Jach's personal blog

(Largely containing a mind-dump to myselves: past, present, and future)
Current favorite quote: "Supposedly smart people are weirdly ignorant of Bayes' Rule." William B Vogt, 2010

Jury Duty

I had the interesting experience to be called for jury duty this week. Well I was called last year but I was able to defer until this week. Since I was dismissed on Tuesday, I thought I'd write about some of the interesting things and some of the disturbing things.

It's important in any dealings with the government to not lie. If speaking the truth would be inconvenient, you should say nothing. Worst case then is that you enter a situation where you're compelled to speak, which is rare, and you can weigh the consequences of the truth vs. continuing to say nothing. This is much better than perjury.

I'm leading with that because most people don't actually want to be on a jury or even be in the jury selection process, me included. I think my time is best used elsewhere. However if you also prefer the outcome of getting dismissed over actually having to sit and deliberate, as I do, you have to make sure your reasons to make that case are truthful. If you're caught in a lie, not only is that bad for your own epistemic hygiene, you might face criminal charges if you lied under oath.

On Monday morning I went down to the courthouse, supposed to arrive before 8am. It's all the way over in Seattle, I live on the eastside. Everything about going to Seattle is distasteful to me. Driving is particularly stressful there so I took an Uber. On arrival you're asked if you drove or rode the bus, since they will give you bus credit or some minor mileage calculation for additional compensation beyond the ten dollars per day you get normally. They will not reimburse parking.

They started with a couple introduction videos. The first one was harmless enough, telling you about the process, but I was annoyed by it and further instances where a phrase or sentiment like "thank you for your willingness to serve!" was expressed. I'm annoyed because that implies I'm there entirely willingly, as if "I'm not actually willing to serve" was a valid excuse to just leave or ignore the summons in the first place. The second video was more disturbing, because it pedaled a bunch of nonsense around unconscious bias. It said the phrase "studies have shown" a few times without naming any studies. I'm fairly sure the studies around implicit bias have failed to replicate. To what extent they are related to "unconscious bias" I can't be sure, but there seemed to be a political agenda as well that rubbed me the wrong way. On the ground level, I probably agree with the predictable consequences of "unconscious bias exists" but I would never phrase it that way, I would merely say "everything has a prior probability".

After a while they read 100 names that would be going to be in the running for one case. We filled out an additional questionnaire that asked a few things like whether we would be faced with any undue hardship if asked to serve this case, which was estimated to take 3-4 weeks of May, and two other things I don't fully remember -- I think they were "do you have any conscious biases that would impair your ability to be a fair juror" and maybe "do you have any criminal history". I answered "no" to all three.

After another while we went up to the courtroom to meet the judge, lawyers, defendant, and the basic nature of the trial. (Defendant was accused of murder.) Since it was about 11:30AM at this time the judge dismissed the dozen or so of us "triple nos" until the next day, so that they could focus on the remaining group and see if they truly had undue hardship conflicts or not.

So yay, I was able to work for half of Monday at least, I had planned to be out the whole day, but now I had to unexpectedly be out Tuesday. And if I was selected for the final jury, I would basically be out from work the entirety of May. I resolved myself to not get attached to either outcome, but I would of course take opportunities to make clear the truth of my preference.

Tuesday I didn't have to arrive until 8:45AM, but that's not that much later for me. Another 50-60 or so potential jurors were selected to fill out those who must have been dismissed the other day, but we got back into the court a bit earlier (around 11). Today we started with a couple dozen yes/no questions relevant to the case. In retrospect I should have probably answered yes (or "maybe" which was signaled by yes) to the first question, but I might have misheard and didn't fully agree with the wording. Fortunately the second question was rather similar so I answered "yes" to it.

The first question was, ultimately, a question about whether we believed in jury nullification, which I do, but it was phrased (in my sleepy memory) something like "would you decide not to administer the law because you felt like it" which I honestly don't believe, I think I need a more convincing "feeling" that is transcendent to feelings, namely I would only nullify on account of my conscience, not "because I felt like it". Only one person in our group of over 100 people said yes. Fortunately the second question was similar, it was phrased something like "do you have any religious or philosophical principles that would hinder you in this case", which I and the other person both answered in the affirmative.

What followed for the rest of the day with a lunch in between (yay for Amazon Go) was some rather interesting interactive discussion between the lawyers of both sides and the potential jurors. We talked about how in a criminal trial like this one, the prosecution had the burden of proof to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt and that the jury must be unanimous in its decision. We talked about what was meant by evidence and reasonable doubt. We talked a lot about what makes a good juror, across a number of dimensions. The funniest was in one instance a woman said she didn't think she would make a good juror in this case because of its length, she was "distracted easily", found it "hard to focus for long durations of time", and had a need "to be constantly entertained". The most disturbing instance was that a jury must rely on its collective memory and note-taking, because they aren't allowed a copy of the court transcript. WTF?

The person who signaled in the first question his knowledge of nullification made a statement at some point around not wanting to be part of the process at all and have no part in potentially ruining the defendant's life, and that if he were on the jury then it would probably result in a hung jury even if everyone thought the defendant was guilty. He wasn't particularly eloquent and I had my own disagreements but I thought of the phrase "speak the truth even if your voice shakes". I was expecting the judge to chew him out, but she was very chill. Super chill -- e.g. the BB who needed constant entertainment was eventually dismissed at the end and couldn't resist a "yes" expression of relief, the judge had asked us to hold those back until the elevator doors were closed but didn't chew the BB out... And another juror had served before in Florida, said things were different, was asked what the biggest difference was and said "it was... faster". Judge not insulted. The whole courtroom had a number of laughs, maybe the judge was chill about it all because the case matter was so serious. Anyway the prosecution asked to dismiss the nullification guy for cause early, and away he went.

During this conversation I was able to signal most strongly my knowledge of nullification presenting an honest problem for the trial. In disagreement with my immediate neighbor in the bench seats, I think that a good juror must ultimately follow his or her conscience, even if the law is wrong and they have to go against the law. I invoked John Adams' sentiment (I think, I couldn't remember the quote) about ultimately this being the reason we have a jury system at all, that the People protect the People. The lawyers didn't followup too much but I had in mind the two sides of the sword of nullification as examples of its importance and dangers (jurors who refused to convict under the fugitive slave act those who helped runaway slaves, and jurors who refused to convict under more mundane charges like murder/torture/etc. some cruel slave owners even when the evidence was overwhelming). I also had in mind that I think maybe an inquisitorial system would be better, but if we're going to have our current system, juries being able to go against the law is important. Later on a simple question by the prosecution was asked that I could answer yes to which was who thought they wouldn't be a good juror for the prosecution.

They didn't ask me to elaborate but I'll do so here. In a murder trial like this one, if the defendant is guilty, the punishment is going to be severe. In some cases capital, but I discovered Washington state is just finalizing a ban on the death penalty as of 2018/2019. Even without the possibility of capital punishment being the sought sentence, though, I'm not sure my conscience would let me convict for life imprisonment. I would have to do some wrestling and I don't know what the outcome would be ahead of time, but there's a strong probability that I wouldn't convict even if I was convinced of the guilt. My philosophies are still rather non-violent and transhumanist at the core. While I'd also be uneasy about the defendant going free if I thought they were guilty, and would indeed feel sick if they killed again, I'd also feel sick if I was part of the group that sent him to prison to rot. My conscience might not let me take the action of being part of the process of sending him to prison for life. Not just because I'd feel sick about it, but of course feeling has to be a component somewhere.

If the maximum sentence were something like 20 years, or hell even 40 years, I might be able to do it. If the case were a different matter, the law not abhorrent (a hypothetical example abhorrent law would be it being illegal to swear at a cop), the probable sentencing not too harsh, I could administer the law and the prosecution wouldn't have to worry about nullification "because I felt like it". I'm no longer an anarchist, but even when I was I was not of the creative-destruction kind who would aim to undermine the law and civilization given any easy opportunity. (And in that case one would want to get on the jury and then nullify no matter the case for maximum damage to the system.)

Anyway this whole process has revealed a need for some more introspection about these issues. I am still confident that I could attentively listen in a trial and fairly reach a conclusion based on the facts presented (though I have misgivings about when certain evidence isn't deemed "admissible") but I am not confident that for a large class of cases and probable sentencing I would be able to follow through with a conviction even if I believed in factual guilt.

Other people were dismissed by the defense for some views that the people thought would make them biased and unable to start with a true presumption of innocence (namely beliefs about handguns or certain kinds of drugs). I think the prosecution also dismissed someone for their beliefs about cops that would bias their willingness to hear testimony.

Near the end of the day, there were if I recall correctly 14 potential jurors in the box (12 to be actual, 2 alternates). The prosecution and defense took turns dismissing individuals from the box, after which the next number from the bench would go to a hot seat in the box. I was number 80. My neighbor was put in the box, so I would have been next if anyone else was dismissed, but both sides accepted the box's contents and so we were done. The judge remarked I must have felt nervous, but I could only kinda shrug. I was maybe a little, but I also was fairly confident that the prosecution would have dismissed me if I made it to the box.

I looked up the news article about the murder event on Wednesday, since I was now free to look at it and discuss it after being dismissed. Yeah, it's going to be a tough case. I'm glad I don't have to wrestle with myself on it, and glad I don't have to sacrifice a month of work too. I hope the defendant gets a fair trial. I'll try to remember to update in a month after it's over and the result is publicized. I'll make a 40%-confidence prediction ahead of time that the defendant will be found not guilty beyond a reasonable doubt (or 60% he is found guilty).

Posted on 2019-04-20 by Jach

Tags: Anarchy, anti-anarchy, government, morality, non-violence, personal, philosophy


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