished their closing
arguments, we retired to the jury room to deliberate the verdict.
“OK, let’s get this over with,” Kate said as we all sat around the
table. “Who’s for frying the murderous scoundrels?”
“Now hold on,” I said, bothered at the lack of decorum. “Shouldn’t
we, like, pick a foreman or something?”
“OK, you’re the foreman,” Kate replied impatiently. Everyone
murmured in agreement. “But let’s move it along. I’ve got a
Jazzercise class tonight.”
“All right, then,” I said. “So, um, let’s see a show of hands. Who
thinks the defendants are guilty?” Eleven hands immediately shot up.
And I suppose I could have saved everyone -- and myself -- a lot
of fuss and bother had I just raised my hand too. I had little doubt
in my mind of Smith and Wesson’s guilt. But the truth was there was
just something about the case that bothered me. It was too pat. Too
clear-cut. The scales of justice seemed so relentlessly unbalanced
that I couldn’t help myself -- my sense of fairness was offended.
“Well, I have a few questions that I’d like answered before I
raise my hand one way or another,” I said, and a collective moan rose
from the other jurors.
“You can’t be serious!” Kate shouted.
“Now, hold on,” I said. “First, didn’t the prosecution say the
defendants rode a bus home from the murder scene?”
“So?” asked a juror, a short Latino man named Danny. Kate rolled
“Well, the murder was supposed to have taken place near midnight,
right? I don’t know how long the rest of you have lived in Orange
County, but I can tell you there aren’t many buses I know of that run
past 10. I doubt many run beyond 9.”
“That’s true!” Danny exclaimed. “I knew something about that story
was fishy! OK, I’m changing my vote!”
“You’re changing your vote?” Kate shrieked. “Christ, don’t be so
gullible, you --"
And before she could stop herself, she said it, spat out that
horrible racial epithet used all too frequently in that part of
Another moan rose through the ranks, but this one wasn’t directed
at me. In the silence that followed, I asked for another show of
hands. This time, seven hands went up in favor of acquittal, six
belonging to jurors with Hispanic surnames.
“You ... this is a mock trial, you idiot!” Kate hissed at me. And
if I wasn’t sure of what I was doing before, I was now. Forget
acquittal. My new mission for the evening was to see Kate go down in
So I talked and talked, urged and cajoled and persuaded. Another
convert joined the hands for acquittal. Then another. And another.
The minutes ticked by. An hour. Ninety minutes. The “bailiff” stuck
her head in the room. “Um, dudes? The judge wants to remind you that
it’s just a mock trial and that he wants to go home.”
I turned to Kate, who was now the sole dissenter among the dozen.
“How about it, Kate? Seriously, I can do this all night.”
“OK! OK! Anything to get out the same room as you, you jerk!”
We piled out into the courtroom, where the lawyers and the
defendants and the judge were all hunched over with boredom. When the
judge asked the foreman to stand and I rose, Melinda smiled broadly.
She was getting that “A” for sure.
And it was then, and only then, that I began to come to my senses.
Oh my God! What have I done?
The judge called for the verdict. “Uhhhh ...” I couldn’t say it.
Melinda raised her eyebrows, puzzled. “We, the jury, find the
defendants ... uhhh ... not guilty.”
My fiancee’s jaw dropped. A roar rang out from the previously
crestfallen defense team. Melinda bowed her head, then looked up and
glared at me, just in time to see Danny pat me on the back. “Good
job!” he shouted for all to hear. “I guess no one’s getting executed
on your watch!”
I watched Melinda pick up her briefcase, turn and stalk out of the
“I don’t know, Danny,” I said, smiling weakly. “The night’s still
* DAVID SILVA is the city editor of the News-Press, the Leader’s
sister paper. His column runs Saturdays. Reach him at 637-3231, or by
e-mail at email@example.com.