My (Short-Term) Life as a Federal Juror
From February 5th to February 9th, I performed my civic duties as a juror in a Federal Civil Case. It wasn't something I wanted to do. In fact, my husband can tell you that I was a raging lunatic the whole time. The case, the driving, the weather, everything seemed to be designed to push me to the brink of total panic. But I was picked and I was doing it. Even if I had an anxiety attack the entire time.
I couldn't talk about the case at all until it was over. We weren't even allowed to discuss it with our fellow jurors until deliberation. Now I can share with you the details of...
The Case of Hicks vs. the Town of Vestal
The short of it... On Halloween 2011, Wayne Hicks shoplifted a pair of women's sneakers from Famous Footware in Vestal, NY, ran to his car to escape, Office Fiacco placed himself directly in front of the car to stop him, Mr. Hicks ignored all verbal orders, turned on the car and hit the officer while trying to flea the scene. He ended up getting shot five times by Officer Fiacco and Sgt. Kennedy, who was directly next to the driver's side door.
For this case, Mr. Hicks was claiming:
1. the officers were excessive and unlawful in their use of deadly force,
2. that the Town of Vestal failed to train their police force properly in the use of deadly force,
3. that the Town of Vestal failed to report the use of deadly force properly and mishandled evidence,
4. that he should be awarded $767,000 in compensatory damages for his pain and suffering,
5. and that the jury can consider making the officers each individually pay individual punitive damages to the plaintiff. (I honestly have no idea who was going to be paying #4. Probably you and me, taxpayer.)
I used the term "use of deadly force" three times in the above bullet points. I heard it approximately 4.6 million times in the course of the five day trial. I'm only slightly exaggerating about that.
"Use of deadly force" is, essentially, when a police officer draws his weapon and shoots someone because his life or another person's life is being threatened. And that's the ONLY time he's allowed to do that.
The plaintiff claimed the cop wasn't in front of his vehicle at the time and he never struck him. So, if the cop wasn't in front of the car, his well-being wasn't in jeopardy, and then use of deadly force was illegal. Our job was figure out the truth.
It's Matlock time!!
I'll spare you all of the details... that we heard over and over and over again for 5 days... heard so many times that we started to answer the witnesses questions for them. (OMG! Lawyers love to talk!) Strike that, 4.5 days. Wednesday, we were only in court until 12:30 and then the judge dismissed us because of A WINTER STORM. Yes, I drove home from Syracuse during A WINTER STORM. It was awful. Extremely awful.
And you know how on T.V. and in movies lawyer give their closing arguments and it takes maybe... two... three minutes. Nope. I didn't time it, but it had to be like twenty minutes. Each. And there's a rebuttal that was easily fifteen more minutes long. If you're a lawyer and reading this, I can tell you definitively that by the time you get to closing arguments we have already made up our minds and we hate you. Hate you with all the passion that an emo teenager hates pastels. Hate you like you're a puppy murderer. I mean, seriously, you're killing us.
And don't stare at me! Seriously, whatever-your-name-was! Mufasa... Morrisey... sorry, it wasn't a common or catchy name. The lawyer from Chicago. You stared at both me and the guy in front of me the whole time. When we broke for lunch, Tony and I looked at each other and said, "That was creepy!" Your eye-contact was not helping your case. Neither was the ashen-black jacket and bright blue tie you were wearing. What the hell was that about?
That reminds me. I have prizes to give out.
BEST SUIT AND TIE AWARDS!!
#3 Officer Fiacco's dark grey suit with a leprechaun green shirt and tie. You made that work and I thank you for it.
#2 Sargeant Kennedy's steel grey suit with lavender shirt and matching purple-blue tie. Great job! You were a scary no-necked cop that I hope to never see again, but you wore a heartbreaking suit, so points for that.
#1 MR. TOM MURPHY!! For the 3-piece light grey suit with the smashing grey, black and bright pink tie. That was my runaway favorite. You looked like the most dashing lawyer from Alabama I've ever seen. (Note: He's from Syracuse. Just didn't look like it.)
HONORABLE MENTION: Tony! The only juror to dress up. He wore a shirt and tie everyday. Sometimes with a V-neck sweater over it. The rest of us dressed like we normally do for our jobs. Jeff wanted to wear sweatpants and bring some popcorn and Blue Light into the courtroom. Jeff and I think a lot alike.
DISCLAIMER: The awards played no part in determining the outcome of the case. We spent a lot of time in the courtroom listening to and watching these people. The mental fashion show kept me from screaming out, "I DON'T WANNA DO THIS!" and just bolting from the room.
Let's get right to the best part...
THE AWESOME-EST MATLOCK EPISODE ENDING NEVER BEFORE SEEN ON T.V.
Ok. I might have hyped this up too much, but that's how I feel about it.
On Friday afternoon at approximately 2:30 p.m., we'd received all of the information about the case and instructions from the judge on how to proceed. We left the courtroom for the jury room and started deliberations. On the table before us was a stack of papers with all the police reports, investigation drawings and findings, the hundreds of photos taken of the evidence and scene. Our job was to talk amongst ourselves, debate the facts, decide which witnesses to believe and who not to believe, and render a verdict.
As I saw it, it all boiled down to one thing...
Was Officer Fiacco in front of the car when Mr. Hicks stepped on the gas? Or was he on the side of the car? If he was in front, he was in imminent danger and both he and Sgt. Kennedy were reasonable in their use of deadly force. If he wasn't in front, the shooting was unlawful.
It's easy to get embroiled in the other facts. Hicks stole shoes... he ignored the officers' orders to stop... he ignored all their orders to show his hands, to turn off the car, to get out of the car. You could easily say he brought this upon himself. You could also say in hindsight it was excessive to shoot a guy five times for the misdemeanor of petit larceny. But the facts before and after don't matter. We were instructed clearly about that. The law states a police officer can only pull out their gun and shoot someone if their life is in danger or if someone else's life is in danger. Everyone, including the cops, agreed that being in front of the car when he accelerated made the shooting lawful, being to the side was not. So, that was the question.
Unfortunately, not an easy question to answer. The facts could be interpreted in different ways. There were too many things that relied on witness statements. "He hit me." "I didn't hit him." Who do you believe?
Just to get the ball rolling on the deliberations, we took a vote. "Was it unlawful?"
Yes - 1, No - 7
There was one hold-out. I won't say who it was because he was an intelligent man and he had a right to his opinion. And his opinion had a lot of validity to it! Like I said, this wasn't a clear-cut case. Many, many times over the days my opinion swayed with the evidence we were given. By the time we got to the end, I felt it was clear to me. (That answer was No, by the way.)
"Ok, let's talk it out."
To everyone's credit, they were empassioned in their stance but they were also polite and open-minded with regards to people's opinions. Everyone got to talk about the situation as rational adults. After a few minutes, it became clear that the issue for the one hold-out was the positioning of the trajectory rods. And honestly, he had a damn good point about them.
Trajectory rods are used by the State Police Department in determining from where bullets are shot from. In this case, they were used to determine the angle the two bullets from Officer Fiacco's gun entered the windshield but could not the distance from the windshield. The photograph the plaintiff's lawyer showed us time and time again was from the front of the car. The rods looked kinda high and to the side. It would have been extremely awkward, if even impossible, for Officer Fiacco to be in front of the car and take those shots. But other evidence -- the tire marks, the handprint and polished spot on the bumper -- proved the Officer was in front of the car and did get hit.
Those rods though. No one could explain them.
The author's artistic rendering of a photo.
I know. She has no talent for this.
Except maybe one person. Juror #7.
I have a damn-near-useless Associates Degree in Math because that was the subject I excelled in. When State Police Inspector Ryan gave testimony on day one about the trajectory rods, I was really into it because it involved mathematical equations. At the time, I thought, "Dammit. I could have been a crime scene inspector. That job sounds fascinating!" As a result, I remembered one super-important fact.
At the point of entry, the trajectory rod for the first shot was at a 46 degree horizontal angle to the windshield.
I asked for the stack of evidence photos. I flipped through them. I found the photo we'd been shown so often. Then I found more photos of Mr. Hick's car with the rods in them. Inspector Ryan had taken over two-hundred photos of the car. Almost all of them were unused during the witness questioning but were still entered into evidence, making them just as important... if not more... to the facts of this case.
There was one particular photo that I prayed someone had taken. A photo I thought might clear this up. And I found it.
"Um, guys. You might want to look at this. It's a photo of the car from overhead showing the true angle of the rods over the hood. The photo we saw in the courtroom has a misleading perspective. The first trajectory rod isn't as close to the windshield as you think. It actually travels out to the right corner of the car. And considering Officer Fiacco is left-handed..." I left them to figure out the rest as they quickly passed the photo around. Even people who were already in agreement with the No-answer were stunned. This photo was the missing piece we all needed.
Seriously, her artistic skills suck!
I will remember until the day I die when the hold-out looked at the photo. He set it on the table, sat in a chair and stared at it with complete wonder.
"I would like to change my decision. I see now that you were right. I really didn't know. It looked so far out to the side in the other picture. But it clearly wasn't."
He seemed almost embarrassed. He didn't need to be. We were all fooled by the first photo.
"Dude. It's ok."
"We couldn't explain the rods before this either."
"This is what deliberation is about."
"Jeez. What else didn't they show us?"
"I think this firmly settles it in everyone's mind now..."
Office Fiacco was in front of the car when Wayne Hicks tried to drive away. Fiacco was in danger at that time. The use of deadly force was lawful.
I looked over at Jeff, who had been sitting back in his chair mournfully wondering if we were going to be stuck in this room all weekend. He tipped his head to the side and gave me a smile.
"I've watched a lot of Matlock over the years."
"I think we're gonna get out of here soon."
Jim, our jury foreman, filled out the paper and the clerk gave it to the judge. Deliberation was over. And we did it in less than forty-five minutes. After a quick reading of the verdict in court, we were sent back to the jury room one last time. Judge Sannes came in to thank us personally and answer any questions she could. She was the nicest Judge and she always had a smile for the jury. I hope I'm never in court myself, but if I am, I hope it's hers.
At 3:45, I passed through security for the day. I wished the boys on guard a farewell and thanked them for being so awesome. To my favorite guard -- whose name I regretfully never got -- the one who jokingly picked on me every morning -- I said, "See you in two years!" If I do get called again in two years, I have a feeling he'll still be there. And he'll still pick on me for being early for breakfast.
I happily skipped out of the building... a building I loathed to enter everyday... a building that caused me a lot of stress... and I thought to myself...
I cannot believe I'm going to say this, but I'm so fricking happy I got picked for jury duty. It's taken over 28 years, but I finally got to use my math degree for something important. The Universe did have a reason for me to be here. I AM THE MATLOCK OF SYRACUSE!!!
Admit it. You want to see this show.
Author's note: I have no idea why I was so obsessed with Matlock throughout the deliberation. Matlock wasn't a juror. He was a lawyer. But honestly, Matlock is just really fun to say. Matlock!
Maybe I should have gone with Rockford.
Did you hear that? She thinks she could be me!
Some things still seem a little unsolved to me. We came up with a lot of questions about the night of the incident that no one ever answered... nor would ever answer as we had to use what we were given.
How could the plaintiff have claimed to have never seen the second cop when he was standing slightly before him? How about his cop car which was right up close to the side of the plaintiff's car? With the lights on? At night? How do you miss that? Where were the photos of the tire marks? All we had was the expert's word for it. We wanted photos. Are court cases really all about which lawyer can outsmart the other one? This is effed up.
But for me, there's one question that will burn in my brain forever. And one day, maybe this summer, I will go to Vestal, I will visit the Police Department and I will request to see Officer Fiacco. Then I will ask him ... WHY IN THE HELL DIDN'T DEFENSE SHOW US THAT OVERHEAD PHOTO OF THE RODS?!?! It would have cleared up the mystery of the shots. It negated everything the plaintiff was trying to prove. They purposely tried to mislead us.
And he'll probably say, "I know. They're lawyers. That's their job."
To be fair, Office Fiacco probably has no idea what the defense was going to do. The lawyer was likely involved with the D.A.'s office, who led the criminal grand jury case about this back in 2012 where Mr. Hicks was found guilty of assaulting an officer and sentenced to 6 years in jail. (Something I googled after the fact. No googling allowed during the case. And no one brought it up during our week in court.) To be fair, maybe defense wasn't allowed to admit the photo. There were some really weird things going on with this case. It seemed like defense was limited in what they could do. Or maybe that lawyer was just an idiot. I don't know.
I do know I would have been a kick-ass crime scene investigator. Dammit.
SOME ADDITIONAL INFO YOU MAY OR MAY NOT WANT TO KNOW...
The Pros of being a Federal Juror in Syracuse
They treat you like Royalty!
Seriously. You were a lanyard that says Juror everywhere you go and people you don't know and who have nothing to do with the case are super-nice to you. I had total strangers, who obviously worked in the Federal building, say to me, "Thank you so much for serving." And they say it like they mean it. After five days, I know why. (See the Cons below.)
You get breakfast, boatloads of snacks, a stocked fridge of non-alcoholic beverages, enough coffee and creamer to drown yourself in.
I won't kid you. I can be bought with a basket of vending machine food. And we had it available 24/7. You name a snack, it was probably on that jury room table.
Security knows you. I mean... THEY KNOW YOU.
Why is this a pro? Because it's kinda cool to walk into the small entrance area that resembles security at an airport and have security say, "Come on around. Your early today. How was the drive from Auburn? We don't need your I.D., Ms. Deal. We know you." Meanwhile, my brain is going, "I have never met you before!!"
The security and court clerks in the Federal Building are made up of retired U.S. Marshalls, troopers, and ninjas. They are the coolest guys and gals on the planet. They talk to each other constantly and they remember everything. Serving as a juror can be unsettling at times because you have to be wary of the people around you. You cannot come into contact with either parties in the case and it can make you a little nervous, or at least awkward. With the clerks watching over me, I have never felt so safe in my life. Plus, they're pretty funny guys. I admit it, I'm gonna miss those smiling faces in the morning who are just waiting to razz me. "You're two hours early. It's not snowing." "Shut up! It might!"
My fellow jurors were hilarious!
I don't know if it's the situation we were presented with (being trapped in the Federal Building together), or if I just got lucky, but all of the jurors were funny. I had a good time with them!
I conversed mostly with Jeff. (I noticed I've got a lot of funny friends with that name.) He was going on 30 and kind of a tall guy. We were the early birds because we liked to have breakfast in the jury room and get settled for the day. Tony would come in early too and we'd all sit around talking about our favorite places to eat and what we liked to drink. (Life is all about food and drink, folks.)
I was juror #7 and Jeff was #8, so we sat next to each other in the courtroom. If he started to click his pen, I threatened to stab his leg. If he thought I was falling asleep, he'd nudge my chair then tell me the judge told him to do it. We debated if our shared monitor was touch screen like the witness one was. For five days, we were dying to drawing a dick on the monitor. When the older defense lawyer couldn't get the projector to work and had to get the young plantiff lawyer to help him out, we'd break into giggle fits.
The sidebar music they played was John Denver and everytime it came on, all of us would groan. Judge Sannes apologized to us for the music. We were using another judge's courtroom because hers was currently under construction and she didn't pick out the music.
There was one juror that deserves special mention. Her name is Laura Wright. But you might know her better as LAURA HAND. She's a journalist and has been on WSTM for over 45 years. She's a local celebrity and a true inspiration for any woman --- anyone at all, actually --- who's interested in a career in journalism. The fact that she was picked to be a juror on this case was bizarre. SHE'S A JOURNALIST. SHE KNEW THE CASE. SHE REPORTED ON IT SIX YEARS AGO. SHE REMEMBERED IT. Laura has an amazing memory and she's still sharp as a tack. She's also incredibly heartwarming and witty. It was a pleasure to meet her and work with her as a juror.
The Cons of Being a Federal Juror in Syracuse
Driving to Syracuse... in February.
If you get summoned, I suggest you request to be deferred to a less snowy month. And they will do that for you! They are actually extremely accomodating. At least in the Federal courts. I can't comment about the County courts.
Sitting... forever... listening to lawyers... omg.
It's not like TV or the movies. No one really gets in each other's faces. It might get a little tense, but it's short and non-confrontational. And while that's good for a nervous person like me, it's boring AF.
We (the Jurors) heard the same questions so many times that we started answering them.
"Did he have a gun?" NO!
"Did he have a knife?" NO!!
"Did he have a weapon on his person at all?" FOR THE EIGHTEENTH-HUNDRED TIME, NO!!!
And if a lawyer says, "I'll be brief," be forewarned! It's going to be a minimum of twenty minutes. When you enter lawyerland, time is not held in the same regards as in the rest of the world.
And honestly, if I hear "Can we agree that..." or "With regards to..." or "...am I correct?" one more time, I'm gonna start twitching convulsively. We started using it when we talked to each other.
"Can we agree that the cafeteria on the 5th floor sucks?"
"Overruled. You may answer the question."
"My sandwich was good."
"You got a grilled cheese and you ordered a grilled chicken, am I correct?"
"I rest my case."
You're going to physically and mentally shit-the-bed.
When my stomach started rumbling during the first morning session, Jim (juror #6) would snicker at me. He said it was far more entertaining than the case. After that, I ate two breakfasts just so it wouldn't happen again. In fact, I ate constantly. Sometimes to make sure my stomach wouldn't bitch at me, and sometimes out of stress. I gained five pounds this week. FIVE EFFING POUNDS.
Plus, leave the fitbit at home. You are not going to get your steps in. You sit in a courtroom for 6-7 hours. On breaks, you hang out in the jury room. There's no room to walk around in there. You could try, but do you really want to be that asshole? During lunch, you could walk around the building or downtown. But did I mention it's February? We had two storms during our stay there and the other three days, it was bitterly cold. We usually went to our section of the cafeteria and ate. (Yes, we had our own section of the cafeteria so people wouldn't interact with us. Felt like I was in some kind of zoo. It had real purpose, but still... awkward!)
As for the stress... holy cow! As I've mentioned before, I was nervous throughout this. Not just about the weather and driving, but about the case and the people involved. Serving as a juror is about three light-years outside my comfort zone. The Pros I mentioned above definitely helped a lot.
If anyone gets summoned to Federal Court in Syracuse and has questions about the process, (ie. jury selection, what you can do or can't do) I am more than happy to talk about it. The court provides you with great information when you're summoned. I had no problems parking or finding my way. It was super easy; no confusion. But sometimes it's nice to hear about it ahead of time from someone who went through it. Especially if you're a mental case like me.