“Tales of a Police Officer Serving on a Criminal Jury!”
By Christopher M. Neilson
JURIES – jury (joor e) n., pl. -ries [< L. Jurare, swear] 1. A group of people sworn to hear evidence in a law case and to give a decision 2. A committee that decides winners in a contest (Webster’s New World Dictionary).
While I do not have a transcript, this true story occurred over a quarter-century ago, and the events are accurate to the best of my recollection.
It was November 1974, Clyde L. Heath was the Clerk of the Circuit Court for the Seventeenth Judicial Circuit here in Broward County, Florida, and I had just been subpoenaed for jury duty for the very first time! I was only nineteen years old, and this was all very exciting! We assembled in the old jury room on the 5th floor of the original Broward County Courthouse. I was called up on the first panel, and we were escorted to Circuit Judge Stewart F. LaMotte, Jr.’s courtroom.
Judge LaMotte dispensed with the general introduction of the attorneys and staff, and gave a brief overview of the charges. The attorneys then began voir dire. It was a long process, taking several hours. We had been advised that each side had six peremptory challenges to excuse any potential juror they chose to, without reason. The panel knew this was happening, and the State and defense eliminated six prospective jurors each, for a total of twelve! “Back striking” of jurors didn’t seem to be allowed or happening during this case.
The prosecutor was Assistant State Attorney Alan H. Schreiber, our very own Broward County Public Defender (yes, this is not a typo, he was really a prosecutor back in the old days!). We watched him closely, and discussed among ourselves how neatly he was dressed, how he even wore different suits, shoes, and watches every day! Appearances really do count! During voir dire, extensive background of the case came out in the form of questions to the panel. For example, Schreiber asked an older woman, who just so happened to be the first prospective juror called after all 12 peremptory challenges had been exhausted (lucky number 13!), “If a young lady had been hitchhiking, and was picked up and assaulted, could you be a fair and impartial juror in her case?” To the astonishment of everyone, she sternly retorted “Any young lady that is stupid enough to hitchhike deserves whatever happens to her!” Needless to say, Schreiber quickly moved to dismiss for cause. He argued, “Judge, this prospective juror has just indicated that she cannot be a fair and impartial juror, and that she is prejudiced and biased against the victim, in that she has testified that she believes that any young lady who was hitchhiking and got assaulted deserves whatever happens to her, which is basically what transpired in this case.”
Judge LaMotte then inquired of the prospective juror, reminding her of her obligation to be fair and impartial, and asked if she could set her feelings aside in this matter. “Absolutely not!” she snapped, and after some additional dialogue, the Judge sustained Schreiber’s objection, and she was dismissed for cause!
Well, guess who was called next? Yes! It was I. It seems to me that I had just worked a midnight shift, came home, showered, changed from my uniform into civilian clothes, and went right to the courthouse that morning. When my name was called, I went to the jury box and took a seat. Judge LaMotte had instructed each prospective juror to give a brief biography, so when I was asked I said “My name is Christopher Mark Neilson, I live in Hollywood, Florida, and I am a police officer for the City of Hollywood.” At that, Schreiber smiled, the defendant turned pale, and the defense attorney jumped up out of his seat, slamming his hand on the table, and shouted “Your Honor, I move to have this prospective juror dismissed for cause!”. He argued: “Judge, he is a police officer and this is a criminal trial, and he can’t possibly be fair and impartial to the Defendant, who is charged with this crime!” It was all really quite dramatic! All the eyes in the courtroom were now on me!
Judge LaMotte then inquired of me, “Can you be a fair and impartial juror in this matter, and set aside any bias or prejudice you might have?” I responded, “Of course, Your Honor, it is my sworn duty to be fair and impartial, and to set aside any bias’s or prejudice’s that I might have.” I then added, “Your Honor, I would choose to remain on the jury if this Honorable Court deems it appropriate.” Judge LaMotte then overruled the defense’s objection, and I remained on the jury! Just think about the odds!
Back then, they used to pay for jurors’ meals, and we were escorted as a group to and from our lunches! After several days, we finally deliberated. I remember very heated debate, and even yelling during the deliberations. In fact, the judge even sent the bailiff in to check on us, because he thought the ruckus was a fight going on in the jury room! The group was evenly split over guilt or innocence. It was like the movie “Twelve Angry Men” (only there were six of us). I learned that you literally, and figuratively, never know what a case might turn on! In this case, it really came down to “how the knife turned.”
It was undisputed that the victim, a beautiful young married blonde woman, had been hitchhiking after an argument with her husband. She claimed that she was picked up by the defendant on Federal Highway near the Pompano Mall. He then allegedly held a large knife on her, between her legs, refusing to stop or let her out. She jumped out of the car while he was driving down the road. He was quickly apprehended, and charged with kidnaping, false imprisonment, and aggravated assault. The defense didn’t dispute she was in the car, but intimated that she was lying for any number of reasons.
On the witness stand the police officer testified that when he stopped the stand-out green colored Dodge Challenger that he first observed, in plain sight, the handle of a large knife protruding from underneath the driver’s front seat, right below the defendant! However, under cross examination, he admitted that in his police report he had actually written that he first saw the blade of the knife protruding from under the seat. Well, that discrepancy, and the fact that the victim appeared nervous while testifying, were all it took for half of the jury to find reasonable doubt. The police had even recovered the knife, which was in the evidence before us! The other half of us argued that a knife is a knife is a knife and that it didn’t make any difference which way the blade was pointing; that most victims would be nervous testifying in such a case; and that everything else fit, to no avail! The court instructed and reinstructed us numerous times, but we were hopelessly deadlocked! Finally, the Court entered a mistrial. We were given Certificates of Appreciation personally signed by the judge (which I think is a really nice touch). The clerk also gave us a card certifying our serving as a juror. I still have these in my scrap book!
Clearly, this case demonstrates the importance of knowing your case, of preparation, of asking the right questions, and of a professional image. The voir dire “hitchhiker” question was an excellent example of anticipating and thinking the case through from the outset. I would classify the question as “focused simplicity.” This question was essential, and prevented a clearly biased juror from being seated. This also provided the opportunity to give the jury early insight into the case. The defense’s cross-examination of the discrepancy concerning the position of the knife, as described by the officer’s testimony on the witness stand, and as contradicted in his written police report, further shows this importance. The officer’s confusion about the placement of the knife under the seat demonstrates the importance of getting the facts straight and of reviewing the case with your witnesses when possible (while this may not have been a legally sufficient reason to cast reasonable doubt, it certainly had that ultimate effect on half of the jury!). Years later, I asked “Big Al” if he remembered whatever happened to the defendant, and he said he thought he subsequently pled out.
If you ever get called as a juror, don’t miss the opportunity of the experience of a lifetime! Incidently, law enforcement officers are currently exempt from jury duty! Next month, the third, and final article about “Jury Trials,” which will discuss serving on a criminal felony jury as an attorney!