Anatomy of a murder trial

At Book View Cafe, an interesting post on an actual murder trial, posted by Diana Pharaoh Francis.

This is the sort of thing that I kind of like to know just in case it comes up somehow in a future book. Categorize it under How Things Work as well as human interest.

One thing I should have realized but didn’t, was that when there was a major objection, the jury was excused to the jury room and the point was argued (very politely) until the judge ruled on whatever it was. Could this evidence be allowed in? Was that person qualified to say what he was saying? That sort of thing. Once the judge ruled, the jury returned and things went on. If the objection was upheld, then the jury never heard that information. It couldn’t therefore be prejudicial, and the jury couldn’t decide that they didn’t like the prosecutor or defense because of that objection. Totally makes sense, but of course, TV always has them in the room with the judge telling the jury to disregard whatever was said.

See, that is the kind of thing about which television would mislead you. Isn’t it interesting to know how it really works?

I’ve never been called for jury duty. I don’t know why, it’s just never happened. If I were called, I would almost like to participate despite the disruption to my life, just so I would see the trial and the jury process and everything.

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10 thoughts on “Anatomy of a murder trial”

  1. I did sit juror on a murder trial once. It gave me nightmares. And what I remember isn’t what the post describes exactly, probably local differences.

    Francis, as a member of the audience may get more information than we did. We NEVER found out why we were sent out for (sometimes) hours. I went through a lot of books over the three months the trial too.

    We weren’t allowed to take notes which made it hard to follow. The lawyers seemed to be calling witnesses as they could come in instead of in an order designed to tell the story they wanted. So it was all a huge puzzle.

    The lawyers were indeed very polite in court and seemed friendly outside it, too.

    The hardest part was the order not to talk about the case at all. I discovered I seem to think either aloud or in writing. It was hard to keep quiet.

    The blood splatter analysis guy was fascinating to listen to.

  2. The explanation we got about the no notetaking, was they wanted us to just use the official court transcript for everything, not work off our own notes which might have errors and certainly weren’t official.

    But the trial took 3 months! That’s a long time to keep important evidence in mind. Especially when the story wasn’t being presented in all that coherent a manner.

    BTW we found him guilty, but didn’t give him the death sentence. The guilty finding meant another round of jury-ing, for the penalty. And still no notetaking.

  3. s they wanted us to just use the official court transcript for everything

    Then they would have sent you home when it was complete. They obviously wanted you to rely on even more faulty memory.

  4. We did have the option, and used it, of asking to have a look at the transcripts. But we couldn’t actually see them, the court reporter had to read the section we wanted aloud.

    I would much rather have had printouts to pour over. (This was years ago, late 80s, I think. no e-document possible.) I have no idea what is done now, I’ve begged off from jury duty due to family issues when they’ve called in recent years.

    We did our best with what we had.

  5. I was an alternate juror on a dubious civil case when I was in college, so I sat through the trial, but did not participate in the outcome. My case wasn’t life or death, thankfully, because it was a dreadful experience that left me with zero confidence with people in general.

    The case was about a young NYC cop who was suing the MTA (they run the public transportation) because one winter almost 10 years previous he was chasing a perp up an outdoor staircase to an elevated train, at night, then slipped & fell, messing up his knee, thereby ending his career chasing perps. Said there was ice on the steps.

    (I take 4 buses or trains each day I’ve commuted to school or work or anywhere and have since I was in kindergarten. I live at an elevated train stop. Let’s imagine statistically how many times I’ve been the one tripping on the stairs!)

    Even though there wasn’t any way to prove the existence or non-existence of ice at that place and time 10 years previous, (and I don’t know why it wasn’t settled out of court in the first place) the City did an utterly abysmal job of even trying to pretend to defend itself. The incompetence was disheartening.

    But worse: the other jurors. Every lunch period they all went to go get drunk. One in particular would then fall asleep in court resulting in loud snoring (which the plaintiff found highly amusing. I was very not amused.) The judge herself fell asleep from boredom more than once too! The lawyers just kept on keeping on.

    The trial took over 2 weeks. In the jury room there was no talk at all about the case. They just wanted to go home and/or get drunk and had decided the very first day to just pay out when the time came. I am so glad, as an alternate, that I did not have to be part of the whole farce.

    Intellectually, I know that surely there are honest and competent jurors out there on real cases that make hard decisions, but this terrible experience inspired no confidence.

  6. I’m with Mary. I’d have been all, “My long-term memory is crippled due to my suffering from the biological condition of being human. I must take notes.”

    Macsbrains … ooooh that is super disheartening. I do not exactly want to be called for jury duty, much less sit through a trial, especially not one which would give me nightmares … but I do hope that if it ever happens, the other jurors are nothing like that.

  7. I just finished a jury stint yesterday afternoon (for a DUI case), so it is all fresh in my memory. We weren’t sent out of the room when the judge “sidebared” with the lawyers, but we were encouraged to stand up and talk and make lots of noise to help us not hear what they were talking about. We weren’t allowed to take notes, but the judge told us afterwards that for a long trial with lots of difficult details (like medical malpractice) he allows us. I found my fellow jurors keen as all get out–all of us remembered tons of small details and inconsistences and gave it our full attention. In my case, we found the defendant not guilty, because the police office had co-opted at 15 year old in the car to translate the instructions for the field sobriety test, since the defendant only spoke Spanish, and her testimony made it clear to all of us that she was almost certainly not capable of doing so (both because her own English was limited, and because it is a hard translation–we fortnuatly had native Spanish speakers on the jury who were able to tell us that “walk heel to toe,” for instance, is very challenging to say in Spanish. It was very interesting, but emotionally draining, and State Troopers are intimidating.

  8. Charlotte, I am happy to see that your experience with both fellow jurors and the judge was better. That’s reassuring … though I do wonder what proportion of people experience a trial of your sort and how many the terrible, incompetent type of trial that Macsbrains observed.

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