The jury had been deliberating several hours and I was getting a little nervous. I take great pride in persuading jurors during closing arguments that if they have any reasonable doubt about my client’s guilt, then there’s no reason to go into the jury room and spend hours debating. Just come back with a verdict of Not Guilty. I call it “The Five-Minute Verdict.” I explain that since the presumption of innocence applies and that the prosecutors hadn’t proven their case at any time, then jurors shouldn’t spend more than five minutes coming back with a not guilty verdict. Obviously that ploy hadn’t worked this time.
This was a federal case tried in Miami federal court. Like all my cases, I had put my heart and soul into this one. Many months of preparation went into this trial. I was determined to acquit my client who was charged with several very serious federal criminal offenses.
The edgy waiting was suddenly broken when a bailiff came in bearing a note for the judge from the foreperson of the jury. (Used to be called “foreman”) The foreperson, selected by fellow jurors, is the person who leads the jury deliberations and announces the verdict. Usually the foreperson is selected because of his or her dress and demeanor and thus is often considered the smartest or most sophisticated of the jurors. A note to the judge from the foreperson can often send a powerful signal about which way the jury is leaning, so we were all keyed up to learn the contents. The judge came out of chambers, took her place on the bench and sat examining the piece of paper for what seemed like an unusually long time. Then she smiled and beckoned the attorneys to come forward. She passed us the note. Here is what it said in its entirety in the exact spelling that was used: “What dose unanimous mean?”
“Holy shit,” I thought, “my client’s future is in the hands of a moron who can’t spell and doesn’t know the definition of a simple word. We’re in trouble.” In that moment, I learned a valuable lesson. Even though I always knew that the average juror wasn’t brilliant, I learned that I still needed to lower my expectations. I needed to expect even less from them, no matter how difficult that was.
Regarding the verdict, they never did come up with a unanimous verdict. I had been successful in convincing a certain number of jurors that he wasn’t guilty, which led the judge to declare a mistrial. In federal court, where the conviction rate is very high, that’s considered quite an accomplishment. After the mistrial, my client was ultimately offered a spectacular plea bargain from the prosecutors.
I saved a copy of the jury’s note as a reminder. Justice doesn’t always look like how you would expect. It’s like hotdogs. If you like the taste, don’t go see how they’re made.