#10 was my first jury trial with significant media exposure. It involved a victim who went onto property that defendant was squatting at in Chico. He and his dog were attacked by the defendant with a knife and eventually chased off the property. The victim screamed for help as he ran away. One witness opened her door to see what was going on and the defendant threatened her with the knife; prompting the witness to call 911. Another neighbor came outside and the victim hid behind him. This neighbor was threatened with a knife by the defendant too.
The defendant represented himself, in pro per, and claimed that he was acting in self-defense. He took the stand and said his knife was used for “urban and wilderness survival” against an agressive dog being used as a weapon by the victim. However, all the witnesses were in agreement that the dog was not acting agressively even after the dog had been stabbed in the mouth by defendant.
The combination of animal cruelty and the issue of crime as it related to the unhoused in Chico were, and still are, hot-button issues for local media which meant that a reporter covered the entirety of the jury trial. This added an additional layer of pressure to the jury trial as it progressed. It was also my first felony jury trial. To complicate matters further, the defendant was also self-represented.
Pro per defendants are particularly tricky in the realm of criminal prosecution. Prosecutors want to make sure that justice is served, which means balancing the rights of the defendants, the victims, and the public within the parameters of the law. When someone represents themself it falls on the prosecutor to make sure their rights aren’t violated as a jury trial progresses. These cases often get appealed and the pitfalls of self-representation can set up an appealable issue if caution is not used.
Jury selection in this case went longer than I anticipated and I felt that the jury we had were getting impatient with the process. Against my instinct I did not use a peremptory challenge on one of the jurors and that ultimately was a costly mistake. A peremptory challenge, at the time, allowed either side to kick a certain number of jurors off the panel without giving any specific reason why. The particular juror I was concerned about reminded me a lot of my good friend’s grandmother. A woman I had grown up around and loved, but knew was unable to make any hard decisions about wrong doing-she was just too nice.
However, the evidence in this case was strong, so against my instinct she remained on the jury. We conducted closing arguments the evening before and the jury was released to go home before starting deliberations the next morning. This juror showed up the next day with an ice chest full of food for her fellow jury members. A wonderfully kind gesture, but a gesture that solidified the fact that she was going to be problematic for me.
She was. The jury ended up hanging with 11 jurors on the side of guilt and 1 for innocent. My instinct had been right and I had ignored it. This kind woman reminds me to trust my gut at the beginning of every trial I have started since this date and likely into the future. While she hung up the jury on #10, she has reminded me to take the time I need in many trials that have followed. When it comes to jury selection, instincts matter.