Like most US citizens, I get the occasional Summons to attend Jury Duty and that usually involves going down to Court house and then being sent home with a “Thanks for being willing to serve” and a promise of a $6 check being mailed to you for showing up.
However, a few weeks ago, it was different. I sat in the main jury room (along with around 500 people) where the numbers were called out and this time there was a lot of cases and my number was picked. I was instructed to go to the 191st Civil District Court (presided over by Judge Gena Slaughter, a relatively young lady who told us later that she had 4 and 5 year old children) on the 7th floor of the same building.
About 75 or so of us lined up outside the 191st Court and we were shepherded into the Court room in batches by the bailiff. I got assigned to the seat at the left most back corner of the court. “Good” – I thought to myself, since it appeared I would be the least likely to get noticed and picked – and began to plan the rest of my day. Others in the jury pool, from their expressions, seemed be hoping for the same outcome (given that was a Monday and Judge Slaughter had just told us the trial could go on till the following Monday!).
Turned out there were 3 lawyers and a Pro Se (that is, a self representing individual) in the court room. Each of them then conducted a voir dire, that is, a process to find out more about the potential jurors. The lawyers / pro se eventually got to me and I recalled being addressed as Mr. V. “Another good sign”, I thought. “They can’t even pronounce my name, I should be out of here shortly”. However, some other questions seemed to suggest that they might be getting interested in me. They asked about my Electrical Engineering qualification, my IT experience, international travel and most interestingly my knowledge of water borne diseases such as cholera.
Afterwards we all trooped out into the lobby and waited for what seemed like an eternity. I did some reading and took a short nap. We were then called back into the Court room where Judge Gena Slaughter started announcing the names of the 12 jurors who were going to be picked. I was half listening since I was pretty confident of not being on the list when she called out for Juror #11 and it sounded like my name. I stood up, Judge Slaughter apologized for mangling my name. I told her she was close enough – and I was officially Juror #11 and I had to take my place on one of the jury chairs. The feeling was like the opposite of winning the lottery!
The judge gave us the jury instructions regarding dos and don’ts and the hearing then commenced immediately.
The case involved a company called Global Water Group (the plaintiff, a Water Purification company) who was suing another one called Force (the Pro Se, a one man Sewage treatment company) and another company (EMS, a pipeline services company) and its former CEO.
The details are of the case are not what I am looking to focus on in this blog entry – so I will explain it, with apologies to those involved for whom this was serious business, in the manner I did to my daughters Sakshi and Smrithi (13 and 11 respectively) after the trial was over. Here goes:
“There was this guy who knew how to really purify dirty water (like what might be found next to corpses in Iraq) and convert it into pure water (better than Avian!), who we will from hereon refer to as the Pure Water guy. Then there was this guy who knew how to take sewage and convert it into liquid that could be disposed off without messing the environment BUT could not be drunk by humans, who we will from hereon refer to as the Shit Water guy. Pure Water guy then hired Shit Water guy and made him part of his company. Both of them then went together and tried very hard to get some business in a place called Mejedia in Rumania, to take over and run their Municipal Sewage and Water systems and this (and other similar) business MIGHT have earned them profits of around $54 million. Pure Water guy spent a lot of money trying to get this business but Rumania being a very corrupt country, it was difficult to get business without bribing people and so after sometime, Pure Water guy gave up. Then Shit Water guy secretly started to try to get this business on his own without telling Pure Water guy, using Pure Water guy’s PowerPoints, contacts, etc. Shit Water guy managed to reach an agreement in Rumania but needed $1.5 million Bond money to get the contract. Shit Water guy’s finance partner went and asked his friend from Verline (from hereon referred to as Old guy) for a loan of $1.5 million. Old guy did not have the money but managed to find a few Board members at EMS (from hereon referred to as Rich guys) who agreed to give the loan. For this, Old guy and Shit Water guy signed a Promissory note. Shit Water guy then sent this Bond money to his partner in Rumania (hereon referred to as the Foreign Crook guy) who put this money in a bank account, where it was meant to stay for 3 months after which time it was supposed to be returned to Rich guys along with an interest of 15%. The money stayed in the bank account for 2 months after which the Foreign Crook guy made it disappear! When Old Guy found this out, he panicked – he told Rich Guys that their money was gone – EMS CEO (on behalf of Rich Guys) put pressure on Old Guy to compensate for the loss. Old Guy went to Shit Water guy to get the money from him. But Shit Water guy was broke and had no money. So he gave all his patents to Old Guy who in turn gave it to EMS along with his patents. And then EMS tried to get into the Water business to try and make money and recover the lost $1.5 million. And then Pure Water guy found out all this was going on behind his back and the shit then really hit the ceiling (so to speak)! Pure Water guy wrote Shit Water guy a nasty Email scaring the day lights out of him and gave him a lot of conditions to meet – and if he did not, Pure Water guy would “send him to jail”. Shit Water guy complied with all the conditions for fear of being sued. He stopped making any further attempts to do business in Rumania and transferred whatever agreement he had reached to Pure Water guy and made written apologies to all and sundry, confessing to everything and asking all his contacts in Rumania to do business with the Pure Water guy instead of him. However, given the corruption in Rumania, Pure Water guy still could not get any business there. EMS tried to use the patents that they got from Shit Water guy and tried to start a new Water business (in other countries like Mexico but not in Rumania) but failed to close one single deal and so did not make a single dollar in this new business.
To cut a long story short, Old Guy died of natural causes and so Pure Water Guy sued Shit Water guy and EMS claiming that he was owed damages of around $50 million due to the actions of the Shit Water guy and EMS (who Pure Water guy alleged were involved in a “conspiracy”) but Judge Slaughter dismissed the suit without any jury deliberation since she determined that Pure Water guy did not establish that he suffered any loss/damage and no one had made any money from the Rumanian adventure (basically agreeing with EMS’s attorney that the whole thing was just a “cow pile” for everyone involved)”.
Now here comes my impression of the whole process, especially vis-à-vis the jury system.
First of all, the parties had been going at it in front of this same judge since 2008 while the jurors were those who got “accidentally” (and mostly unwillingly) pulled into this matter for a relatively brief period. Although I, with my Engineering/IT/International background, could easily understand this whole matter (and in fact made 64 pages of notes during the trial which I later sent to the judge), I could tell that many of the jurors were quite disinterested and not comprehending any of the detailed technical issues that all parties were bringing up (with some of the jurors just doodling in their note pads). Although we were not allowed to discuss the case till we called upon to do so (which never happened), stray remarks (like “I like that lawyer, he reminds me of Matlock”, “I am waiting for the Pro Se to cross examine himself – that will be fun!”, etc) gave me the impression that if we had actually deliberated on this case, it would have been a sham with just a few of us having really paid attention to any of the testimony (and more importantly, understood what was presented). I would like to think that I could have swayed most of the jurors (with whom I established a good rapport during lunch time and while walking out to the train) and help arrive at the “right” decision – but then I might have ended becoming a de-facto judge!
Bottom line – after this experience, I strongly believe that parties in a dispute looking for a jury to decide their fate, are essentially rolling the dice – they might get lucky and win the lottery even they were completely wrong – on the other hand, they might lose big, even though they might be completely on the right side of the law!
I for one would any day prefer to have my fate determined by a learned, UNBIASED judge – and hope and pray that my fate will never be in the hands of a bunch of random, unqualified strangers!!
What about you? Feel free to comment here – I would really like to hear your thoughts – especially if you vehemently disagree with my opinions!