Juror #11's View on an Assault with a Firearm Trial - Part 1

Nov 29, 2010

Photo courtesy of fuschia_foot

I've been a bit MIA from the blog in the past few months, and like a lot of people, I'll beg off on being busy. One reason I was busy was I was called and subsequently selected to serve on a jury here in the city of San Francisco, which I found a fascinating process. As the case ended yesterday we, as jurors, are allowed to discuss the case, so I thought I'd write about my experience. It's a bit long, so I'm going to break this one up into two parts.

Pre-trial I was called to report the week of October 18, and the instructions I received indicated I was to call the Friday before, October 15, to find out if I would need to report. On Friday when I called I was instructed to call again on Monday, and on Monday I was again instructed to call on Tuesday, where I was told to come in to the hall of justice the next morning. After reporting the next morning around 8:40 AM the juror pool sat in a fairly large (100+ people) room waiting for instructions. We watched a cheesy video that attempted to explain the process in the State of California, and a distinctly heard someone snicker when the video announced that California was the nation's greatest state. I'm guessing perhaps all the talk about how California is broken throughout the election campaign is catching up with us.

After more waiting in the room a lady came in and announced that the next names read would need to report to courtroom 27, and they proceeded to call out a lot of names (I subsequently found out it was 130). I was one of these, so I packed my stuff up and headed down to courtroom 27. I don't quite remember what happened next, but I remember thinking in the courtroom that the setup was very theatrical – the judge on a raised platform looking down on everyone, his clerk, bailiff, and stenographer beneath him, and the defense and prosecutor at different tables in front of him. To his right, or the left side of the courtroom when you enter, was the jury box.

I believe the first thing that happened was the judge, the honorable Newton Lam, asked if anyone had any hardships – and asked people to fill out forms if so. A good chunk of the room did, and I believe after they filled them out we had a recess and they reviewed them and excused a large number of people. At that point I think explained the case – a criminal one, with the defendant, Steven Peters, charged with assault with a semi-automatic firearm and felony possession of a firearm. He may have also explained the complete jury instructions, but I don't remember that explicitly. The court clerk, an Indian lady with a very American name, then called up the first 18 potential jurors to the box. The prosecutor and defense attorneys then got to ask a number of questions of the potential jurors.

Making the Jury Jury selection took the better part of two days, as the attorneys asked numerous questions of the people called to the panel. I noticed a couple interesting things during the process:

  • Some people were doing their best to get off the panel, and thus were going to say pretty much anything to ensure they weren't selected. When asked how they felt about hand guns they went on about how guns were the root of all evil and they couldn't judge anyone innocent who had been charged with a gun crime.

  • Two people made it very far in the process and weaseled their way out at that point: one young lady who worked for a beer distributor noted she had a business trip that would have to be canceled, and when the court seemed determined to keep her, returned from a break with the shocking news that “she remembered she had a friend who worked for the DA's office”. The other young man was a software engineer for a startup video game company, and was concerned his company would lose a large contract if he were selected for the jury. At the point when we were going to be sworn in for the jury he piped up “what's the penalty for not showing up to jury duty – is it a fine or jail?”. The judge conferred with counsel, and reluctantly – and angrily – dismissed the man. When the man thanked him he retorted “don't thank me!” and gave a lecture on the importance of jury duty.

  • There were a couple of interesting stories during the selection process. One man was an engineer by day and a “mind reader” at night. This prompted a number of funny questions from the prosecutor and defense attorney about whether he could “read their minds” or “determine what the defendant is thinking”, and it emerged that was really an expert in reading body language – and would need to control the circumstances to perform his trick. He was excused. Another old lady who had a really odd shape – she looked as if she were pregnant, but she was far too old (70s?) to be pregnant – had an interesting story about being a caretaker for a schizophrenic patient who had freaked out and called the police and reported her as a missing person on the previous day. She was quickly excused.

In the end 12 of us remained, and were sworn in for the trial.

The Trial The facts of the case where these:

  • The “victim” was a man by the name of Donald Sargent, a 50 year old Black resident of San Francisco. He had supposedly been a nurse for 23 years, although he hasn't practiced medicine since 1991 (this doesn't really add up, he would have been 7 when he started nursing)

  • Mr. Sargent has a large number of health problems (including severe arthritis) and uses a cane and various medication, including soma (muscle relaxers) and medicinal cannabis.

  • The defendant was Steven Peters, a resident of an apartment on Revere and 3rd street in the Bayview neighborhood of San Francisco – one of the worst neighborhoods in the city. Mr. Peters' is black, and though his age was not mentioned during the trial I'd guess he is mid-to-late 30s, and one notable fact was that he was in a wheelchair.

  • Mr. Peters lived on the first floor of a 3 unit apartment building, and had a “godsister” upstairs by the name of Boo (real name Cassandra). Boo's house was affectionately known in the neighborhood as the “candy house” due to the fact neighborhood kids would come over for candy (unclear as to whether this was provided free of charge or whether a retail operation was being run from this home).

  • On Friday, July 10 2010 Mr. Sargent (also known as “Sarge”) went over to Mr. Peter's house to hang out for the weekend. Mr. Sargent, however, forgot to bring his cane and soma medication. He did, however, remember to bring his marijuana.

  • On Saturday Mr. Sargent and Mr. Peters were hanging out and planning what to do for the evening, where apparently a friend of theirs, Didi, and her boyfriend were planning to come over, along with a friend of Mr. Peters, Passion. The two went down to a store and bought some food and beer for the night – a six pack of Budweiser and 4 tall cans for Mr. Sargent.

  • On the evening of July 11, around 8pm or so, Mr. Sargent and Didi's boyfriend were playing cards together at the living room table in Mr. Peter's house, while Mr. Peters and his friend Passion were hanging out on the couch watching TV and enjoying themselves.

  • While Mr. Peters does not know for sure whether there was gambling going on, he does recall money being on the table. During the game Mr. Sargent drank his 4 tall cans and one budweiser, and smoked some of his medicinal marijuana. Mr. Peters had a few budweisers and smoked the weed as well.

  • After the game ended – where it was strongly hinted that it ended because Mr. Sargent was “wiped out” of all his funds – Didi and her boyfriend went upstairs to Boo's house, and Mr. Sargent followed, with the intention of saying goodbye.

  • After Mr. Sargent said goodbye to Boo he headed back down to Mr. Peters' house to grab his bag and heat up a hamburger he had left over from the earlier trip to the store.

  • When Mr. Sargent comes downstairs and knocks on the door he hears Mr. Peters' yell out in an annoyed voice something to the effect of “all these people need to stop crowding in my house”. I also got the impression it might have been a slightly stronger “all these people need to get the fuck out of my house”.

The Victim's Story This is where the stories diverge, so let's take the Victim's story first:

According to Mr. Sargent, when he came back downstairs his intent was to get his food – he had a hamburger left over from their earlier trip to the store – microwave it, grab his bag, and head home. Standing in front of the microwave, with the front door to his right and the hall to the living room to his left Mr. Sargent turned around to find Mr. Peters pointing a gun at him. Shocked, he begins to attempt to talk his good friend out of shooting him and pleads for him to put the weapon away. The exact words escape me, but I believe the phrase “nigga, what you doing with that gun” was used, and Mr. Sargent insisted that the defendant didn't say a thing while pointing the gun at him, just looking at him with “that look he get in his eye”. Mr. Peters then appears to go for the trigger, so he jumps in the air to avoid the gun hitting him in the chest where the it was pointed, and he's shot “next to his hoo-hoo”. The bullet goes through his leg and he decides to go for the gun, and wrestles Mr. Peters to the ground, where he's able to get the gun away from him and kick it under his wheelchair.

At this point Mr. Sargent jumps up and heads for the door, grabbing his bag and heads for Boo's place on the floor above. When he enters Boo's apartment he attempts to tell Boo and the other people over that he is shot, but they don't believe him. He offers to pull down his pants to show them where he has been wounded, but with “so many womenfolk there” he decides it's a bad idea and heads for the door. After leaving the building he heads for the bus stop, where he plans to take the bus to the Muni T train stop and then get the 22 bus to get home. Mr. Sargent, being a medic, says plans to take care of the bleeding and not get the police involved, but this assertion is somewhat belied an encounter he claims to have had on the way to the bus stop. He says he happened on a police officer, car number 081, and he tells the officer he's been shot. The officer, however, doesn't believe him, and after he offers to pull down his pants and show him the wound he is threatened with an indecent exposure ticket and quickly hurries on. Mr. Sargent helpfully offers that police officers in the Bayview aren't very pleasant to people as an explanation for the seemingly odd behavior by the officer. He then gets to the bus stop where he finds a stick and an old rag and makes a tourniquet for his wound, and after waiting for a bit decides to walk to the Muni T stop to find the train. When the Muni arrives he explains to the officer he's been shot and begs his way on as he doesn't have any money, but again the driver doesn't believe that he's been shot. Mr. Sargent does note that he was on the Muni – where are the security tapes - “they got it on camera!”.

After another transfer to the 22 bus he arrives at his home on 16th and Folsom where he heads into his apartment, intent on stopping the bleeding. His friend, spotting him arriving, knocks on his door and enters the apartment. After 10 or 15 minutes of attempting and failing to stop the bleeding he heads downstairs to the front desk where he asks the clerk to call an ambulance as he's been shot. The police are quickly summoned, and officers arrive asking him to provide information on who shot him. The police offer who testified noted that Mr. Sargent was rude and somewhat hysterical, but they were finally able to coax his “brother's” address out of him – a 3-story apartment on Revere across from a Church. The officer who takes this information down notes that he actually said he'd been shot in the living room, but Mr. Sargent's story during the trial is that he was shot in his hotel room.

At this point Mr. Sargent goes with the ambulance to the hospital, and other officers are summoned to Mr. Peters' home to investigate the incident. 5 or 6 officers arrive at Mr. Peters' place and knock on his door. Mr. Peters answers the door and is asked “if anything happened at the apartment during the evening”. He responds “no”, and then is asked if the officers can search his home. He answers “yes”, and is then asked “if there are any weapons at the place”. Mr. Peters' answers: “the gun is under the bottom right drawer under the dresser”. The officers then have Mr. Peters' sign a search authorization form, he's read his Miranda rights, and the police search his home and find a gun under the dresser, a 9mm with the serial number filed off, loaded, and with the slide pulled back.

In my next post I'll discuss the Victim's story, the outcome, and my takeaways from jury duty