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11 angry jurors and one dead duck

INSIDE/OUT

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,

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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.

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“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.”

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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

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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

between them.”

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

All Cops.”

“Guiiilteeee,” sighed Kate, one of the jurors and the girlfriend

of Melinda’s co-prosecutor. The judge smiled at her and wagged an

admonishing finger.

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

her eyes.

“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

Orange County.

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

flames.

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

courtroom.

“I don’t know, Danny,” I said, smiling weakly. “The night’s still

young.”

* 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 david.silva@latimes.com.


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