cns news & features
BY LATE SUMMER Roadcow and I are usually off on a quest for the perfect swimming hole, the perfect hot spring, the most awesome vista; but this August found Roadcow being used as a lowly commuter vehicle while I got a "civics lesson." It all started with something I found in my little P.O. box in Elk.
"Jury Duty Summons."
Damn. I hate it when that happens.
So, bright and early on a Monday morning Roadcow and I find ourselves heading over the hills to the seat of power in this county, the city of Ukiah. It is a beautiful 12th of August and autumn seems to be in the air.
As we clear the coastal ridge and head into the rising sun I see a column of smoke off in the distance. Tuning to the local public radio station I discover that I am looking at the smoke from a 300-acre forest fire north of Clearlake.
And then down. Down, and more down, into the steaming Ukiah valley, into the city and up State Street to the courthouse; the temperature already in the 90s.
I find a shady place to park Roadcow, and too-soon I find myself leaning against the wall of a lobby in the Mendocino County Court House with a bunch of other fellow mericans. We're on the third floor, Second Superior Court room, and jury selection is about to commence.
But no problem. I will plead my hardship: "Too far to travel and no income, your honor," and be out of there by noon, swing by McDonalds, grab an Arch Deluxe and be back in Elk by 3.
As the forest fire consumed more and more acres, the jury selection process consumed more and more mericans. I know. I was the first one seated and, after the judge rejected my hardship claim, there I sat for the next three days watching as the judge, prosecutor and defense interrogated over 150 of my fellow mericans, trying to select a jury of 12 and 2 alternates!
By the second week the forest fire was now known as the "Forks Fire" and was well over 10,000 acres in size. In the late afternoon, from the streets of Ukiah, it looked like the Saint Helens volcano was going off beyond the hills to the east. A borate bomber rattled the court house windows every half hour or so, heading back to the fire after reloading at the airport south of town.
IN THE COURT room a jury had finally been seated and the story started unfolding about a 36-year-old man and three young girls, two fourteen year olds and one who was eleven. A story about possible child molestation, dysfunctional families, people who lie, people who transport methamphetamines and carry concealed weapons; a story including witnesses in jail fatigues testifying for or against the defendant. Day after day we sit in the jury box and listen; each evening we are admonished by the judge to talk to no one about what we have heard. The fire is over 40,000 acres now.
The third week. The fire has now reached 80,000 acres but is being contained. The prosecutor and the defense lawyer present their closing arguments.
And thats it.
We file into the jury room and begin our deliberations. We the jury, men and women, young and old, we take our chairs and sift through the evidence photos, the love letter; we re-listen to the taped phone conversations. We commence taking straw votes, tally the results, talk about the results, talk some more and vote again. Gradually we work our way through the counts against the man. Count one, did he or did he not touch the first girl on the breast?
He lies. She lies. The mom lies. The witnesses lie. But do we believe, beyond a reasonable doubt, that he did it? We vote again and finally we all agree. Yes, he did it.
Count two. Did or did he not touch the second girl on the breast?
BY FRIDAY morning of the third week the fire is out and we, the jury, have found the defendant guilty of three counts of child molestation. No, he didnt rape them but he did touch them and, according to the law, that is child molestation.
We file back into the court room. The judge asks if we have reached a decision. Our jury foreman announces that we have and hands over the results. The judge has the court clerk read the results. The judge excuses us. We are free to go back home and get on with our lives. The defendant goes to jail.
Saturday morning I see a short article in the Ukiah Daily Journal that mentions the trial and points out, that under Californias three strikes law, the defendant is looking at 15 years to life for each felony count. He could therefore be sentenced to consecutive jail time of 45 years to life! The judge will announce the sentence September 29th.
Im glad my jury duty is over. Although we in the jury had to, and did, follow the instructions of the law, the end results make me sick. I do not believe the punishment will fit the crime.
Roadcow is back on the road again. The "Forks Fire" is out but "Three Strikes" is on a roll.
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