Respect for the Criminal Trial Process

In a departure from my usual focus on startups, I thought I would take a moment to reflect on my most recent experience in jury duty.

I was selected as one of twelve jurors for a murder trial against a defendant who was accused of beating up his girlfriend and throwing her out of her apartment window in San Francisco in 2005. After an intense 2 week trial and jury deliberation, we today found the defendant guilty. His punishment is still to be determined.

This was my first experience with jury duty and the criminal trial process and I must say I was impressed with the court proceedings and the overall fairness of the trial. I've included my specific thoughts on the jury selection process, the burden of proof standard, and the trial timeline.

Jury Selection
Probably the longest aspect of the entire trial was jury selection. Judge Kevin McCarthy mentioned that for this trial they tried to put together a jury four times prior to finally assembling one. The issue was that this case was projected to take up to four weeks and many potential jurors filed for hardship which allowed them to postpone their service and potentially serve on another case.

After a large enough pool of potential jurors was found that did not file for hardship, the Voir dire process began, which allowed both the prosecution and defense to examine the potential jurors and object to any that may have clear biases or additionally reject any juror for any reason at all (up to 20 times). I was impressed with how they systematically removed anyone with any potential bias that might effect this case. Since this case involved an African American, a victim who suffered from bipolar disease, a substance abuser, and occurred in the Tenderloin, anyone who was found to be biased against African Americans, had personal experience or a close relationship with someone who had bipolar disease, had personal experience with substance abusers, or currently lived in the Tenderloin were all ruled out.

Despite the motley crew that initially showed up to jury duty, I was happy to see that the final jury selected appeared educated, fair, unbiased, and very reasonable.

Burden of Proof
In a criminal trial, the burden of proof standard requires that the jury find the defendant innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. The judge carefully defined the "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard on multiple occasions to ensure we understood that it was not beyond all doubt, since nothing can ever be beyond all doubt, but instead the evidence left us with an "abiding conviction" that the defendant committed the crimes he was accused of. We had lots of discussions during the case and during jury deliberation specifically about this burden of proof to ensure we all understood and stuck to this standard.

In the end we convicted the defendant not based on direct evidence (for which there was none), but instead based on circumstantial evidence that painted a very clear story of what happened. This evidence included witness testimony from neighbors, DNA evidence, autopsy expert testimony, victim's daughter's testimony, a proven pattern of domestic violence, etc.

I'm glad the burden of proof standard exists to ensure avoiding wrongful convictions and that the process was fully followed throughout the trial to ensure a very fair process.

Trial Timeline
The one aspect of the trial that was very frustrating was the trial timeline. The murder occurred Nov 4, 2005 and only today on May 13, 2009 was the defendant tried and convicted of murder. That is nearly 4 years after the crime was committed! And during the first year, the defendant was at large. While I understand they couldn't keep the defendant under arrest without sufficient evidence, it was unclear the police were expending significant resources to both put this evidence together or try him. At the same time, if he had been innocent, he spent a long time behind bars without being tried. Throughout the trial it appeared this case wasn't top priority for the police and mistakes were made throughout, which is extremely saddening.

Overall I definitely saw this as an interesting opportunity to get first hand experience into our criminal trial process and come out of it both respecting our system and better informed.

And now back to our regularly scheduled startup discussions :)
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