12 Very Slightly Annoyed Men and Women

July 24, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Jury nullification” – the term wafted out of the radio a few times this morning.  A law professor and after him, a federal judge were on the local NPR broadcast.  The topic was guns and gun laws.  Both men, separately, said that if the defendant in a gun possession trial has the gun for protection, juries are often sympathetic. It’s hard to get a conviction. Even in New York. 

They were talking about me.  I was a juror on a New York gun possession case many years ago.  The prosecutor allowed that the defendant was probably carrying it for protection.  He had been badly mugged just a few months earlier, and the night of the incident, he was riding in a gypsy cab with two friends, going to Harlem to play pool. He was in the front passenger seat. The cops stopped the car and found the pistol under his seat. The defense claimed that it was not his gun. Someone else must have put it under the seat.

We found the defendant not guilty. 

But the verdict was not “jury nullification,” at least not in any overt way. In all our deliberations, which didn’t take very long (the original vote was ten for acquittal), nobody said anything about self-defense. Nobody even hinted that even if it was his gun, he had a legitimate reason to be carrying. 

Instead, doubts focused on the chief prosecution witness, the gypsy cab driver, who testified that when the cops’ flashing light went on and he pulled his car over to the curb, the defendant, sitting beside him, said, “Oh, shit,” and slid something under the seat. 

The jurors didn’t believe the driver.  Maybe that was because he did not testify in English, so his answers may have seemed evasive.  They were in fact less direct since they had to go through an interpreter.  He spoke Wolof, and you know what that’s like. In any case, the nuances of his discourse were lost on us jurors.  Several thought he was dissembling or outright lying. 

“He’s a foreigner, he might not have understood,” said one juror, trying to counter the anti-cabbie sentiment.

“Oh these foreigners,” said one woman immediately, “they might pretend not to understand, but they know what’s going on. They know how to work things.”

She had a Greek surname  though she looked quite Anglo.  I asked her later if that was her married name. Yes, she said, and added that she was no longer married. I didn’t ask for details.

So the fate of a defendant tuned in part on the bitterness of a divorcee towards her immigrant ex.  Other jurors too may have been affected by similar feelings of no legal or factual relevance, like a general resentment towards the prosecution (“Why are they wasting our time with this case?” )

 Suddenly, Lee J. Cobb in “12 Angry Men” no longer seemed so fictional and far-fetched.

1 comment:

Bob S. said...

Why didn't you feel that person was a danger and push for him to be convicted?

He clearly broke the law. Given your recent post on the availability of firearms, I would expect you to fall into the 'more guns more crime' camp.