John Colson: Hit and Run
September 24, 2010
I served on a jury this week, for the first time in my life.
It’s not that I have sought to avoid jury service, since, as judicial types are fond of saying at great length, it is one of the founding theoretical pillars of our form of government. Which, in case you flunked civics, it known as a “representative democracy.”
So, no, I haven’t been slacking in my duty to serve on a jury. It has always happened that whenever I was called up for jury duty, I was not one of those chosen.
Not that I have objected to being passed over, mind you. Jury duty seems all too often to come up at a very inconvenient moment in anyone’s life. There’s always something else that urgently needs to get done. So I have typically counted myself fortunate, if just a little guilty, when I’ve been told I can go.
For one thing, I’ve been a journalist for most of my adult life, and that has kept me from sitting in many juries. Seems that lawyers don’t have a great fondness for reporters, or trust.
Not that I blame them. We’re an odd lot, wherever we’re found, but our oddities have blossomed to their greatest glory here in the good ol’ U.S. of A., where freedom of speech is another of those foundational pillars of democracy. Which is kind of interesting in and of itself, that these two pillars propping up the theoretical framework of government seem to clash at a very basic level.
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Lawyers and judges both have told me, more than once, that journalists make bad jurors because they often have access to facts about the case being tried, and are likely to have formed opinions about the case or the people involved. Lawyers and judges also have proven leery of journalists’ potential to form opinions about the merits, or lack thereof, of the entire judicial system, from the cops to the courts.
So, they’ve tended to shy away from putting us in the jury box.
There have been, of course, exceptions. One was the late Ninth Judicial District Judge J.E. DeVilbiss, who for some reason liked having reporters in his juries.
Now, old J.E. was a stalwart believer in free speech, as well as a skeptic about the infallibility of the judicial machinery he was a part of. Perhaps he simply appreciated the fact that journalists are, as a class, about as skeptical a bunch as ever existed.
In any event, on several occasions I was called to show up in his courtroom in Aspen, and the only thing that kept me out of the jury box was luck and statistics.
This week, however, my luck changed – or ran out, depending on how you want to view it. It was a jury of three – myself and two women – dealing with what both the judge and the prosecuting attorney referred to as a case of a “petty criminal offense.”
Specifically, and avoiding names, it was a trespassing case that never should have darkened the doors of a courtroom at all.
In a nutshell, a local man wanted to fish in the Colorado River and chose a path to reach the river that skirted a neighbor’s property line, which was not well marked. The neighbor, who also was fishing the river, saw our hapless defendant, told him he was on private property and ordered him to move off, which he did.
But the property owner later told the defendant he had to move his pickup from its parking spot on an adjacent road, and when the guy again used the path that skirted the boundary to get to his truck and back, the property owner called the sheriff’s department.
I’ll spare you any more details, but suffice it to say we three jurors quickly concluded that the case was more “petty” than “criminal offense,” questioned the veracity of the property owner’s testimony, and let the fisherman off.
We recognized that, technically, the fisherman may indeed have wandered over the property line as he followed a game trail down to the river, but doubted that he did it intentionally or with any feeling of malice or mischief. And we decided that the whole episode said more about the attitudes of the property owner than those of the fisherman.
I have to say, it felt good to rely on common sense rather than the cold, hard letter of the law, and to endorse the idea that neighbors should not always jump to the phone to call the cops over every little dispute or misunderstanding.
It also felt good that the case was over and done with by early afternoon. I did, after all, have a lot of things that urgently needed to get done.