Diary Of A Reluctant Juror
Civic duty can be a nuisance. It can also be enlightening.
Thursday, February 28, 2002
Photo by Bradley Zeve; Pictured are the Hon. Michael S. Fields, shown here on coffee break, and attorneys Dana Scruggs (left) and Jeffrey Oneal.
We wait for word from the judge. Summoned for jury duty, 100 of us-this cross-section of Monterey County citizens -mostly wish we are somewhere else.
I read the New York Times, occasionally listen to the chatter and appreciate the sunny winter day outside.
We are told that the two opposing sides are in negotiation to settle the case. If successful, those of us in this room-all U.S. citizens, registered voters or holding a California driver''s license-can go back to our lives, excused for the next two years.
I figure the two parties will settle. This was a civil case: an individual suffering from another''s alleged misdeed now seeks restitution from the court, as a last resort. Typically, when a civil lawsuit is filed it results in pre-trial settlement. Surely this one would be typical.
The bailiff motions us to follow him. The case is not settled. We''re going to trial. The corkboard outside Courtroom 17 posts the court schedule: Burkow vs. Stonepine.
Inside Superior Court Judge Michael S. Fields'' courtroom, we settle in the gallery pews. The judge arrives and the court assistant calls prospective jurors'' names. I''d been through this before and did not want to hear mine.
Eighteen jury seats will be filled-12 in the jury box, six alternates-then the opposing attorneys will quiz this group, each looking for those who might decree judgment in favor of their client.
I am the fifteenth to be called. I take my seat and survey the others. I''m confident the attorneys will reject me-confident that they will consider me, the executive editor and publisher of this newspaper, as ill suited for their jury. I''ve never known any journalists selected for a jury. I should be out of this courtroom shortly.
Dana Scruggs, the plaintiff''s attorney, faces us. Healthy, blond, tanned, in his mid-forties, he wears an expensive suit and shiny black shoes. He is smart and composed. He tells us the story.
A group of entertainment attorneys from Los Angeles held a retreat at Stonepine Inn in Carmel Valley in 1998, and decided to have a pick-up soccer game. The out-of-shape, middle-aged lawyers were having fun until Steve Burkow broke his leg in two places. He had to have surgery. He had complications. He believes it''s due to negligence on behalf of Stonepine Inn, something to do with the soccer goal posts. We are promised we''ll hear more on that fact later.
It''s a personal injury case, the type that sustains lawyers'' nasty reputation. Like the case of the woman who spilled McDonald''s coffee on her lap in the drive-through lane, receiving third-degree burns. She hired a personal injury lawyer, sued and won. The jury awarded her $200,000 in compensatory damages and $2.7 million in punitive damages and the rest of us get to drink lukewarm coffee at McDonalds-and argue over personal versus corporate responsibility.
Scruggs finishes his story and starts interrogating the eighteen of us. This interrogation, called voir dire, is standard procedure for jury selection. Opposing attorneys can excuse up to six prospective jurors each. It''s a critical opportunity to weed out the troublemakers and identify the "leaders and followers"-to look for the ones who can sway the other jurors in their favor.
The burden of proof in any injury case is on the plaintiff. In this situation, involving an attorney suing a corporation, Scruggs needs a jury that can suspend their stereotype of attorneys, and allow the evidence to be judged with an open mind.
There''s an art to mastering voir dire. On this day, counsel was to select from a raucous crowd. I looked down, and wondered if Scruggs would notice my muddy boots, and how he would size me up.
One woman, sitting in chair six, argues that she couldn''t and wouldn''t give the attorney a fair chance, simply because he is an attorney. It is a remarkable argument for stupidity, and I feel sorry for her. Like all people with prejudice, she''s got all the answers before she asks a single question, while she clings to her biases.
I appreciate Judge Fields'' response to this woman''s harangue.
"If it was a group of neurosurgeons injured in the case, would that change the way you feel?" he asks the rabid woman. "Why do you hold an attorney to a higher standard if he or she has rightfully been injured?" In response, she continues her rant. The judge excuses her, thankfully.
My attitude is changing about this jury thing. My intrigue is growing. I believe I could be a good juror.
I was still convinced they wouldn''t pick me. I''d been sued before, as publisher of the Weekly, and had to go to court over a matter that could have been resolved without any attorneys. More importantly, I knew something about Stonepine and had published controversial stories about the resort.
The defendant''s attorney, Jeffrey Oneal, asks me about this. Oneal, in his mid 40s, seems relaxed and efficient. He has a nice suit on, but doesn''t seem as polished as Scruggs. I tell him Stonepine has appeared in the paper. He asks if I could hear the evidence and view it fairly. I tell him I probably could, but recommended that Judge Fields lock the two attorneys in his chambers until they reach a settlement.
As he asks other prospective jurors questions, I drift off. I think about Stonepine.
I remember a recent adventure with my sweetheart and a friend who was boarding a horse there. We hauled two horses in by trailer for a ride and met him by an arena. The two horses were tied to a rail while being saddled and suddenly the steel rail separated from the wooden posts, leaving two crazed horses rearing and swinging a dangerous mass. Our friend reacted quickly, dodging the rail and managing to grab and hold it until I untied the horses. At the time, I remember reflecting about the whole scene: that here we were at the exclusive Stonepine Inn and the posts are rotting near the rails.
Surely they wouldn''t pick me for this jury.
The beauty of a jury is that it draws from the whole community. Jessica Frey, a receptionist for Monterey Peninsula Artists, says her father is an attorney. Maria Morales, whose sons are farmworkers in Salinas, never heard of Stonepine. Natalia Sheldon teaches Russian at DLI. Paul Seagal oversees the computers at CSUMB and blew out his knees playing football years ago. Lydia Ibarra works at the Gambetta Middle School in Castroville. Dr. Rayburn is a family physician in San Martin. Russell Stanford is a physical education coach from Gonzales. Patrick Murphy is retired.
Scruggs excuses Dr. Rayburn. Probably too much risk. A jury member with a medical background could be a benefit or a liability when it comes to the medical testimony. They reject others, too, and I ended up in chair 8, waiting to be excused. Should happen any second now.
Both attorneys pass on further excusing, voir dire is complete, the jury is selected. I''m in it, with 12 others plus one alternate. My emotions are mixed.
It''s 9am and we wait outside the courtroom. The attorneys arrive and greet us, the 13 people who will determine a piece of their fate.
We wait an hour. I have time to consider civic duty. I''m grateful the Weekly doesn''t need me in the office to get this week''s newspaper out. But still, I''m troubled that a personal injury case between a well-paid attorney and an upscale resort is going to involve the time of so many busy working people, parents and others. What went wrong in the pre-trial negotiations? Why wasn''t this case settled?
But I resign myself to a week or two, as the judge had warned, of real life courtroom drama. I decide I''ll learn more about our justice system, and maybe even get some free medical education. I''ll certainly learn about bone fractures, goal post construction, and the challenges of middle-aged recreation. I might even find out what went down on the day Steve Burkow broke his leg. Was Stonepine negligent or was Burkow a klutz?
Burkow appears to be doing fine. He''s not in a wheelchair, but does have a slight limp. He looks healthy, has an attractive wife, and has maintained his career since the accident. What is the extent of his suffering, and will I be able to detect the truth?
The bailiff informs us we will be called into the courtroom shortly. So we talk. About the McDonald''s coffee case. How could it be possible for a jury to award $2.7 million to a clumsy woman? We discuss Mr. Stanford''s situation--he has to commute 70 miles each way for the honor of serving on this jury. We talk about Mrs. Ibarra''s work with the Gambetta School in Castroville. And we wait with mixed emotions. We are preparing to hear the case. We are the jury.
The bailiff calls us into the courtroom. "The bad news is, you''ve had to wait an hour," Judge Fields announces. "The good news is, the case is settled and you''re done with jury duty until you receive the next letter, in two years." I ask if I may shoot a photo of the jury, Judge Fields, and the lawyers. Our group has bonded quickly. We all seem to be enjoying ourselves.
The crowd disperses, except for juror Paul Seagal and myself. We''re curious about the case that Scruggs and Oneal were planning to present. What evidence did Scruggs have to prove Stonepine''s negligence? How badly injured was Burkow? Why did they settle this morning? What role did the voir dire play? Why did they excuse Dr. Rayburn, but keep Paul and me? What did Stonepine''s insurance company have to pay? How much did Burkow demand, anyway? Was it a legitimate case or not?
I''ll never know the complete answers to these questions. I can tell you that after the voir dire, the plaintiff and his attorney Scruggs felt that it would be difficult to win the case based on their impressions of the jury, so they opted to settle. The risk was too great that they''d lose otherwise. They cut their losses.
It''s over. I turn my car on to Aguajito Road and am surprised that I feel a mild disappointment that this ordeal is complete. But I reaffirmed something about myself, something Scruggs and Oneal guessed--this juror would have been able to be fair in the face of the evidence presented.