The criminal justice system in the United States seems to be founded on constraints. Who can get selected to serve on a jury. When the defendant can speak. Who can ask questions, and how those questions must be worded to be allowed in the courtroom. There are also the presumptions—the defendant is innocent until proven guilty, the jurors are presumed to be impartial, the judge is also presumed to be a fair referee in the battle between the opposing sides. Above all it is expected that justice will prevail. But nobody in the average criminal trial defines “justice,” even as they go to pains to map out the boundaries of “reasonable doubt.”
One of the constraints we faced in this trial was that we were not privy to any of the pretrial motions—by definition if an attorney is seeking to exclude evidence on the grounds it would predispose the jury to one side or the other, we cannot know the motion occurred. I suppose in a more metropolitan or populated area ducking the coverage of a trial would be more of a challenge, but in Walla Walla, there has been scarcely a peep about Skyler Glasby or Stephanie Adele leading up to or during the two-day trial. With only the evidence from people’s testimony and four exhibits from the trial in front of us, we looked to the closing arguments for some new revelation that would help us decide who was driving the car during a hit and run earlier this year.
No such revelations came to us.
First April King, the woman who looks like Lisa Simpson’s Human Counterpart, stood in front of us and asked us who the “real” liar in the courtroom was. Was it the convicted forger, Mr. Glasby, or was it the scared 19-year-old, Ms. Adele? LSHC looked right at the jury box and said, “Stephanie Adele doesn’t have the chops to lie to you. She could barely speak above a whisper. She couldn’t even lie to the Milton-Freewater police for two minutes. Stephanie Adele doesn’t have the chops to drive 90mph through residential streets in College Place.”
LSHC said “have the chops” so many times I literally started thinking about pork chops and lamb chops. And then I thought about rosemary and mint jelly. I needed a Judge White stretch before my stomach started grumbling. Refocus, refocus, Maroon, I told myself. But seriously, is there a more Walla Walla version of “balls” than this? It was like watching the trial in To Kill a Mockingbird. Gosh, Spot, I’m not sure this young lady has the chops to drive like that. LSHC went on to say that it wasn’t Ms. Adele who had the motive to flee the police that evening, it was Skyler, the man with two warrants. She didn’t have motive, and she didn’t have THOSE FREAKING CHOPS, PEOPLE.
It was the defense’s turn next. Skyler wore the same mis-sized shirt and tie as the day before, but everyone else had changed outfits. True to form, Downtown Julie Brown argued that the state hadn’t proved its case that he was the driver that night. We didn’t have the video evidence, which her client really wished we had. (Which made me think of that line in The Shawshank Redemption when Tim Robbins tells the judge no, it’s really inconvenient that they didn’t find the “real” man who murdered his wife.) This was super inconvenient, too. There was no evidence in the car, DJB continued, to point to the defendant as the driver. It was his word against Stephanie’s. And by the way, Stephanie definitely had the chops to drive the car and elude police. We don’t need to know why she was scared, we shouldn’t assume she had no motive. Regardless, there is plenty of reasonable doubt here in this case, and we should vote not guilty on all three counts against Skyler Glasby. And then she sat down, satisfied. And we never even got any accordion music. I thought that accordion music was Downtown Julie Brown’s thang.
The judge turned to us and gave us another stretch break. I didn’t want to stretch. I wanted to know more about the darn case. I couldn’t believe that was the sum of it. It was like the state was using tax money to settle a teenager’s argument. With all of the posturing over state and county budgets—they are next to sending out memos in the county building where I work to ask us to use less toilet paper—we were supposed to take time and money to decided this case? Over a mailbox? If Grumpy was the one with a gun, where was he? Who was Stretch? I had a million questions, but soon enough our muscle stretching time was over. It was time to hear the instructions from the judge. There were twenty of them. I wrote them all down but I wasn’t allowed to keep my notes, so here are the broad strokes:
- Reasonable doubt was defined for us
- The elements of the crime for each charge were laid out for us (eluding police, driving with a suspended/revoked license, hit-and-run)
- Someone doesn’t need to know a particular activity is illegal for them to be charged with a crime (“I thought 25mph was just a suggestion!”)
- We may only consider evidence entered into trial via testimony or exhibits that were admitted
- May not consider the potential sentencing into our decision, except to remind ourselves that our decision is important
- If we find the defendant guilty of the first charge, we also must decide on a special verdict of threatening an individual, but if we find him not guilty, we can skip the special verdict
- We must elect a presiding juror to sign the verdict sheet and manage the deliberation
The judge turned to Barb, the alternate juror, who had watched the whole trial along with us.
“You are free to go,” he said to her. “You may not speak about this trial nor how you would vote, until the verdict is read to the court.”
Barb was a small woman, older, with stylish but thick glasses and a well-loved flower print purse always at arm’s reach. She frowned, and I knew from earlier conversations during breaks with her that she really really wanted to deliberate with us. She wasn’t going to give up the ghost happily.
“Your Honor, may I stay in the gallery?”
“I want to know the verdict!”
He flashed her a quick smile, making the corners of his goatee reach into his cheeks a little.
“They may be in there for ten minutes or ten hours. You could be waiting a while.”
“I know.” I was pretty sure Barb had a way of making things go her way most of the time. She moved five feet over to the front row in the gallery. Both attorneys sat with their papers bundled up in front of them. There was nothing left for them to do.
After that we were herded into the small jury room. It was difficult to get all of the chairs up to the table, which was a walnut-stained oversized kitchen table, from the look of it. In the room was free soda, coffee, and tea—comfort drinks but nothing that implied we would be here for a long time. We were not sequestered. We weren’t at the table for half a minute when one of the young professional women said to the room, “I think Everett should be foreman.”
Two or three other people nodded in agreement.
“Well, maybe somebody here has their heart set on it,” I said, quickly realizing I had no clue what to do as foreman. Left to my own devices I would have spent five minutes planning how to have the deliberation discussion—should we talk about the elements of the charges? the questions we had about testimony? whether we believed which witness?—but they were moving far more quickly than my brain processors were.
“Everett it is,” said Kiffin, an impish woman, maybe early 30s, with a pageboy cut and the most styling outfit in the room. Travis, a man as large as me who had said next to nothing for a day and a half, opened his mouth.
“Yeah, Everett should do it.”
And so it was that on my first jury trial I was made foreman. I kept my misgivings and my chuckles to myself and really, when does that ever happen?
I asked everyone to make a table tent with their name on it so we could see who we were talking to. I don’t know why, it just seemed to be more human or something. Folks obliged. I learned most of their names for the first time right then.
We all had a copy of the 20 instructions—so much for my note taking. I flipped through my steno pad; I had marked my big questions and worries during the trial with fat stars. I asked if anyone else had big questions about the case.
Yes! said several of them.
Juror Number 2 said, “Where are Grumpy and Stretch?” More head nodding. We were Twelve Nodding Jurors.
We talked very briefly about what evidence to use in our decision.
“Look,” I said, which frankly I’d rather have said not as the presiding juror, but hey, I had to let it out. “A lot of this evidence is meaningless. So what if the driver’s seat was pulled forward? We don’t know if Stephanie did it or if the College Place police did it.”
Nod nod nod. Juror Number 8, a mason, agreed. “I really am sad that the police force in College Place doesn’t have working cameras or cops who know how to process evidence. We may have to let this guy off because the state couldn’t prove its case.” We quickly played with the idea of all contributing $10 to the chief of police in College Place so they could fix poor Officer Tony’s dashboard camera.
Small eruptions of conversation had to be tamped down into one thread. We didn’t dwell too long on any one issue, but we parsed through the information in front of us, most of which could be interpreted in multiple ways:
- Was the placement of the driver’s seat a sign Stephanie was driving or that the officers looked under the seat for evidence?
- Was the fact that the keys were left on the passenger seat evidence that Skyler drove or that Stephanie was covering up her role in the hit and run?
- Was the fact that Stephanie lied to the Milton-Freewater police a sign that she was scared or that she was manipulative?
- Did the fact that Skyler wasn’t pleading out on these charges like he had on all of his other previous charges a sign he knew he was innocent or that he thought he could beat the system?
- Did Stephanie saying he “floored it” mean she could see his foot or was she referring to how she drove the car, or did it mean nothing at all?
- Did it matter if she said “it was all a blur” and Skyler said specific things about where they went?
- Was anything said at all that put either one of them in the driver’s seat?
We also hated the gaps in the trial:
- No testimony from Grumpy or Stretch
- No video
- No complete report from the officers who processed the car
- No complete report from the investigator
- No eyewitness testimony from the owner of the damaged property
- No other eyewitnesses
- No physical evidence from the car
We looked again at the criteria for the charges. All three of them were predicated, first and foremost, on there being evidence that the defendant drove the vehicle on the night in question. We shook our heads over that. Some of us in the room thought Skyler was driving, and some of us thought Stephanie had driven. But all of us agreed that the state did not prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt. I asked people to raise their hands if they wanted to vote to acquit on the first charge—I figured we were leaning that way, so I wanted to see people do something affirmative to signal their vote—and I stared back at eleven raised hands. My own was in the air. In fifteen minutes, we had come to agreement.
Not being able to definitively say that Skyler was driving meant that we would also vote not guilty on counts 2 and 3, but I asked for votes anyway because I figured we would either be polled or would need to say we voted on each count. There were several sighs around the room, especially from those of us who were concerned we were letting someone off the hook.
I signed the paperwork on each line, ignoring the special vote, which didn’t make any sense to me anyway, because there was zero evidence that Skyler had threatened Stephanie in any way. According to her testimony, it was the absent Grumpy with the gun and the threats. I stood up and opened the jury door. In the courtroom, the bailiffs were talking quietly to each other, and Barb, the alternate, was sitting where we’d left her, in the front of the gallery. Skyler’s relatives who had sat through the whole trial were there, too, but the rest of the room was empty.
“I have the verdict,” I said. April King would probably realize this was a not guilty vote, coming back so quickly. I think the acquittals are like that, in general.
The bailiff told me to hold onto the paperwork until she called us all back inside.
I stood when the judge asked the foreman to render the verdict. I handed the papers over again and wasn’t sure when I could sit down. The clerk stood and read out the first not guilty decision. Skyler let out a long exhale and Downtown Julie Brown looked like she’d caught a mouse. Lisa Simpson’s Human Counterpart blinked a lot for 30 seconds. Charges two and three, not guilty. Skyler’s mother sobbed. Barb nodded at me. She would have voted with us, I’m sure. We were polled individually—was this our independent vote? was this the true vote of the jury? Yes. Yes. Twelve times. The judge asked us to convene one last time in the jury room, just for a minute.
We filed back in the tiny kitchen, peppering him with questions. Stephanie had been held as a material witness, under guard at a hotel to ensure she would testify. No wonder she didn’t know where she was. Grumpy and Stretch were on the run and couldn’t be found. So we got those answers. The mason asked the judge how he deals with perpetrators who get to go free?
“When I was a prosecutor,” said Judge White, “I just knew that the folks who didn’t turn their lives around would come across my desk again, and we’d get them next time.” It was some consolation from the look on the mason’s face.
But the judge really wanted to know something from us: Were there enough stretch breaks?
We laughed. Yes, you made us stretch enough.
I practically jogged back to my car, because now I was free to talk or write about the case, but more importantly, I could google the people involved. And that is when I got really concerned.
(Part 5 aftermath next)