My Day in Court

Burt Prelutsky
|
Posted: Apr 03, 2009 12:01 AM
My Day in Court

Perhaps it’s because I was summoned for jury duty a few weeks ago that I have been hyper-aware of criminal matters lately. My attention was particularly grabbed by a couple of news items. The setting for the first was the small Colorado city of Fort Lupton. It’s there that Municipal Judge Paul Sacco has been making a name for himself by employing a Solomon-like sense of justice in dealing with young scofflaws.

Previously, when teenagers stood accused of blasting their car stereos or otherwise disturbing the peace and assaulting the ears of those residents whose taxes pay his salary, Judge Sacco was in the habit of levying fines. But one fine day, it occurred to him that the tickets weren’t changing anything. The parents would pay the $95, and the kids would continue their noisy ways. It was then that he came up with the brilliant idea of giving the offenders a dose of their own medicine. Ever since then, he has sentenced them to spend an entire hour on a Friday night in the courtroom listening to everything from Barry Manilow to Boy George, from Beethoven’s Ninth to Barney’s theme song.

As a result, noise offenses in Fort Lupton have dropped from 56 in 2007 to 20 in 2008. Even more telling, the recidivism rate is less than 5%.

I realize it’s probably too much to ask, but the next time there’s an opening on the Supreme Court, I hope that Judge Sacco makes the short list.

The other matter concerns the LAPD’s announcement the other day that they had finally arrested the mastermind behind the gang that had been dubbed the “Hillside Burglars.” Over the past few years, this guy and his crew had apparently committed more than 150 break-ins, absconding with over $10 million in cash and loot from the homes of Hollywood executives, celebrities and sports stars.

As I read the news, I couldn’t help thinking that if I were a lawyer hired to defend this guy in the current political climate, I’d try to convince the jury that he wasn’t really a thief, but that he was merely doing his part to help the government redistribute wealth.

Speaking of juries, there I was at the Burbank courthouse, identified as Juror 3343, waiting to undergo questioning during voir dire. I had arrived at the courthouse at 8 a.m. It was now seven hours later, during which time we potential jurors had been handed a sheet of paper with 15 questions to ponder. A few of the initial group of 40 or so had already been questioned and admitted they were related to police officers or lawyers, and, so far as I recall, they had been excused with thanks.

By the time it was my turn to be questioned, I was feeling self-conscious because I had a problem with three of the questions that nobody else had even mentioned. The judge cast what I regarded as a jaundiced eye in my direction, and asked me to explain myself.

The first of the three questions had to do with the presumption of innocence. I told Judge Lubell that, try as I might, I couldn’t quite accept the idea that it was just an accident that 40 of us in the room were potential jurors and one of us was the defendant. So while I was prepared to assume that the rest of us were innocent, I would have a much harder time believing it about the fellow sitting at the table next to a defense attorney. I did promise, though, to make a sincere effort if I wound up on the jury.

Next, I was asked if I was prepared to give equal weight to any witness giving testimony in the witness box. I confessed that I couldn’t in good faith make such a promise. “What if one of the witnesses is a priest,” I asked, “and another is a convicted drug dealer? Who in his right mind would give their sworn testimony equal weight?”

There was a third question, which slips my mind, but it was along similar lines, and like the other two, required that I leave my logic and commonsense sitting outside on the courtroom steps.

Finally, the defense attorney decided he’d take his turn at trying to crack this nut: “Well,” he said, “what if the prosecutor states in his opening remarks that he’s going to prove four points, but by the end of the trial he had, to your mind, only proven three of them? Would you then be able to vote for acquittal?”

“It’s impossible for me to play that theoretical game with you because I don’t know what those four points are or if they’d be of equal importance. Right now, the best I can do is suggest we wait for the end of the trial and see how it all plays out.”

Five seconds later, I was excused. I didn’t hear the judge say, “Thanks.”

Some of you probably think I gave those answers because I was trying to get out of doing my civic duty. Not so. I answered as I did because I was telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God. Which, I’m willing to wager, is more than the 12 people who wound up on the jury can say with a straight face.