Friday, February 17, 2017

He Will Haunt My Memory - Part One

When I walked into the court room he was the last person I noticed. In fact, until the judge introduced him to us I didn’t even know he was there. He was a slender man seated at the table next to his attorney, his hair was cropped short and he wore a dingy white dress shirt, his skin almost the same color as his shirt. His eyes were sunken deeply into the eye sockets and he kept pursing his mouth into a pout, sort of like he was sucking on a piece of hard candy. He looked hard, like someone that had suffered in his life and instead of time and life having mellowed him, they had hardened him and his features.

You wouldn’t think that someone so nondescript would stay on your mind for so long. Maybe it wasn’t him, instead it was the reason for meeting him and his story. Regardless, his memory haunts me…this is the story of Mr. Chriss.

Last week I was called in for jury duty. The last time I went was in 2008, you can read about that trial here…it was a doozy! Once I finished with that trial and I wrote that post I was over and done with it and never gave it a second thought…this one won’t be so easy to forget.





This one was unique. Not a criminal trial, not a civil trail, instead this one was a civil commitment hearing for an individual who is considered a Mentally Disordered Offender or MDO. We 60 individals, had been called into the courtroom to go through the process of choosing a jury to decide three things:
1. Did the respondent have a Severe Mental Disorder?
2. Is the Mental Disorder in remission or able to be kept in remission with further treatment?
3. Is the individual a danger to the general public?

It was our job to make those decisions and they had to be unanimous, either all true or all false. We could not say numbers 1 and 2 were true but not number 3. All or nothing!

If you’ve never been to jury duty I strongly urge you to go next time you are called. It’s such a great learning experience. It’s not easy to know you hold the future of someone in your hands, but it’s such a privilege to know that no matter what you do, in our country you will have your day in court and you will be able to tell your side of the story.

I had hoped to not be chosen for the jury only because there was so much going on at work and I felt guilty dropping it into the lap of my coworker. But it’s not as easy to get out of being on a jury as it used to be. I had no real hardship. The company I worked for respects our duty to complete jury duty so they pay us our regular pay. 

After two days of voir dire (a preliminary examination of juror by judge and counsel) I was chosen as juror number 6. That was Monday and Tuesday. Wednesday was the day the attorneys had a chance to give their opening statements, to call witnesses and to present their case.

Unlike a civil or criminal case where you have a plaintiff and a defendant, in this case you had the petitioner which was The People of The State of California, represented by Attorney Caves and the respondent, Mr. Chriss who was represented by his counsel, Attorney Kendall. The burden of proof was on the State of California, who had to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the three questions above were all true as regards Mr. Chriss.

Caves gave his opening statement first. A very handsome young man, very soft spoken. I would have been happier if he had looked us in the eye more and spoken with more authority. He also introduced Mr. Chriss to us and explained to us what the judge had already told us multiple times, that we had to base our decision only on the evidence and the evidence is only what was said by the person on the stand. He said he would provide a witness that would give us the medical facts that we would need to come to the agreement that all three of the questions that we were to deliberate would and could only be answered as true.

Then Kendall gave his opening statement in which he also told us what we had to base our decision on and he informed us that Mr. Chriss had no burden of proof, it was not up to him and Mr. Chriss to prove to us that any of the three questions were either true or false, that was the job of Mr. Caves. He proceeded to tell us a little bit about Mr. Chriss.

Mr. Chriss had been sent to prison for physical assault on an individual. It was never made clear to us if he did his time in prison and then was committed or if he was committed after a second physical assault on an individual, but for the past nine years he had lived quietly in his unit at the Coalinga State Mental Hospital. He had a job at the hospital as a janitor and lived his life quietly, causing no further problems.

Part two to follow...(this was just getting too long)

2 comments:

  1. I suppose it is both an honor and a burden to be chosen to a jury duty. Anyway, I think you are a perfect choice.
    Looking forward to part two of the story.

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    1. Yes, you hit the nail on the head. It's an honor and a burden. It's fascinating being there, but then you remember why you are there and that you will need to make a decision on the life of another human being. It's very frightening. Once you read part two you will see why this trail and this man's memory will haunt me.

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