Jewish Journal

Hung Jury

by Pini Herman

March 30, 2012 | 6:06 pm

Spending the last couple of weeks as Juror number 2 in the Foltz Criminal Court in downtown LA has renewed my perspective on less examined aspects of our society.  It also gave me the opportunity to be the randomized questioner that was recruited by the court system, rather than what I field as part of my scientific surveys, randomized questionnaires.  I’m sharing the impressions of the rich experience that this chance encounter with the justice system gave me.  Being almost Passover, I find the analogy of the four sons described in the Passover seder Hagadah somewhat useful.

I think I was the only Jew on the jury and even the lawyers and judge may not have been Jewish and beside one expert witness, few other Jews were present.  That’s not to say other courtrooms didn’t sport Jewish judges’ names, but the impression was reinforced that in the big, general society of LA County, Jews are a rather small group, only about 5 percent of the total population.

Our task as a jury was to decide whether a woman who had committed a serious crime was competent to stand trial.  The Public Defender argued that she didn’t have the capacity to understand the proceedings against her and to cooperate with the attorney in her defense.  The woman was somewhat borderline at understanding the charges against her.

Unfortunately. the woman also had such as horrific history of being raped, prostituted, stabbed to the point where her life was in danger, being shot in the head and suffering from post traumatic stress, bi-polar disorder, having an IQ of 60 as well as several cognitive and memory deficits.

She reminded me of the the type of son described at the Passover Seder as one who did not know how to ask a question. 

In my view, the wise sons were represented by the defense in the form of a neuropsychologist who tested the defendant using a much used and peer reviewed “Gold Standard” the MacArthur Competence Assessment Tool - Criminal Adjudication.  It was found, after administering the test on two separate occasions and interviewing the accused for two hours, that she wasn’t competent to stand trial. A highly experienced Public Defender from Orange County also interviewed the accused, and testified that in her opinion the defendant lacked the capacity aid her attorney in her own defense.

The wicked sons seems to bring to mind the two forensic psychiatrists on panel of the Mental Health Department of the Superior Court of LA County introduced as witnesses for the District Attorney.  It was clear to me that each had a volume practice running, where they were paid around $500 for each evaluation they did.  The court panel forensic psychiatrists had no incentive to spend any more time than they had to with each referred jailed inmate.  In a three-hour jail visit each psychiatrist typically asked to see seven to nine incarcerated inmates for evaluation, and would often see three to five.  Declaring an accused felon competent to stand trial seemed to be the quickest determination, where declaring incompetence that was not clear to a layperson, required more time and documentation investment than might have been financially worthwhile to the good doctors.  The two forensic psychiatrists seemed to be running a “conveyor belt” practices netting $1,500 to $2,500 a day courtesy of the LA County Superior Court Mental Health Department.  The psychiatrists rejected objective testing and both claimed to not know of the MacArthur Competence Assessment Tool and relied on the rather quick, dirty and subjective hour long “clinical interview” based on their “years of experience” to declare a clearly incompetent-to-stand-trial woman as competent.

As I argued to my fellow jurors, we were the only oversight and accountability that these doctors who were appointed to protect the mentally disabled would ever have.  Unfortunately, five of the jurors, the ones I think of as akin to the simple Passover sons, and who would not be convinced were swayed by the high regard physicians are held in and their distrust of the MacArthur test of competency to stand trial.  We jurors deadlocked, with those, a majority of seven,  who had faith in objective testing, rather than the clearly deficient psychiatric reports on one side and the five, who had lesser educations, siding with the psychiatric reports and rejecting the objective MacArthur and the “egghead” neuropsychologist who presented it.

So, that’s how I spent my last two weeks on jury duty. Though, initially I was desperate to get out of jury duty, I’m glad I experienced it and it was a privilege to see how one aspect of our society actually works, but it left me shaking my head.  I am glad that it is not only my duty and privilege to serve on a jury, but also my right.  It gave me the right to see how the justice system designed to protect the mentally disabled can go so wrong when those tasked with bringing society’s expertise to bear are incentivised to give the most incapacitated among the bum’s rush.  It is no wonder that our jails and prisons are now where the mentally ill and incapacitated are housed and now I have a clearer idea as to why.

Update: I have since discovered that the defendant, Nancy Lekon, is accused of homicide and being the driver of a Cadillac limousine who intentionally ran over a woman and dragged her body nearly a mile through skid row in downtown Los Angeles in December of 2009.  I just don’t see how she will be able to aid her attorney in her defense in a trial.

Pini Herman, PhD. has served as Asst. Research Professor at the University of Southern California Dept. of Geography,  Adjunct Lecturer at the USC School of Social Work,  Research Director at the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles following Bruce Phillips, PhD. in that position (I was recently notified that with 40,000 visitors this year the 15 year old study of the LA Jewish populationwas third most downloaded study from Berman Jewish Policy Archives in 2011) and is immediate past President of the Movable Minyan a lay-lead independent congregation in the 3rd Street area. Currently he is a principal of Phillips and Herman Demographic Research. To email Pini: pini00003@gmail.com To follow Pini on Twitter:

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Bruce Phillips is Professor of Sociology and Jewish Communal Studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Los Angeles. He has conducted Jewish population...

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