Friday, September 3, 2010
Reflections after Jury Duty, and on Being Sober for One Year
I'm of the mind that things happen for a reason, and that there is meaning and beauty in coincidence.
I've just spent the last week and a half serving on a jury for a case in San Mateo County Court, and darn it, I admit it, I did my best to get myself excused from serving. It was a DUI (drug, not alcohol) case involving the California Highway Patrol, so I forthrightly told the judge and counsel that not only am I a recovering alcoholic and know many people who've had DUIs, but also I am legally married to an ex-California Highway Patrol officer. So I was subjected to a fair amount of quizzing on my ability to remain objective in the matter. Apparently I answered just fine, because I stayed on the jury. Interestingly, another jury member had herself once gotten a DUI she didn't even contest. We also had a French chef, an architect, a retired Hawaiian who blows glass nowadays ... it was a real mix of personalities. Two of us were gay. Most of us were white; there were three Asians; the French chef (pastry chef, mmmm); and a couple of folks of mixed ethnicity. Equal numbers of men and women. Just seating the jury (12 members, two alternates) took two entire days, and every last one of us was of the strong conviction that the defendant was innocent and had to be proved guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
The upshot of all of this is that I was reminded how lucky we are to be in America. You are innocent unless twelve of your peers--people who don't even know each other and have no personal investment in the outcome of the case--reach unanimous consensus that the evidence PROVES your guilt. Sure, sometimes people are wrongly convicted and sometimes people are set free when they're not innocent. But, by and large, it is the fairest system of justice on this planet.
Back to the case. The defendant was accused of driving under the influence of a drug, causing great bodily injury. We found her guilty. It was not a joyous "gotcha" kind of decision. On the contrary, it made us sad, not just for the two men that were horribly injured in the accident, but also for the defendant. Here was a woman, now 51 years of age, whom, six years ago, got behind the wheel of her car to drive home while she was stoned on prescription meds. Clearly there was no intention to harm anyone; clearly she made a series of bad decisions because she was not thinking rationally. She was a longtime sufferer from migraine headaches and depression, and you would not believe the number of medications this poor thing was taking. Prozac. Wellbutrin. Valproic acid and butalbitol. Florinal (codeine and acetamenophin). And a couple more I can't remember, another of which contained codeine (we're not allowed to bring our notes back with us; they are destroyed after the trial). On top of these, she had been feeling sick, so she'd also taken either Sudafed or Dayquil (she couldn't remember, and the blood test results put before us as evidence didn't test for those).
Complicating the matter was that she'd been taking this stuff for twenty years or so, so she'd built up a good amount of tolerance. It's a part of addiction. Both of her doctors testified, and it was clear they knew addiction and tolerance was a part of the deal in her pain management. The doctor who'd prescribed the pain killers had even had the defendant sign a contract agreeing that she wouldn't take in excess of 30 codeine pills a week. If that wasn't enough, she always had the option of going to the Emergency Room for a shot of Demerol. But she seemed to be more in the habit of just taking codeine for her migraines as needed, and anybody who knows anybody who has ever taken pain meds knows that it's easy to forget when or if you took a dose, especially if you start feeling crappy.
So, it is surmised that she took an additional dose (or two) in the afternoon the day of the accident, and either forgot about it or is being untruthful about that. Blood evidence proved she had a toxic dose of codeine in her blood in addition to its byproduct, morphine. The defense argued that, given her tolerance, the amount in her blood was negligible and did not impair her. Or, more accurately, defense was that she was not right, not well, and caused the accident, but that it wasn't the drugs she had on board that made her not right.
But the prosecution had what amounted to a silver bullet: the testimony of a witness who followed this woman while she was driving and witnessed the accident. He was so appalled by her driving that he got on the phone with the CHP and described what he was seeing as she weaved up her way up Interstate 280 for 22.6 miles until, finally, she rear-ended at full speed a car that was stalled on the shoulder. It was shocking and horrifying. She was slowing down, speeding up. Weaving between three lanes. Driving so far onto the shoulder she almost smacked the guard rail numerous times. She'd start to exit, then pull suddenly back onto the highway. The witness following her had his flashers on, trying to caution other cars. Other cars, when realizing what was up, would flash their brights at her and honk. All to no avail. The witness testified that she came close to causing an accident at least twenty times until she finally hit the stalled car on the shoulder.
It is simply indisputable that she was highly impaired.
So the defense wanted us to believe that it was the flu or the return of a migraine or something else that made her drive like that. We just couldn't buy that. She wasn't having a seizure; she wasn't a diabetic; she told the paramedics at the scene of the accident that she was okay and that nothing was wrong with her minivan; she stated in a deposition that she'd been coughing and sneezing when she hit the stalled car.
But you know, you just don't cough and sneeze so badly that you drive like that for 22.6 miles. NOT FOR 22.6 MILES.
She was high as a kite.
So, you know, she slammed into the back of a car that was getting a jump from a friend (whose car started out beside the stalled car and wound up 20-30 feet away down the embankment, overturned). That's how hard she hit. The driver of the stalled car had severe injuries to his vertebrae, and damage to his kidneys and lungs. The friend who'd been standing at the hood of the hit car applying the jumper cables shattered his leg and broke many of the bones in his face. These men both testified, along with the overseeing physician who treated them at Stanford, and they are both disabled. Both are able to walk now, one with some difficulty and the other just had another surgery to his knee so is on crutches) but were wheelchair bound and used walkers for quite some time. Neither will fully recover, ever.
Thus the ultimate verdict was guilty of driving under the influence of a drug (which covers drugs plural and/or interactions between them), causing great bodily injury.
The defense was displeased because, you know, he'd made a pretty good case for reasonable doubt about the CODEINE being the culprit. But the fact is, the prosecution didn't have to prove it was the codeine alone that was the bad guy. The fact is that she had lots of stuff in her blood, including one prescription drug that no one can account for because it wasn't even prescribed to her (ahem), not to mention adding over-the-counter drugs (Sudafed is particularly a sedative) to the mix. She was messed up and should have known better than to drive (not to mention that her account of that day was full of holes and contradictions, so we didn't really find her account of what she had taken to be credible).
Thus the verdict. We twelve were comfortable with it, and then the defense attorney insisted we be polled as to the verdict's veracity, so each of us had to say independently that we agreed with the verdict. Not a single one of us hesitated.
Afterwards, it's permitted that the attorneys meet with the jurors for feedback, so a couple hung back outside the courtroom, willing to do so. The defense attorney wasn't interested in hearing from us. The prosecuting attorney did stop to chat.
She shared that she couldn't tell us this in trial, but the fact is, this same defendant did it again two years later. This time she didn't hurt anyone, but she managed to hit twelve cars in a parking lot while driving messed up on her meds.
We made the right decision and were glad to hear that she no longer has a driver's license.
I have no idea what her sentence will be; that part is out of our hands. That part is left for the judge to decide. I trust the judge will hand down a fair sentence. And, I hope the defendant gets help (or has gotten help; she seemed pretty calm, collected, and pain free throughout the trial).
The lesson for me as a recovering alcoholic? Well, it's this: there but for the grace of God go I. Later in my drinking career when it was nothing for me to down fifteen or more drinks in one drinking session, I wasn't really one to drive; I simply knew better. The way I thought about it was like this: I can drink all I want and hurt my own body all I like. That involves only me. But the second I get behind the wheel of a car, I'm involving other people who had no choice in the matter in my decision. When I was much younger and drinking less, that choice was blurrier to me. I have certainly driven a few times when I should not have, and I was lucky. I could've killed someone. There but for the grace of God go I.
And that's the lesson for everybody else to carry away. Don't drive if you've been drinking or if you're under the influence of drugs. Period. Those "caution" labels are on medications, even over-the-counter ones, for a reason. They don't say "Driving While Fucked Up Is Optional." They say "Use Caution" or "Use Extreme Caution." Your doctors also warn you for a reason. Your pharmacist warns you for a reason.
It's very easy to overshoot, to think you're processing drugs or alcohol just fine, but when you're under their influence, it's easy to think WRONG.
Don't risk it.
When you risk it, it's not just YOUR life you're risking.
I am 364 days sober today and am a grateful member of Alcoholics Anonymous. Today, I am particularly grateful that, a year ago, I got to detox in a rehab and not in jail.