Friday, January 09, 2009

Assault in the First Degree

Though I've never sat on a jury, I've had the opportunity over the last couple of years to observe virtually every aspect of a criminal trial: opening arguments, witness testimony, closing arguments, and the sentencing of a convicted defendant. Yesterday, I filled in one more piece of the pie when I sat in on the handing down of a verdict.

The defendant was charged with attempted murder in the first and second degree, assault in the first degree and possession of a concealed dangerous weapon. He was arrested after stabbing a fellow patron at a bar in the wake of some dispute as to who was paying the bar tab. There was no doubt as to whether the defendant actually stabbed the victim; the main issue at trial was whether the defendant had acted in self-defense. One of the main hurdles for the prosecution, however, was that the victim was extremely intoxicated at the time of the attack and therefore couldn't clearly recall the incident when he was on the witness stand.

I went up to the courtroom after the jury knocked on the judge's door and told him they "were ready." Waiting in the courtroom for the jury to come out certainly had it's moments of drama: the prosecutors were pacing anxiously and the defense counsel also seemed on edge. The defendant, when he entered, appeared pretty calm, but his relatives were sobbing quietly in the back, and even the Spanish language interpreter, who was there to interpret the proceedings for the defendant and his relatives, seemed anxious. I myself had that feeling of waiting on the precipice of the unknown - wanting to find out what the ultimate verdict would be but also knowing that, regardless of the outcome, somebody would walk out of the courtroom feeling like justice had failed.

The handing down of the actual verdict was somewhat anticlimactic. The jury walked into the room and sat down; the judge thanked the jury members in advance for their service and then the courtroom clerk asked the forewoman for the jury's verdict on each charge of the indictment. The defendant wasn't asked to stand (I was surprised about that - after all, it always happens that way on television), and the forewoman's responses were read without any emotion:

-Attempted murder in the first degree: Not Guilty
-Attempted murder in the second degree: Not Guilty
-Assault in the first degree: Guilty
-Carrying a dangerous concealed weapon: Guilty

And with that, the trial was over. The judge told the jury to go back to the jury room for a few minutes so that he could meet with them and answer any questions they might have before they went home, and he also scheduled a sentencing date with the prosecutors and defense counsel. Then, the judge got up and walked out of the courtroom. No bang of the gavel or announcement that court was now adjourned, and no accompanying background music from Law & Order. The defendant, who will be deported to his home country as a result of the conviction, was put into handcuffs and taken back to his cell while his relatives continued to sob in the back of the room. The prosecutors shook hands with defense counsel, and then left the courtroom to get ready for their next case, satisfied that justice had been done.