Jury Duty

I just got off jury duty yesterday, and it was an interesting, if difficult, experience.  It was a conservatorship case in Mental Health Court.  Because it involved someone’s freedom, it required a unanimous decision by a full jury of twelve.  A man named Elzie was involuntarily committed to an institution called, La Casa.  His sister, Helene, was his conservator, someone who was legally responsible for Elzie and who saw to his needs.  Helene is a supervisor in the Dept. of Corrections.  Elzie was diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic with chronic alcoholism.  There was another sister, Cheryl, who lived nearby Helene with their 90 odd year old father, who seemed to be in a vegetative state.  Cheryl is diagnosed bipolar and has never had a job.  She has a fourteen-year old son, whom the court awarded to Helene because Cheryl could not care for him.  Helene supports everyone. Elzie was asking to be released into Cheryl’s care until he could get his own apartment.

A forensic psychiatrist testified about Elzie’s condition.  He had had two interviews with Elzie, made an extensive review of the record, and talked with the treating psychiatrist and staff.  He testified that La Casa has varying levels of care, depending on the patient’s response to treatment.  Someone who has just been admitted and is delusional and hallucinatory is a level 0 or 1.  A level 6 patient can come and go at will and is about to be released to a half-way house.  Level 5 can leave with a buddy pass.  Level four can leave if attended by staff.  Elzie was a level 3.  Furthermore, Elzie was receiving injections of medication because he had been refusing oral medication.  He had made it level 4, but then reverted to level 2. 

He went AWOL in December, and ended up passed out, drunk, and shoeless on the floor of his father’s house, and refused to go back to La Casa.  In her testimony, Helene said she called the police and told Elzie that if he didn’t let her take him back to La Casa, the police would take him back.  Elzie relented and allowed Helene to take him back.  Helene was very emotional in the witness box, claiming that Elzie was not ready to be on his own. 

Elzie had apparently made a number of 911 calls from La Casa with delusions about Helene, in one case, telling the police that she was hiding $15,000 worth of cocaine in her house.  But when Helene tried to talk about these incidents, Elzie’s lawyer made repeated objections about hearsay evidence because Helene was reporting things that others had said about Elzie, and Helene’s lawyer kept having to rephrase the questions.  Even reported comments from the police were inadmissible.  I was disappointed in Helene’s lawyer.  Hadn’t she foreseen the objections?  Why hadn’t she planned a strategy for getting that information into evidence?  Why didn’t she get the police reports?  It was a poor show.

The next morning, Cheryl took the stand.  She was wearing, I’m sure, the most dignified clothes she had, but still managed to come off rather sluttish.  She claimed to be an actress, but had never worked a day in her life.  She confessed that she had never once visited Elzie in the last six months, was ignorant of his diagnosis, had never once talked to his doctors or care-givers, and was unaware that he was on medication.  It would have been better if Elzie’s lawyer had not put her on the stand.

Elzie himself was a much better witness.  His responses were slow, and he sometimes rambled, but he was clearly not stupid.  He had been carefully prepped, and managed to adhere to the script for the most part.  He was completely impassive on the stand, except for one moment.  Helene’s lawyer asked him how he got out of La Casa in December.  He said he climbed over the fence and then flashed a triumphant grin as though that were his proudest moment of the past few years.  He told about going to the liquor store, buying some Southern Comfort, and then going to Gardena to see a girlfriend and going back to his father's  house when she wasn’t home.  So he was able to panhandle and negotiate the bus system. 

In his instructions, the judge said we were to decide only whether Elzie was gravely disabled at this moment, gravely disabled meaning unable to provide for himself food, shelter, and clothing.  For medical evidence, we were restricted to the credibility of the testifying psychiatrist.  The medical record was only pertinent as it contributed to his opinion; it could not be considered direct evidence. 

I volunteered to be the jury foreman, since I have had a lot of experience facilitating groups.  The jury itself was a very diverse group.  Most people had clerical type positions and less than a complete college education.  There was a Mexican grocery store manager whose English was heavily accented, a truck driver, a graduate student in screenwriting at USC, and a Chinese woman who was recently a citizen who was difficult to understand. 

An informal poll at the outset showed the jury to be evenly split.  I was one who felt Elzie should not be released because he just wasn’t ready.  Others felt that denying someone his freedom was a very serious affair, and they didn’t hear a compelling reason to deny Elzie his freedom.  I didn’t hear any opinions that I could not respect.

I asked people to talk about what each thought was the most compelling testimony.  We identified a number of themes to discuss separately and focused on where we could agree.  It was clear to everyone that Cheryl was not about to care for anyone; she had no credibility whatsoever.  It was also clear that Elzie was not stupid and could care for himself under some circumstances.  It all came down to one question: could Elzie stay on the medication by himself?  If he could stay medicated, he could negotiate food shelter and clothing; if he went off medication, he could not.  Even though the medication had bad side effects, without it, he would be having hallucinations and delusions and sink into a delusional universe.  Here, the evidence was not in Elzie’s favor.  He was receiving injections because he had refused oral medication, and outside La Casa, he would have to depend on oral medication.  If he had demonstrated an ability to stay on oral medication while in the institution, our decision would have been different.  We felt we had no choice but to conclude that Elzie was at this moment gravely disabled.

Even though it was a painful decision, for me, it was ultimately an affirming experience.  I was impressed with the ability of the jury to take everything into account before making a decision.  Everyone took the judge’s instructions very seriously.  Several times we referred to the instructions for guidance, and people were capable of making sophisticated interpretations.  Everyone was very concerned that we all agreed with the verdict and that no one felt pressured into a decision. I was most impressed, however, with people’s ability to empathize with Elzie and his desire for freedom, even though he was so different from any of us.