Jury duty, while sometimes an inconvenience, is a civic responsibility that should be experienced by every U.S. citizen at least once. Over the years, I have received five jury summons, of which I was excused from one because of a medical problem. Of the other four, I was selected for the jury three times, which came as a huge surprise, as I was a newspaper editor. Representing a newspaper usually was an automatic excuse because of a newspaper’s probability of reporting on the court’s activities.
My first turn at jury duty was at Superior Court in Vista when I was employed by the Daily Times-Advocate. The other two turns came when I was employed by the San Diego Union- Tribune, the first in San Diego Superior Court; the second in San Diego Federal Court. The one big difference was that Federal Court paid $40 a day; Superior Court $5 a day. What a difference! But, I was fortunate. Both of my employers paid my full salary while on jury duty regardless of the jury pay. And I got to keep the jury pay.
What goes on in deliberations after the jury receives the case is known only to those jurors in the deliberation room; at least until the trial has ended. Some of those discussions can be extraordinary. And I want to share with you the remembrances of the deliberations of two of those trials.
The first jury to which I was selected, at Vista Superior Court, was a civil case, in which an Escondido doctor was being sued for malpractice by a young man and his mother. While the young man was undergoing an operation at Palomar Hospital, his left leg slipped off the operating table. The doctor instructed an assisting nurse to replace the young man’s leg and strap it to the table, of which both the table and the young man were covered by a sheet.
When the nurse strapped the young man’s leg to the table, she allegedly strapped it too tight, supposedly causing some nerve damage, thus the reason for the malpractice suit. While it apparently seemed to be the fault of the nurse, rather than the doctor, the jurors were told that for some reason the suit was filed too late to implicate the hospital and the nurse, who was covered by the hospital’s liability insurance. Therefore, the mother sued the operating doctor.
The jury selection had started on a Monday, and testimony was held the next four days, ending about 4:30 p.m. Friday. On the previous four days, the judge ended each day at 5 o’clock, sending the jurors home. On that particular Friday, with the trial ending and about a half-hour until 5 p.m., and after the judge’s instructions to the jurors, he told us that he had to leave for San Diego about 5 p.m.. that we would be excused then to return Monday morning to continue deliberations.
Here, we had been in session five days, a half hour left to begin deliberations and the prospect of having to return the following Monday. (Maybe the county was too cheap to have to buy us dinner if we deliberated beyond 5 o’clock.) I know that I thought to myself: There’s no way I want to come back Monday. Perhaps some of the other jurors felt the same way. Because we had reached a decision, in favor of the doctor, in 20 minutes! It was obvious to the jurors that the doctor was not a fault; it was the fault of the nurse.
When the bailiff answered our knock on the jury-room door, he could hardly believe that we had reached a decision in such a short time. By this time, the presiding judge had left for San Diego and the prosecuting attorney had left the court house. Another judge had to be summoned to hear the verdict and the attorney had to be located.
I know that everyone is due his day in court, but here was an example of a frivolous lawsuit that wasted the time of the jurors and cost the county an untold amount of money, let alone mar the reputation of an innocent doctor. What a monumental waste.
And the real kicker: A few weeks later, and by pure coincidence, I saw that same young man, who had brought the malpractice suit, at the mall – walking normally.
The trial in which I was a juror at San Diego federal court was a criminal case, in which a Mexican national was charged with two counts involving marijuana. He was charged with knowingly transporting marijuana and with the intent to sell. He was the driver of a truck and semi-trailer coming through the port of Tecate transporting a load of large Mexican pottery to a Los Angeles outlet. He had pleaded not guilty to both charges, and needed an interpreter, as he spoke limited or no English.
On the day his truck was stopped for inspection by the Border Patrol on the U.S. side of Tecate, a drug-sniffing dog became aggravated as it and its handler circled the truck. On a first inspection, the Border Patrol agents found nothing suspicious inside the truck cab or inside the pottery-laden semi. But they measured the length of the trailer in the interior and the exterior. The exterior of the trailer was four feet longer than the interior, indicating a hidden compartment. Agents drilled through the rear wall of the interior and found a green substance on the end of the drill, which proved to be a marijuana cache in the hidden compartment.
During deliberations on the first count of knowingly transporting marijuana, we were deadlocked 11-1 (the jury had to be unanimous for a verdict) for conviction and had notified the judge twice that we couldn’t reach a verdict. We were instructed to continue deliberations We couldn’t convince the hold-out juror to change her mind. She had admitted during our discussions that she held some animosity for the Border Patrol over some previous confrontation, that she didn’t explain.
We had not even begun to discuss the second charge of intent to sell. We finally reached an agreement for her to vote guilty on count one. In return for her vote to make it unanimous for conviction, all of us agreed to vote not guilty on count two – without even discussing it. It was a trade-off in a jury deliberation room for one juror’s vote.
Ron Kenney was a reporter and editor for the former Daily Times-Advocate from 1952 to 1979 and was a copy editor on the editorial pages of the San Diego Union-Tribune from 1985 to 1997.