About fifteen years ago I served on a six person jury to determine whether a defendant was competent to stand trial. In Texas at that time (and maybe still) only a jury could make that determination even if the prosecution and defense agreed.
The judge assured us of two things. First, that this in no way meant that the defendant would not face the charges when he or she was deemed to be competent. Second, that both the prosecution and defense did not believe that this particular defendant was competent and that we should breeze through this hearing like a desert wind.
Or so the judge thought.
The prosecution produced two witnesses, one a psychiatrist. Both stated with supreme confidence backed by years of hardboiled experience that the bricks and mortar of the building understood more about the charges against the defendant than he did.
The defense then called two witnesses of its own, both assuring us, the members of the esteemed jury, that the defendant at this point in time couldn’t understand the concept of 2 plus 2 equals 4, much less the complex myriad of charges looming against him.
The judge sent us back to the jury room to deliberate, and there the fun began.
I assumed that we would vote 6-0 that the defendant was not competent to stand trial and head on home.
Oh, that ASS-U-ME, makes one of you and one of me.
“Frankly, I don’t see how we can vote,” one of the other jurors said rather haughtily.
“Why is that?” another juror asked.
“We haven’t even seen the defendant. We’ve heard testimony that he’s not competent, but I, for one, am not going to vote until I’ve seen it for myself.”
I thought about this for a minute and realized that she made a good point. How could we, in good conscience, determine whether someone was competent to stand trial without having seen him?
We’d just be taking people’s word for it. Professionals, to be sure, but what if someone was trying to railroad the poor guy? How about that, Rock?
“I’m with you,” I said, righteous indignation spilling out of me.
Juror #3 nodded, picked up a note pad and pen and set it in front of me. “Then you write the note explaining that to the judge, hotshot.”
I didn’t know what qualified me to write the note when I had only agreed with the original point.
But the first vote of the day was 5-1 that I write the note.
It went something like this…
With all due respect to the witnesses and to this Court, we, the jury, would like to see the defendant before rendering judgment.
Ten minutes later the bailiff opened the door and, scowling, herded us back to the jury box.
The judge entered, looking none-too-pleased herself, and sat down. She took a deep breath and glared at us, then read our note into the record.
The members of the prosecution team and defense team looked as though we had stolen their holidays.
“Members of the jury,” the judge began. “This Court understands your desire to see the defendant. But in this particular set of circumstances I urge you to make your decision based on the EXPERT testimony of FOUR psychologists and psychiatrists who are TRAINED to diagnose these things.”
She dismissed us and the bailiff marched us back to our chamber.
“I don’t care what she says,” Juror #1 said. “I’m not going to vote. Period.”
“Write the judge another note, hotshot,” Juror #3 said. “I just want out of here.”
Everyone else nodded, so I sat down to compose.
We, the jury will not render a decision until we have seen the defendant for ourselves.
After a 5-1 vote I signed it, even though the only part that I composed was the “respectfully yours,” and I insisted on that.
After an hour, I’d decided that the judge had to be punishing us for our recalcitrance. Three of the jurors paced the room like caged animals while Juror #3 glared at me and Juror #1. I made a mental note to find an alternative route to the parking garage.
At the hour and a half mark, the bailiff knocked on the door and entered.
The short walk down the hall into the courtroom seemed to stretch for miles. My heart tried to crack my ribs with snare drum speed, and I fought to keep my breathing normal.
The courtroom had morphed from intimidating to surreal, and quite a few people had taken up residence in the gallery.
The judge entered and took her seat.
“Please bring in the defendant.”
The bailiff walked to the door at the far wall from us and opened it.
CRASH, BANG, BOOM!
“Oh, shit, it’s wearing off!” someone yelled from the other side of the door, panic dripping from every word.
“Get the doctor!”
Ten minutes later, three officers plus the bailiff escorted a large man in a standard orange jumpsuit inside the courtroom and allowed him to collapse in one of the benches in the gallery, barely able to hold his head up. I didn’t want to know what they gave him.
“Ladies and gentlemen of the jury,” the judge said crossing her arms, a smug look decorating her face. “This is the defendant.”
If anything truth lived under the sun, that man was not competent to stand trial.
Fifteen minutes later, we all headed for our cars. I don’t know about Juror #1, but my face could have boiled water for having helped cause that much trouble for the court.
Looking back though, I’m glad we demanded to see him. Because I have no doubt that we made a right determination. Otherwise…?