Thursday, September 30, 2010

And you thought jury duty was bad . . .

by Guest Blogger Lisa Black

My pet peeve? Court.

I am a latent print examiner and CSI for a police department in Florida, and therefore what is called an ‘expert witness.’ I spend a chunk of my time—not, relatively, a large chunk, but certainly the most inconvenient—at the county courthouse across the river.

Ct_scales “Court” is a comprehensive noun among my milieu. “I have court.” “I’ll be at court.” “What am I dressed up for? Court.” It’s a shorthand that means “I have been forced to drop what I was doing, even if it was my day off, or I was on vacation, let my work pile up on my desk or my co-workers, change clothes and stuff myself into heels or a tie, and spend my indefinite future sitting in a nine-by-nine room with no windows making desultory conversation with other victims, most of which will center around betting on how long we will be stuck there, until such time as I am summoned to an uncomfortable chair under a bright light and asked tedious and sometimes inane questions by two sets of people, one set of which needs to make me look like the biggest idiot in the northern hemisphere.”

That’s court.

Ct_definition It is the American justice system, and it’s a good one. It is the best system I can imagine and it does a pretty good job…slowly and tediously, perhaps, but on average the triers of fact usually get the facts straight. Though I may not sound appreciative of doing my part in this system, I am…in the same way a doctor probably has a hard time appreciating the glory and wonder of the human body when the ER is overstuffed and understaffed and there’s been a pile-up on I-9, two shooting victims who are screaming threats at each other, a beat-up woman who will come back next week with new broken bones, and an ex-lawyer with a concussion whose already making notes for his malpractice suit.

The scheduling itself is the biggest nightmare. I understand why subpoenas are necessary, and why people have to be threatened with jail time for ignoring them. If you’ve ever tried to plan a dinner party or a vacation you know how hard it is to coordinate the time of more than five or so people. So when a prosecutor is looking at calling fifty witnesses, those witnesses get a piece of paper that tells them to be there at such time and place, or else. And the or else is scary, at least to me, who has been inside very neat, clean, modern jails and still wants nothing to do with them. If it’s your day off, tough. (You do get paid overtime, which comes out of my city’s tax base, not the county’s, so what do they care?) If it’s your vacation, you negotiate. You try to convince the prosecutors to ‘call’ you earlier, or later. You point out that you planned this trip six months ago and informed the court liaison officer of your dates back then. You threaten to go anyway and if they want to arrest you at the airport upon re-entry, fine.

(Okay, I haven’t resorted to that last one, but believe me it’s crossed my mind more than once.) Ultimately you tell them that if they want you to testify they’re going to have to pay to fly you back for that day, and hope the cost is enough to make them consider other options. But ultimately, if they insist, there’s nothing you can do.

Or else.

Ct_handcuffs The second worst part is that second set of people asking you questions—the defense attorney(s). Even if you are not presenting a single piece of evidence or conclusion that implicates their client in any way, you are part of the State, which is trying to frame/relentlessly screw their poor young/dumb/indiscreet client. You must be shown for the charlatan you are. Last week I had an attorney object to every item I identified—samples that I had collected, labeled, sealed and stored, so there was no possibility of contamination or confusion by changing hands. These samples had never been tested and therefore did not implicate her client in any way, and still she objected. She and other attorneys lately like to spend twenty minutes telling me my job. “You would wear gloves, correct? You would set up the crime scene tape so that it encompasses the entire affected area, correct, because otherwise some evidence might not be located….” This is, of course, picking my way through a minefield, as they want me to agree to some rule that they can later show that I violated.

Ct_argument I understand this. Hammering me on the evidence that I am presenting which shows their client committed the crime—that is their job, and they should do it. The problem is, after they go on in this vein for a while, they don’t point out any ways I violated our own policy, or say that I screwed something up or did something wrong. They don’t say I am mistaken in any conclusions I have drawn. They don’t address the evidence I’m presenting that really does implicate their client. They move on to some other topic entirely, leaving me and the jury to wonder if those questions were about anything other than their billable hours.

That’s court.

Trail of blood Lisa Black spent the five happiest years of her life in a morgue, and now works as a certified latent print analyst and CSI for a police department in Florida. Her books have been published to critical acclaim in seven languages. Her most recent book, TRAIL OF BLOOD, is now available. Visit Lisa's web site at