Lisa Morton

Author, Screenwriter, Halloween Expert…what's next?

“Oh, no…a jury summons.”

How many times have we voiced that when receiving those odious notices in the mail? Here in the county of Los Angeles, ours are pink, easy to spot, always met with dread.

For some reason known only to some computer algorithm buried deep within the servers of Los Angeles County, I get the damn things a lot – about every eighteen months. Most of the time I just have to call in for a week, and never have to head to a courthouse. Until last week, I’d been on one actual jury*, and had been in the pools for others but not chosen.

Last week – great way to start off a new year, right? – I got the notice to report on Friday, the 5th. I had to go to the San Fernando Courthouse. At least it wasn’t downtown L.A. this time, where I’d always had to report before. The San Fernando Courthouse was close. I consoled myself with that, and with thinking chances were slim that I’d wind up on a jury.

That day, the entire pool (probably 70 or 80 of us) was called to Superior Court N. The case, we were told, involved a kidnapping and sexual assault of a fourteen-year-old boy that had taken place sixteen – yes, SIXTEEN – years ago. We were warned of several things involving this case: that it would be a difficult case; that the defendant was a gay man; and that the victim was now a convicted murderer.

They began calling jurors; they do it by a little serial number that appears on your badge. They called about 30 jurors. They weeded out a number of potentials who had familial ties to law enforcement; one elderly man was excused because he had problems with gay men and accusations of pedophilia. Others expressed difficulty dealing with anything surrounding sexual assault on a minor. One person was dismissed after muttering something about, “Perverts.”

My number was called. I marched up to the jury box. I answered the questions put to me – yes, I believed I was capable of judging the case only on the basis of evidence presented – and both the prosecution and defense approved.

And so I found myself serving as Juror #8, trying a man who was alleged to have kidnapped and assaulted a teenage boy in 2001. I knew it would be an especially tough time for me because I’d be doing jury duty during the day and running a bookstore in the evening. The trial was estimated to run 5-10 days. That was a whole lot of 13-hour days I was looking at. But as the trial unfolded with the intrigue and pace of a great crime novel, I soon found the sacrifice didn’t seem so bad.

Over the course of the next four days, we heard numerous witnesses, we saw dozens of pieces of evidence presented by the People, and I learned a lot about the law and science. The facts were:

On a Friday in June of 2001, two fourteen-year-old boys – Mike and Ozzie – decided to cut classes at their high school in the San Fernando Valley. As they headed for the local mall, they passed an elementary school. Across the street from the school’s playground, a man approached them and produced a gun. Ozzie fled. Mike, however, froze.

The man forced Mike into his car at gunpoint. Once in the car, he threw something over Mike’s head and drove them a short distance. He pulled into a garage and got Mike out of the car. He ordered Mike into the house. Mike glimpsed a red sports car and a pool in the backyard. Mike was then taken to a living room and bound to a chair with plastic zip-ties. After threatening Mike with the gun and a nutcracker (can you guess which part of Mike’s anatomy the man said he’d be using that on?), the man forced alcohol down the terrified boy’s throat, then stripped him and sexually assaulted him.

The assault continued for several hours, during which the man also showed Mike pornographic films on the television. When he was finished, the man offered Mike three hundred dollars, which the boy refused. The man put the money in Mike’s wallet anyway. He then drove Mike back to near where he’d taken him, and left him there.

Mike walked the short distance to his home, where he found police waiting – his friend Ozzie had told his parents about the man with the gun. Mike was then taken to a hospital, where a second ordeal awaited: he was stripped naked, told to lie back on an examining bed, his feet were placed in stirrups, and his genitals were photographed and swabbed for DNA.

Unfortunately, police were unable to catch Mike’s abductor. For whatever reason, they couldn’t lift prints from the money, nobody had gotten a license plate number from the perpetrator’s car, and the investigation went nowhere.

Five years later, Mike was arrested on a murder charge and two attempted murders, and was convicted of all three. Ozzie – whom he hadn’t seen in a year – moved with his family to Texas.

In 2009, the DNA from Mike’s sexual assault kit was sent out for testing. It came back with DNA from a “foreign profile” found on the swabs taken from Mike’s genitals. There was no match.

Then, in 2017, the DNA of the “foreign profile” was matched to that of a man who’d been arrested on a felony theft charge. The case was reopened and assigned to a new I.O. (Investigating Officer), who gathered all of the old evidence together (or at least what was left – some of it, including the three hundred-dollar bills, had been destroyed in the intervening decade-and-a-half), and obtained a search warrant of the suspect’s apartment (he’d moved from the Valley to Hollywood). During the search, detectives found a mountain of evidence, including the gun, a nutcracker, zip-ties, photos of a red car, and pornography showing young naked men bound and being assaulted.

The suspect was arrested. The case came to trial. And I landed on that jury.

Yes, it was alternately fascinating and harrowing, especially when Mike – now a 31-year-old felon – testified. They removed the jury from the courtroom before Mike was brought in, presumably so we wouldn’t see him in shackles; when we entered, he was already seated in the witness box. He was a broad-shouldered man with wavy dark hair; he might have been considered handsome were it not for his expression (which I suspected was permanent) of fearful mistrust. When Mike spoke, his voice was soft and hesitant; although the judge urged him several times to answer clearly, he could rarely manage more than a quiet, “Yeah.” He had trouble understanding questions; sometimes he just froze. When it came time for the defense attorney to cross-examine him, Mike turned anxiously to the judge and asked, “Do I have to answer him?” We didn’t need to be told that Mike hadn’t made a deal to lessen his own time in order to testify. I never once doubted Mike’s account of what had happened to him on that day in June 2001; he obviously still carried the pain with him every waking second. I wondered how much the terrible events of that day had to do with Mike’s own crimes; it was easy to imagine this wounded man acting out rage over what had been done to him. Mike testified that the perpetrator had said to him, “You remind me of the man who did this to me!” Mike was just one more link in a long chain of violence and retribution.

We heard from criminalists (did you know that was even a word? I didn’t. And criminalists have degrees in “criminalistics”) who told us about how they examined evidence. We heard from a DNA expert about the 1-in-320 sextrillion chance that anyone else could have the defendant’s DNA. We listened to Ozzie, now a pleasant man living in Texas, describe what happened. And we listened as the prosecution called the defendant’s husband, who I can only imagine must have been in agony as he honestly recalled facts about his life with the defendant…and some of those facts – like how his husband often worked nights and so had his days free – were particularly damning.

The defense attorney had an impossible task, given the mountain of evidence. Where the deputy district attorney overseeing the prosecution was cool and methodical (and female, by the way, as were all of the criminalists, the DNA expert, and the new detective), the defender was flamboyant. He did his best to poke holes in some of the testimony, but it was an uphill swim. He produced exactly one witness, an elderly woman who claimed to have witnessed the abduction in 2001; halfway through her various interviews over the years, her story had changed to include “an African-American man who drove the car.” The defense introduced two pieces of evidence (as compared to nearly thirty put forth by the prosecution), including a sketch of the suspect from 2001, compiled from Mike’s description. Later on, as the jury deliberated, we all had to question the logic of that, since we thought the sketch really did significantly resemble the suspect.

At the close of the trial, we headed into the jury deliberation room, and I wondered what my fellow jurors thought. Would there be one or two who had somehow been swayed by the defense’s (theatrical) efforts?

I very quickly discovered the eleven other jurors were smart, decent people who were all horrified by the crimes and wanted to make the right choice. We discussed what the defense had presented, we looked at evidence again, we went over the counts and added allegations. We asked for clarification in deciding between “simple kidnapping” and “aggravated kidnapping”. The judge was helpful, and we were able to reach unanimous decisions in about two hours. We found the defendant guilty of both counts, as well as four special allegations (including use of a firearm in commission of the crimes, and tying and binding of the victim).

We returned to the courtroom. The judge reviewed the verdicts before handing them to his clerk to read aloud. The defendant remained impassive throughout. His husband sobbed quietly in the gallery.

I returned home and for the first time since the trial started (yes, I really did follow the jury instructions and didn’t google the case until we were done), I looked up the defendant online, mainly because I was curious as to how his DNA had been obtained (we hadn’t been told that in court). I found out he’d been arrested on a grand theft charge in 2016, and so his DNA had been taken as it is with all felony convictions. There were a lot of news articles about him. Police speculated that he may have hurt other kids. I’d wondered that, too. How many other boys had he kidnapped, violated and then bought off with money, as if they were no more than disposable products for him to use at his will?

I don’t know how our thoughtful, upbeat judge will sentence the defendant, but one story I read said he’s looking at 35 years to life. I feel sorry for his husband, and of course I feel most badly for Mike, who had any semblance of happiness ripped from him in a few hours. But I’m not unhappy about knowing that a system I haven’t always trusted in the past worked, and that a true human monster will now be locked away in part because of a jury summons I got in the mail six weeks ago.

*The other time I served on a jury, it was a farce that left me with an abiding distaste for our whole justice system. The defendant was a man who had thrown a cement block through the window of an International House of Pancakes on Sunset Boulevard at four in the morning. This gentleman insisted on acting as his own attorney, and his defense consisted entirely of taking the witness stand and talking about how he was the President of the “World Miscegenation Society” and believed in “marriage between the races”. The judge would warn him to focus on the charges or be removed from the courtroom, the defendant would keep blathering on, and the judge would have the bailiff drag him out. We’d wait an hour or so, the bailiff would bring him back in, he’d promise not to do it again…and then of course take the stand and launch right back into the gibberish. At the end of two days, during which a tired prosecutor presented witnesses and police officers, the judge called an end to the proceedings and sent the jury off to deliberate. Now, keep in the mind, there was no question that this gentleman had thrown this block and destroyed this window (he couldn’t even tell us why he’d done it). Deliberations should have taken fifteen minutes tops, right? WRONG. There was the one guy who wouldn’t vote until he’d seen a police report. A police report? Really? So we waited…and waited…and waited…things move v-e-r-y slowly at the downtown courthouse…and about three hours later the bailiff came in with the police report. Five minutes later we had our guilty verdict, but we’d just wasted two days of our time on a sham trial (and three hours in a deliberation room because one idiot decided to be obstinate). Several weeks after the trial, I received (as I’m sure the other jurors did) a very apologetic letter from the judge trying to assure us that most trials weren’t like that and we shouldn’t take a dim view of the system because of a gentleman who plainly belonged in an institution, not a courtroom.

I think you understand now more of my previous utter horror of receiving jury summonses.

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