My brush with the law: jury duty

Somehow, I've managed to go this long without having done jury duty. I haven't even been summoned in the almost 25 years I've lived in Washington. I did get a summons during college in the Bay Area, but my group didn't need to show up. Finally, last year I received a summons for King County Superior Court. I was actually pretty excited about the opportunity to participate in a jury.

Jury Selection

After deferring the duty once (I was supposed to be there Christmas Eve, the day before our New York City trip), I showed up at the jurors' room in the King County Courthouse in downtown Seattle. There was a huge room full of potential jurors -- easily a few hundred including two friends of mine from Amazon (neither of whom wound up on a jury). We watched a video and then listened to a judge explain how jury duty was the most important way for a citizen to contribute to our system other than military service. We then sat around waiting to see if we'd get called to be a potential juror for a specific judge/court. Fortunately, there was wi-fi and a desk area so I was able to get some work done while waiting.

Then, my name came up along with 49 other people. I received a card with a number on it: 14. More waiting. Finally all fifty of us went to the courtroom of Judge Catherine Shaffer. We learned how to line up by number and file into the courtroom in the right order; we'd eventually get quite good at this. I was surprised that everyone in the courtroom was asked to rise when the jurors came in; I later learned this was because the jurors are officers of the court. Inside the courtroom were Judge Shaffer, her bailiff, court reporter, and courtroom clerk, as well as the prosecutor, the defense attorney, and what I later learned was the defendant.

Judge Schaffer did a great job throughout the process explaining the system; I found it quite interesting and educational. We then spent the next two days in jury selection. This involved a one page written survey (and going back down to the jurors' room). Once back in the courtroom, we were asked a series of questions about our answers on the survey and whether anyone had a reason they couldn't serve. These seemed to fall in a few camps -- upcoming travel, financial difficulty from not working for a few days, and physical issues. She was pretty firm with the travel issues (since those people could have deferred around the travel). She was also pretty binary about the financial difficulty; if serving in the jury meant you couldn't pay your essential bills like rent and utilities, she'd excuse you. Throughout the process, she kept reiterating how important it was to not talk to anyone about the case, not research anything or anyone associated with the case, and to only get information about the case through what was presented in the courtroom. This made total sense, but it was hard not to want to talk about it or look up information on the case and people involved.

We didn't finish the interviews on Monday, and they didn't need to talk to me on Tuesday. On Wednesday, the judge, prosecutor, and defense attorney lead us through a discussion and asked some questions directly -- had you or someone close to you been sexually assaulted, could you imagine finding someone guilty even if there were no physical evidence, could you see past racial stereotypes (the defendant was black) to rule impartially, etc. We started to get a picture of what kind of case this would be. Finally, by mid-afternoon, we knew who was selected. Since I was number 14 and they select 13 jurors (12 plus an alternate -- although who the alternate would be wouldn't be decided until the end of the trial via random selection), I figured it was highly likely I'd get picked. Sure enough, they dismissed a few people ahead of me, so I wound up on the jury.

Photo of the courtroom

The Trial

The trial started the next Monday. The charge was Attempted Indecent Liberties (an attempt to sexually gratify one's self with someone who is not capable of consenting). The defendant showed up drunk at his ex-sister-in-law's house in Renton at 3:00a. After talking and drinking together, she went to sleep. He allegedly went into the 16 year old daughter's bedroom where she was asleep and pulled down her pajama bottoms. She awoke to feeling pressure and then saw the defendant fumbling with his pants. She went out and woke up her mom. The mom went to her bedroom, got out a rifle (a scoped .303 -- a pretty big hunting rifle) and chased the defendant out of the house. The daughter was the one who called 911, afraid that her mom was going to shoot her uncle. The police showed up pretty quickly then took the mom and daughter to Harborview Hospital. The daughter was checked out, but since there was no penetration, they didn't test for things that might have left DNA. The daughter talked to a social worker there too.

The prosecutor and then the defense attorney made their opening remarks. I thought the prosecutor laid out a pretty clear story. The defense attorney was a little more dramatic (overly so IMHO) and was clearly trying to inject doubt into our minds. Then the prosecutor started calling his witnesses. He called two King County deputies first. They didn't remember much from the case since it happened 2.5 years ago, but once they saw the reports they filed, they remembered more. The defense cross examined a little, but this whole part was mostly non-eventful to me (although I was amazed they had both been working in the King County Sheriffs for over 30 years). He then called the mother. She seemed pretty tough -- not afraid and very straightforward about her opinions. During cross examination by the defense, she started getting visibly mad, which I think may have been the attorney's intent.

We then heard from the daughter. She was understandably nervous and shy about talking about what happened, especially around the details of the contact. At a few points, I could see a tear rolling down her cheek. The defense tried to inject some doubt about the story by showing inconsistencies in the different reports from the police and  social worker about what side of her body she was sleeping on. However, the daughter kept having to hold her fingers up in the "L" shapes to figure out which side was left and right; she admitted she confused the sides a lot, but she was very clear she was facing the wall. (We had a photo of her bedroom for reference.) After seeing this, I wasn't surprised by the inconsistencies in the report.

The next day (Tuesday) we heard from the detective who handled the case and the social worker (one of them might have testified on Monday, I don't recall now). The detective didn't impress me much, but the social worker's testimony was consistent with what we had heard earlier. The defense didn't call any witnesses; in particular, the defendant did not testify. Judge Schaffer reminded us that the defense has no burden to prove anything, that the defendant doesn't have to testify, and that the fact the defendant didn't testify was not evidence of anything. We broke early for lunch then came back for closing arguments and instructions from the judge. Again, I thought the prosecutor did a good job tying the story together while the defense mostly just tried to create reasonable doubt, reminding us that even if the evidence was clear and convincing, meeting the bar of beyond a reasonable doubt needed in a criminal trial like this one was a higher standard. The bailiff drew a number out of a box to pick which of us was the alternate juror. He was then excused. (I would have been a little bummed to get picked as the alternate at that point; I'd have wanted to get the whole experience.)


The Deliberation

The jurors filed into the adjoining jury room around 3:00pm or 3:30 and sat around the table. We quickly selected a jury foreman, a young guy who had been through law school but wasn't a practicing attorney. I'm not sure who suggested him, but since no one else really seemed to want to be the foreman, he accepted the role, which was mostly to run the discussion and keep things moving.

I went in thinking the verdict was pretty clear but was willing to listen to the others. I figured this would go quickly and that we might even finish before the courtroom closed up at 4:30. However, everyone wanted to be deliberate and hear each person's view; I thought this was fair and tried not to let my desire to wrap up quickly affect things. It seemed most people were leaning toward guilty, but then one guy started proposing a pretty wild theory, that the mom didn't like the defendant and made up the whole thing to frame him, that maybe the defendant was never even in the bedroom. He wasn't sure at all that the defendant was guilty. We had to leave for the day with this theory still out there.

We came back Wednesday morning. The guy with the wild theory had thought about it a lot overnight and realized it was a little far fetched vs. the testimony. We discussed the case for about another 45 minutes. At this point I tried to move us to consider the three things that had to be proven for a guilty verdict: that the defendant had taken substantial steps toward committing an act of indecent liberty, that he had an intent to commit this act, and that the act took place in Washington State. We voted on each pretty quickly (with only one speech about how a guilty verdict would probably ruin the defendant's life), unanimously agreeing on a guilty verdict. We had to wait about 40 minutes for the attorneys and defendant to come back to hear the verdict. We filed in, the judge read our verdict, and then we each had to answer to the judge whether this was our vote individually and that this was the decision of the entire jury. The defendant had been pretty stoic through whole trial, but he was shaking his head a little after the judge read the verdict. I'm very confident we made the right decision, but I couldn't help but feel a little bad for the guy. His life will never be the same again.

Somewhat surprisingly, we each received a certificate recognizing our service. (Sentencing happens later and doesn't need us.) Then, as we left the courtroom, the prosecutor and defense attorney were waiting outside. The judge had told us they might want feedback, but since they didn't stop me to ask, I left. My duty was done.

Photo of my certificate of recognition

Some thoughts

Overall, I was impressed with the process and especially Judge Schaffer. As I mentioned, she explained things well to the jurors. She was also clearly concerned about everyone's comfort, even bringing in pastry and bagels for us each morning.

Before coming, I was concerned about crazy, illogical people in the jury. There were certainly more non-sequitors and logical mistakes during the discussion than I'm used to in my meetings at Amazon or Microsoft, but the deliberations were mostly on topic and rational, modulo the one crazy theory. My fellow jurors seemed able to separate their personal experiences out and only consider what was presented as evidence.

The biggest hassle about the process was the lack of predictability around time. Each potential juror is called for either two days or the length of one trial. I blocked out time on my calendar at work, but I wound up going into the office on Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday the first week but then back in court on Monday through Wednesday the next week. There was also a lot of waiting around at the courthouse, first in the main jurors' room and then in our jury room. The days were shorter and slower paced than my normal work day.

While I don't think it played a role in this case, I would have liked the jury to be more diverse. There was only one woman out of the thirteen of us. There was one black man (maybe two -- I wasn't clear about one guy) and three Asians. The rest were white men. Other than gender, this might actually map pretty well to Seattle's demographics, but it still looked pretty unbalanced.

I was surprised that the bailiff was a law clerk, not a sheriff. The bailiff's role is to keep the court running smoothly and serve as a liaison with the jurors. I guess I watch too much TV. The whole trial was not like TV, in fact. I knew this going in, but it was still a little surprising how matter-of-fact and almost mundane most of it seemed.

One nice perq was having 90 minutes for lunch in a different area of town. I got a chance to visit some of my favorite places that I don't normally get to visit -- in particular Salumi (opened by Mario Batalli's dad, they make sandwiches from their house-made salamis -- awesome) and Mike's Noodle House (good Hong Kong-style noodle and congee joint).

I'm glad I got a chance to do this (and that it was a short case). It's definitely worth doing.

A call for reason

Like people around the world, I'm truly devastated by the senseless tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary; I definitely feel extra grateful my kids are safely at home tonight.

In the wake of an event like this, it's understandable, admirable, and very human to want to prevent it from ever happening again. My Facebook feed seems like a microcosm of our society, with some making fervent calls for increased (or even total) gun control while others assert that armed teachers might have made a difference. Most just express deep sadness and disbelief.

I'm not making any statements here about what, if anything, we should do; rather, I'd like to suggest how we might go about it.

First, although I appreciate the desire to do something now, I think reacting immediately can lead to poor policy choices. One has only to look to America's recent past for examples: the internment of Japanese-Americans after Pearl Harbor and the passage of the Patriot Act after 9/11. These seemingly well-intentioned actions made at the height of emotion limited Fifth and Fourth Amendment rights in the name of public good. However, the internment has been officially acknowledged as a national injustice and disgrace, and the Patriot Act has already had several portions ruled unconstitutional. I believe it will be seen by history as a similar injustice.

If we choose to limit or eliminate our Second Amendment rights, we should do so with clear heads (and in a legal fashion). There are no absolute rights, but I certainly think we should be cautious whenever there are calls to suspend, curtail, or overturn our liberties for the public good.

Second, we owe it to ourselves and each other to be informed and intellectually disciplined, that those who make policy or vote on it should understand the facts. For example, many people were shocked when US Representative Todd Akin demonstrated his ignorance of basic human physiology when he said that women's bodies can shut prevent pregnancies from "legitimate rape". Fortunately, I think many people were relieved he lost his bid for US Senate, preventing him from setting potentially damaging policies around reproductive rights or women's health.

I think we should be equally intolerant of people similarly ignorant about guns, current gun law, and gun control history who would propose gun control solutions. In the past, this has lead to feel-good but useless measures like banning Teflon-coated "cop killer" bullets. (Teflon doesn't enable bullets to penetrate body armor; in fact it reduces the round's ability to do so.) Learning about guns from Rambo is as insufficient as learning about science from Jurassic Park.

I've even seen my incredibly intelligent and well-educated colleagues ignore their understanding of statistics and logic. For example, they cite comparisons with other countries as evidence that gun control in the US would be effective (e.g. Japan), ineffective (e.g. Jamaica), or unnecessary (e.g. Switzerland), as if the only difference between these societies were in their gun laws. While it may be instructive to learn from other countries, we shouldn't confuse correlation with causation. I believe policy is only as good as the factual and logical foundation upon which it is built.

Most important, we must actually listen to one another. The balance between gun rights and gun control is often a deeply held, almost religious belief for people on both sides. I saw someone on my Facebook feed say, "I've never understood guns and never will." To me this is as reprehensible as a statement like "I've never understood homosexuality and never will." We have to acknowledge there are merits to both sides and thoughtfully address the concerns before we can reach any sustainable outcome.

I strongly believe, as with all complex issues, we must be wary of seemingly simple solutions. There are definitely tradeoffs and costs to any course of action. Mobs in the heat of the moment, confident in their own righteousness, and closed to dissenting views rarely find the right balance.

A Comparison of US vs. Chinese News Coverage: Pollution

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I've written twice before, comparing Western and Chinese news coverage of the same story (Obama visit to China and Internet registration). In both cases, it was interesting to see how the reports read very differently despite presenting the same basic facts; differences in tone, emphasis, and inclusion/omission of other facts can really change how the story comes across.

AQI 493 from my office window

Today, I was reading about how Beijing will start reporting a new air pollution measure - PM 2.5 (2.5 micron particulate matter). I've written before several times about the gross Beijing air. We relied on the US Embassy's air quality Twitter feed that showed what we thought was a more accurate view of what we were seeing outside; Chinese official reports measured the larger PM10 particles and would say we were having only minor air pollution even when we couldn't see outside.

The report from China Daily acknowledges the dangers of PM2.5 and how the government is responding to "public criticism". They describe the effort as similar to what other cities in China have been doing and that the government is already taking action to clean up Beijing air. There is no mention of the US Embassy's Twitter feed. There is also a story (higher on the front page) describing how Beijing's PM 2.5 count is down. The story paints a picture of the government taking action and listening to the people. "Beijing to release PM 2.5 data".

The similar story from the New York Times described the actions as a response to "public outcry", "public's anger", and bloggers who "sharply criticized" the government. NYT puts a lot more emphasis on the effect of the US Embassy Twitter feed as well as mentioning how Twitter is blocked in China, and talks about the Chinese complained about the feed as "confusing" and "insulting". This story leaves the reader thinking the people are mad at the government and that the gov't needs outside pressure to change. "China to Release More Data on Air Pollution in Beijing".

Again, both of these stories seem factually correct, and perhaps the "right" interpretation is somewhere in the middle. You'll never know unless you read multiple news sources.

Rebuilding My Kamado

When I bought my first house (gosh, maybe seventeen years ago?) one of the first things I wanted was a Kamado. These are ceramic barbeque grills, like the Big Green Egg, that can produce almost magical results grilling, roasting, baking, and smoking. Over the past few years I found myself going to the more convenient gas grill, but after my recent BBQ Fantasy Camp, I wanted to try using the Kamado again.

Unfortunately, my Kamado was pretty run down after so many years outside plus a few moves. The metal hinges and cart were rusty, the firebox was cracked, and the paint very faded. Drawing inspiration from netizens in similar situations, I ordered new replacement parts and spent the weekend rebuilding my Kamado.

Here's my Kamado pre-rebuild. You can see all the rust (and rust stains) on the metal parts. The thing under the grill is the cracked grate (usually inside).

Here's a shot of the cracked firebox inside.

The faded and peeling label.

I took the grill apart and repainted the pieces with black spray paint made for use in high temperature applications. (This is easy to find at hardware stores.) The rectangular hole in the red section below is where I took off the old draft door. The screws holding the draft door assembly on were so rusted I had to cut the heads off with my Dremel; this was probably the most time consuming part of the whole job.

Here's the finished product, with the new hinge band and draft door (at the bottom). I also repainted the wagon and replaced the rusty and bent casters with new ones. Even though I didn't do a great job with the spray paint, I think it looks much better. I ultimately used a little over a can of spray paint for the whole job. I probably should have put a second coat of paint on, but I was too lazy.

This is the interior with a new firebox and grate (the old ring on top of the firebox was still fine, so I'm still using it.) You can also see the nice new lid gasket. I haven't had a gasket on the Kamado for years after the original one burned off. This one is supposed to be a high temperature gasket that won't burn. We'll see.

All told, I probably spent about $300 repairing the grill (replacement cost is about $600) and 4-5 hours. I ran out of time this weekend to cook anything in it, so I'm dying to give a whirl.

My First Wikipedia Edits!

I've been a huge fan of Wikipedia for a long time, but like many people, I never made any contributions. However, I finally jumped over the line today and made my first changes. I saw the news that Mascalzone Latino, the Challenger of Record for the next America's Cup, withdrew from the competition. This change wasn't reflected in the articles for Mascalzone Latino, Club Nautico di Roma, 2013 Americas Cup, and America's Cup, so I made the edits.

These were pretty minor, but I am happy to have made a small contribution to this site that I love so much. I hope to make more contributions in the future.

Glee: Woodbury High School-style circa 1985

I'm not embarrassed to admit I'm a huge fan of the TV show Glee. (OK, maybe a little embarrassed, but not too much.) Part of why I enjoy the show so much is that I sang in a show choir (we called it "swing choir") while I was in high school in Minnesota. Watching the show has definitely brought back memories.

We sang and danced to songs like Sweet Sweet Smile and Bill Bailey. Obviously, we weren't nearly as good as New Directions or Vocal Adrenaline from the show. (Heck, we didn't even have a name beyond "Woodbury High School Swing Choir"). Our singing was decent, but our dancing was pretty basic (I can do a jazz square, but that's about it). We had a great pianist, but we didn't have a backing band, full church choir, or jazz horns like they do in the show. Our sets were pretty basic too -- a bunch of black wooden boxes (as seen in the photos below). Our outfits, however, were almost identical to the ones the guys in Vocal Adrenaline wear (their shoes are better, I guess.)

I hope the popularity of Glee spurs growth (or at least survival) of show choirs across America. I had a great time with it and hope kids today can too.

Here's us in 1985:
Woodbury High School Swing Choir 1985

Here's the choir in 1986:
Woodbury High School Swing Choir 1986

Here's Vocal Adrenaline, from the show, so you can compare outfits:
Vocal Adrenaline

I Look Like an American

I played golf yesterday with a bunch of my teammates. Since we didn't have two full foursomes, two of us were paired with some other Chinese golfers. They were nice enough and soon we got into the typical "where are you from, what do you do" banter. As soon as I said I was American, one guy looked at me and immediately replied, "You look like an American." My buddy Tim asked, "What does that mean?" The other guy replied, "You have skinny legs and a big belly."


My big belly and I went on to kick his skinny butt in golf.

Another Comparison of Chinese vs. Western News Coverage

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As I've pointed out before, it’s interesting to see how Western media (Australia, in this case) and Chinese media portray the same issue. Here are two articles on the same event – new changes in how individuals can register websites in China.

The Age shows this as a new restriction in the Chinese internet while the China Daily shows this as a loosening of a previously tightened rule. Both seem factually correct, but the tone and interpretation are different.

As I mentioned before, it's probably best to read multiple news sources and form your own opinions.


The article from The Age:

China launches strict new Internet controls

February 23, 2010 - 9:35PM

China's technology ministry moved to tighten controls on Internet use Tuesday, saying individuals who want to operate Web sites must first meet in person with regulators.

The state-sanctioned group that registers domain names in China froze registrations for new individual Web sites in December after state media complained that not enough was being done to check whether sites provided pornographic content.

The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology said that ban was being lifted, but would-be operators would now have submit their identity cards and photos of themselves as well as meet in person with regulators and representatives of service providers before their sites could be registered.

It said the rule was aimed at cracking down on pornography.

China has the world's biggest online population, with 384 million Internet users. The government operates the world's most extensive system of Web monitoring and filtering, blocking pornographic sites as well as those seen as subversive to communist rule.

The new regulations come as the government is in talks with Google Inc. about whether the U.S.-based Internet giant will be allowed to continue operating in China after saying in January it would no longer cooperate with the country's Web censorship. The two sides have given no details of the status of their discussions.

Chinese authorities have launched repeated crackdowns on online pornography and the government says nearly 5,400 people were detained last year.


The article from China Daily:

China resumes individuals' website registrations

By Zhao Chunzhe (
Updated: 2010-02-23 14:12

Individuals in China are now allowed to apply for websites, according to the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, but applicants are requested to hand in a full-color photo, reported today.

The administration said both companies and individuals are allowed to register a website. Authorities will evaluate an applicant’s information in 20 weekdays and keep the information secret, the report said.

Individuals' domain name registration was called off December 14, 2009 in fighting against pornographic websites.

A Difference of Perspective

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President Obama is visiting China this week. It's a good opportunity for me as a news junkie to compare and contrast how the US and Chinese press cover the same story.

When the President arrived in Shanghai, he had a town hall meeting with students from Fudan University and Tongji University. The article from the China Daily emphasized Obama's support and curiosity about China.

"The main purpose of my trip is to deepen my understanding of China and its vision of the future..."

"We do not seek to impose any form of government on any other nation..."

"The rise of a strong, prosperous China can be a source of strength for the community of nations..."

The article in the New York Times covering the same meeting focused on the brief discussion about internet censorship in China and how Twitter is blocked.

"I should be honest, as president of the United States, there are times where I wish information didn’t flow so freely because then I wouldn’t have to listen to people criticizing me all the time...because in the United States, information is free, and I have a lot of critics in the United States who can say all kinds of things about me, I actually think that that makes our democracy stronger and it makes me a better leader because it forces me to hear opinions that I don’t want to hear."

The China Daily merely said "[Obama] noting access to information and political participation are universal rights" about the presumably same topic.

The Times also had two paragraphs about how the Q&A session was not broadcast live across China and how it was being carried by the White House website live. They also noted how the students were members of the Communist Youth League.

Interestingly, I don't think either story was unbiased or told a complete story. As expected, the China Daily had a very pro-China, on-message story; however the Times writer was clearly trying to emphasize the control the Chinese government has vs. just reporting on the meeting.

I guess as in all things in life, you need to get your information from multiple sources, note the point-of-view of the source, and then make your own judgments.