March 2, 1997

Column 13

Thanks to those of you who wrote with encouragement and support. The new letters and replies should be up in the letter section by now. I should mention that there have also been a number of hostile letters as well. But I am not going to put them up because they don't say anything constructive. Just a lot of venom and hatred. I guess those so called victims' rights groups have been busy. I don't feel compelled to put those kinds of letters up on the site, and they do have a forum already. It's called the evening news and the daily newspaper. But to those of you with an intelligent comment, I am glad to hear from you. Also, thanks to those of you who have written to me directly.

I wanted to talk some more about the courts and the process of how a death penalty trial works because a lot of the questions I get are about that whole area of the legal system. The last couple of times, I talked about the layout of the courtroom and a little bit about how a jury is "Death Qualified" - the jury selection process in a death penalty trial. I should mention that this is how the process works in California. I'm sure that it varies a little bit from one state to the next, but I seriously doubt if there is much (if any) difference overall.

As you can see from the last column, I talked a little bit about how the jurors in a death penalty case are death qualified. Out of this group of death qualified jurors, the attorneys will eliminate the jurors they don't want sitting in the trial. Each side - the prosecutor and the defense, have a specific number of jurors they can excuse. There doesn't have to be any reason given when either side excuses someone. Because of the death qualifying process, there is already a strong contingent of pro-death jurors sitting in the jury pool. So, in this part of the jury selection, the prosecutor will get rid of those that seem to have moderate feelings about the death penalty, while the defense will try to get rid of those most rabid, pro-death penalty jurors.

As you can see, this process tends to heavily slant the jury pool towards those jurors who are supportive of the death penalty. Out of a pool of about fifty potential jurors, the defense can hope for one or two moderate jurors . . . if it is a"good" jury pool, that is. I have heard about jurors that joke about how it's a waste of time to go through a trial, and why couldn't they just go ahead and sentence the defendant to death right then. This is before the trial has even started. Unfortunately, these sorts of comments are not found out about until long after the trial is finished and the defendant is already sitting on Death Row. When the picking of the actual jury starts and the Prosecution and Defense are done seating the jury, the best the defense can hope for is a moderate jury who are willing to listen to the evidence and wait until they hear all sides before they make up their mind. Since the moderate jurors are fairly small in number, it's easy for the prosecution! n to exclude them from sitting in the trial, so the most the defense can hope for is to get rid of the most extreme jurors who are pro-death. Once the jury is seated, there will be twelve jurors and a few alternates, usually four to six, depending on the estimated length of the trial.

Once the jurors who will hear the case are selected and the alternate jurors are picked, the trial will begin immediately. After mine were selected, I leaned over the table to try and get a look at the people who held my fate in their collective hands. It was interesting to watch the body language and the faces of these people who were to decide what my future would be. Most did not show any expression at all, but there were a couple who looked excited at the very idea of being able to sit and decide if a human being was to die. There were a couple who seemed to have the reality of the situation sink in and they didn't look very happy at the prospect. When I asked my lawyer about these two jurors, he looked up their questionnaires and saw that they were a couple who were moderately for the death penalty. I guess that the realities of it started to sink in with them at that point.

It wasn't very encouraging to see that the ones who had the excited looks on their faces were the same ones that stated that they were strongly in favor of the death penalty . . . but would like to think they were open minded. I have talked with others here on death row and have heard guys say that they have had jurors that just sat there and glared at them in open hostility during the entire trial, not even seeming to listen to the evidence or arguments in the case.

Because of the length of many trials (from four to six weeks in the guilt phase and another couple of weeks for the penalty phase) most young people are not a part of death penalty juries. Since most young people attend college, or have jobs where they can not be excused for a few months to sit in a trial, most of the jurors who end up sitting on a death penalty case are older people, many of them retired. The reason I mention this is because older people, usually have strong opinions and are more rigid in their thinking. They are usually less open minded and less likely to listen to both sides of an argument. They have had a lifetime of hearing about how the courts coddle the defendants, how the defendant has all the laws and all of the breaks on their side, so they tend to feel it is their big chance to get even. The reality of it is that since the sixties, the courts and the politicians have whittled away at the protection that a person on trial has . . . unless they have a lot of money to spend on lawyers and experts.

I wanted to go on some more about this, because of space, I will have to stop here and continue next time. I hope it's not too boring for you, but as I said, a lot of people have written and asked about how this process works, so I am trying to explain it as best that I can. I'll try to finish up on this in the next one I write. Thanks for being patient.