I’m in the middle of reenacting 12 Angry Men. Sort of.
I just got back from two days of jury duty. Very standard stuff.
I spent some time thinking about witnesses (yes, again). And listening to people talk about things that had happened to them (or did not happen) that might have some relevance to the proceedings. Listening to potential jurors fail miserably at communicating their life experience.
The failure happens in a staggering amount of ways. The potentials were afflicted with inane blathering, vocabulary deficits, inattention, and an inability to parse what is being asked of them.
In one sense, it’s comical. Simple questions like “you work for X, what is it that you do?” result in hemming and hawing or seemingly endless streams of nonsense. In a large group of diverse people, very few of them could articulate clear, concise answers. In a timely manner. Without needless verbal divergences.
When I wasn’t chuckling about it, I was crying inside for my lost days and trying not to get agitated or shout out some helpful prodding.
The case was an almost ridiculous stereotype of a personal injury car accident case. Each potential juror was asked about their history with car accidents (as well as other things) and to describe those experiences briefly. For many people with such histories, it was difficult for them to (a) remember much more than a vague idea of what happened and (b) to communicate what happened so that a listener could see the incident in his mind’s eye.
On numerous occasions, someone would recall an incident half an hour after their initial questioning. “Oh, pardon me, but I forgot that I was in a five car pileup and broke my leg in September of 2008.” “Sorry, I forgot to mention that my father was a Sheriff for 40 years.” “When you asked if I had ever been to a chiropractor, did you mean in the last five years or would the one I saw 15 years ago for 3 years count, because if that counts….I guess I should have mentioned it when you asked before?”
It is a curious look into just how the mind misbehaves.
Similarly, in a case where the car accident occurred 8 years ago and some depositions occurred 2 years ago, the testimony of everyone involved fails to be consistent at least a few times from start to finish.
I did not get a feeling these people were lying. Most of these details were not even relevant. They simply recall it the way they recall it. They are being tasked with remembering the specifics of a traumatic event from long ago.
Most people are simply not aware of what they are doing at a given time. Yes, driving, certainly…..but, what was the radio station, how fast EXACTLY were you going, what was your first reaction, how many other cars were on the road, how far behind the next car were you, how many people were walking down the sidewalk, etc.
We do much of our activity in an autopilot state. Specifically, things we do often (I can never remember if I shut the damn garage door, it is just part of the preprogrammed departure routine – my conscious mind is not involved). Then, there is the shock of the event. The mind holds snapshots of very specific parts of the event, but it is often a jumbled mess. Finally, there is the aftermath. Immediately afterward, physiological and emotional reactions muddle clear thinking. As the incident flows backward on your timeline, perspective changes, people influence (whether intentionally or not) and “logic” fills in gaps.
What you end up with is a number of people who can’t reconcile their stories with one another. For the most part, none of them are intentionally misrepresenting themselves. This is the reality as they know it.
I am not discounting witnesses as wholly unreliable, but as an outside observer, I must take care to dissect them and interpret them. Creating a solid case entails finding as much objective evidence as possible. Finding corroborating subjective evidence – preferably from people who have no relation and have nothing invested in the outcome.
The jury process is no less absurd at times. Twelve people must find it in themselves to take this seriously, to rationally consider what transpired in the courtroom and to put aside their desire to go home and hash this out respectably for as long as it takes to come to a decision.
Every one of the twelve has a unique view on the proceedings. What they must do, however, is take the judge’s written instructions and follow them. You can not know what you do not know. Take the definitions of things such as “negligence” as they are presented to you, not as you prefer to consider it in your life. Claims must be proved with evidence.
We all think we know what happened. Right or wrong, that has no real bearing on the outcome. Did the plaintiff’s attorney prove the necessary points or not?
Real, solid evidential proof is a hard nut to get at. Don’t fool yourself into thinking otherwise.
The judge’s instructions included using “common sense”. I laughed. As a defendant, nothing would frighten me more than having the sense of the commons wielded against me.