Monday, December 1, 2014

I, The Jury: The Case of the Library Urinator

Juror No. 11, Mr. Gray
I've always wanted to sit on a criminal jury. I think I'd be the perfect juror: skeptical of everyone, willing to consider all possibilities, but not hesitant to convict. Prosecutors always disagree, which is why until last week, though I've been called to serve many times, I never made it to the final 12.

In the case of the People vs. Aton Cole, I finally got my chance to serve as Justice, Personified. I was Juror No. 11, a terrific seat in the San Francisco Superior Court Room 321, because it's right in line with both attorney's desks. I got chills in my spine with the legal tableaux right in front of me: the prosecutor, the defense attorney, the defendant, lined up, looking right next to me, judging the reactions of a potential fellow juror.

Yes, I was in the best seat possible for The Case of the Library Urinator.

Akira Kurosawa showed us that there are many versions to any story. Normally, I'd be writing about the life and times of defendant Aton Cole, and how he managed to get busted in the San Francisco main library with $4600 in sequentially marked bills. But I don't really know his story; I only know mine.

Monday, I was blind-tasting wine in St. Helena, serving as a jury of one for an upcoming Wine Searcher story. Tuesday morning, I answered the call of justice to the courthouse and was quickly assigned to Judge Jeffrey S. Ross' courtroom.

Ross, a former president of the Bar Association of San Francisco, didn't seem to have any relevant experience. I got this from his former law firm's website on a post celebrating his appointment as a judge by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger: 

He has defended criminal cases running the gamut from environmental, false claims, tax fraud, RICO, grand theft and murder. Ross has argued successfully before the California Supreme Court and the California Courts of Appeal in precedent-setting cases involving unfair business practices, First Amendment rights and the California Constitution. 
I don't see anything in there about public urination cases. Maybe that's why Judge Ross had a stack of law books behind him on the bench and told us that his decisions would be based on them. In fact, several times Judge Ross cited the Penal Code. I believe in this case, the code is Keep Your Penis To Yourself, or wind up in the crosshairs of justice like Aton Cole.

Room 321 has a floor-to-ceiling unbreakable glass barrier separating the principals in the case from the audience. Given the nature of the case, I'm sure many of the 90 or so citizens called as potential jurors felt safer for it.

But quickly I was on the action side, as I was summoned to take seat No. 24.

Here's how jury selection works in San Francisco. Names are picked randomly to fill seats 1-12, the comfy reclining seats that the actual jury will sit in, and seats 13-24, uncomfortable seats against the glass wall.

Some -- many -- of those first 24 jurors will be dismissed, either by the judge or by the attorneys. The remainder move up into empty seats, and more potential jurors are summoned to be questioned.

The judge dismisses some jurors for cause, like the unbearable woman who wouldn't stop talking about how wrong the criminal justice system is, even when it wasn't her turn, and how she could never vote to convict anyone of anything, period. She's a program manager at City College, no surprise for people who have been following the story of that school losing its accreditation.

The attorneys each get a number of "peremptory challenges." This means they can just dismiss anyone they don't like. Generally, the prosecutor will dismiss liberals, and the defense attorney will dismiss law-and-order types.

The judge asks you a series of simple questions: name, marital status, children or not, occupation. If any of those questions bring up interesting points, he follows up. We had a few attorneys on the panel and he asked about their background.

I said, "I am a journalist," and in answer to the judge's questions, said that while I primarily write now about food and wine, I had spent parts of the first two years of my career covering criminal courts in Florida. He said the attorneys would follow up on that.

Usually that's enough to get me excused. As a fledgling journalist, I got called for jury duty to a court I occasionally covered. The judge, an old-Florida guy named Buddy, took off his glasses, peered out at me and said, "Blake? Is that you? What are you doing here?" I said, "Jury duty, your honor." He waved his hand and said, "You go home." And I did. That was the fastest I've been dismissed, but until last week it always went essentially like that.

This time, though, neither attorney bothered to ask more about it. In fact, they paid little attention to me at all. I think because I had seat 24, neither took seriously the possibility that I would end up in the jury box. It's all sequential: for me to be one of the 12 jurors, half the people in front of me would have to be dismissed.

As I heard some details of the case, I took out a notebook and started taking notes. Why not? The judge could see me and he didn't disallow it. And the more I heard, the more I realized I would write this blog post.

Quickly we learned that the case was a misdemeanor involving urinating on library books and causing more than $400 worth of damage. I don't think many of my fellow potential jurors realized that State Proposition 47, passed in November, would likely mean no jail time for this misdemeanor. We all realized that a trial expected to last 5-6 days at public expense was a lot of fuss over a little urine.

Then the defense attorney said, "What if you learned he had done this before? How would you feel about that?"

Jury service is a fascinating opportunity to hear deeply felt beliefs from people you wouldn't ordinarily talk to. This is San Francisco: the great majority of them were, to me, strikingly left-wing.

Two potential jurors said that urinating on public buildings is part of living in San Francisco. Several said they thought it was a mental health issue, and shouldn't be prosecuted. One woman said she had three brothers with drug problems, and they'd been to jail, and they didn't belong in jail, so how could this man?

The woman next to me, when asked her marital status, said she was going through a nasty divorce in this courthouse involving domestic violence. We didn't have any conversation until, as another potential juror pontificated about how only a mentally ill person would pee on library books, she turned to me and said, "No, I've done that." And smiled.

What struck me among the first 24 potential jurors is that no one spoke up for books. One man said he could see graffiti on a wall as having criminal intent. "But with urinating in the library, there's no intent," he said. "Maybe somebody pissed him off so much. Or sometimes you just have to go."

This is how I ended up on this jury. I was only asked a couple of questions, but I gave both attorneys something to hope on.

After revealing that we would hear that Mr. Cole had done this before, the defense attorney found a few people who thought that would have a bearing on their judgment. He turned to me and said, "What do you think, 24, Mr., uh, Gray? You're taking notes. Are you paying attention?"

"Oh yes, this is very entertaining," I said.

"What do you think?"

"Every incident is individual," I said. That was the last question he asked me.

The prosecutor wanted to explain the meaning of circumstantial evidence to us. He asked, "My cousin likes to eat cookies. What if I leave a plate of cookies in front of him, and leave the room, and come back and the cookies are gone?" A number of potential jurors said that didn't mean anything. Somebody else could have eaten the cookies. He could have flushed them down the toilet. He said, "What if I come back and the cookies are gone, he has crumbs on his mouth, and he's clutching his stomach like he has a stomachache?" The first woman he asked said that still didn't prove he ate the cookies. He said, "Mr. Gray, what do you think?" I said, "Your cousin is guilty as hell!"

After the first round of peremptory challenges, I moved into seat No. 11. The defendant is black. There were very few black people among the potential jury pool, and the only one randomly chosen all day, a woman dressed in all black, wearing black leather gloves, was seated next to me at No. 12.

Stereotypically, you'd think a black defendant would want a black juror. Not in this case. She sat ramrod straight, on the front of her chair, trembling slightly at times with what I eventually realized was anger.

Of all 37 potential jurors questioned, she was the only one who spoke up for public property. She spoke with eloquent outrage about why urinating on public property is a problem. She said she has a broken mirror on her car that she hasn't been able to fix because of vandalism. She truly sat in judgment. The defendant couldn't meet her eye and stared straight ahead. The judge eventually dismissed her for cause.

I liked her, and realized I'd rather end up debating the charge with her than with several more liberal people who didn't seem to understand the role of juries. Two men said they couldn't give a verdict without knowing what the sentence would be. (This isn't the job of the jury, though the jury can give a recommendation in death penalty trials. I do not believe the prosecution was seeking the death penalty here.)

When I eventually ended up in seat No. 11, the prosecutor stared at me several times. He had peremptory challenges left. I kept expecting him to say, "The people thank and dismiss ..." But he didn't. I was so excited to be on the final panel, I gave a thumbs-up to a guy in the back I'd met during the lunch break, and slapped the shoulder of the college student empaneled next to me. "You're so lucky," I said. "I've always wanted to be on a jury, but never until today!" Even the defendant smiled at me.

We started right away. The prosecutor called it a simple case: Cole peed on the books, and they cost more than $3000 to replace.

Aton Cole
The defense attorney called his client a "weird, strange man." It seemed true. Cole was wearing a cheap green long-sleeve shirt that looked right out of the Salvation Army store, and he came back from the lunch break with his fly open. Penal Code violation, right in the courtroom! The defense attorney also said we would learn that "there was no intent" in the case.

The first witness was a guy who had worked 20 hours a week in San Francisco's main public library for 9 years. He also had just started a side job teaching freshman English at a community college. One naughty fact that came out in testimony is that instead of doing his library job on the 4th floor, he was down on the 3rd floor researching how to grade papers (there are books for that, apparently), when he heard what sounded like somebody peeing.

We were treated to an in-depth description of the urine: where it was concentrated, how it pooled. We were shown a picture of three rows of books with police tape around them. Crime scene!

Oh, I forgot: the prosecutor asked potential jurors if they would be upset if they didn't hear the kind of scientific evidence that they see on television. One man said he would be: that he didn't understand how they could make this case without DNA evidence. That guy didn't make the jury, because apparently, nobody tested the DNA of the pee.

What I regret is that we didn't learn which books had been peed on. We did learn that this happened near the African-American study center. And we learned that Mr. Cole had been banned from the library a month before because he was caught peeing on a wall and carpet.

We also learned the main library has a holding cell: who knew? You better think twice about keeping books past their due date. Then we recessed for the day.

And that was it for my time as a juror: less than an hour, total. The next day, we came back to court and waited outside the courtroom for an hour until Judge Ross told us the defendant had a health issue and the trial had to be suspended. The judge said it wouldn't be fair to keep us empaneled until the trial could restart, so he was releasing us from service.

I saw the prosecutor outside the courtroom and asked if I could ask him a question. Knowing I had time for only one, I asked, "How did this case end up in criminal court? I know it's our job to judge guilty or not guilty, but still, how did this get to trial?"

He said, "We offered various things, community service, other things. The defendant said no to all that. This wasn't a case where it was a mental health issue. So we didn't have a choice, we brought it to trial." Then he excused himself to return to court.

This often happened when I did cover courts: You get one shot at a question. (TV people drove me nuts by asking, "Do you have any comment?" The easy answer is "No.") I was rusty; I blew it. I now realize I should have asked, "Was Mr. Cole in custody, and is he still?"

Cole skipped his arraignment way back in October 2013.* The court issued a warrant, and he was arrested Oct. 31 of this year. Getting all the way to trial by Nov. 25 was pretty fast. If he wasn't in custody -- and the root charge is a misdemeanor -- I wonder if he simply skipped out, and the judge didn't want to admit it so he said he was sick.

* It's illegal for a sitting juror to research a case. To be clear, I looked all this up after we were dismissed.

I'm left thinking about the nature of the charge. It's a piddly little charge, misdemeanor vandalism, to take up the court's time and money. But on the other hand, can we allow people to pee on library books without consequences?

As for how I would have voted, I'll never know because I didn't hear enough of the case. Only one witness spoke and it seemed that nobody actually saw the urination in action. If the defense was going to argue that maybe somebody else did it, I don't know how I would have voted. But it sounded from the opening statement, and from his line of cross-examination, that the defense attorney had a different, more exotic argument planned. I would love for the defense attorney to have expanded on how one pees without intent.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled blogging. Coming up: I, The Jury: The Case of the Napa Valley Merlot.

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Unknown said...

Merlot? I'd prefer more urine please. :-P

SteveinOakland said...

Nice post Blake. Reminds me of when my wife and I almost made the same jury panel. We were both in the final 12, but the prosecutor dropped charges just before we were to complete pre trial dismissals.