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Jury Duty: Part II

Volume 67: Tues January 31, 2006

Where our hero, Ryan, serves his civic duty and hangs out in a courtroom to decide to the fate of $12,176.

Where we left off....

In the last adventure, I found myself sentenced to jury duty—to decide the case of Teshome Gebrekidan v. Farmers Insurance Company. By the time the jury was selected, it was the end of the day, and the judge sent us off on our way with a stern order to report back to her courtroom by 8:40 the next morning.

On the way out, not being in any rush, I decided to go down the stairs from the seventh floor.

Multnomah County Courthouse has a long, sordid history....

An interesting thing about this building—it was originally built with only five floors back in 1911. At the time of construction, it was the largest building in Portland and the largest courthouse on the west coast at almost 300,000 square feet. The community uproar was enormous because of the cost. Locals disdainfully called the building the Marble Palace for its liberal use of marble and every one of the county commissioners at the time who approved it was defeated in the next election. Ironically, the marble flooring is the only original part of the building that never needed to be replaced over the years. And I have to say, those floors do look nice for being 94 years old.

But I digress.... when the building was completed, it only had five floors. Three years later—apparently crime was running rampant by 1914—they added two additional floors and turned it into a seven-story building.

You can see this clearly between the fifth and sixth floors, though. The marble staircase loops around and around, then suddenly stops at the fifth floor. A small, secondary staircase is tucked off to the side to handle the last two floors.

And after getting out of court, I found myself in front of the elevator completely baffled about the location of the staircase. I knew it had to be around there somewhere, but it wasn't located where I expected it to be not knowing, at this time, about the added two floors and a change in the floor's layout.

At the same time, the attorney for Teshome was waiting for the elevator. Now as anyone who watches Matlock knows, the jury should never, ever talk to any of the lawyers in the case they're sitting on. So when the elevator doors opened, he kindly said that he'd catch the next elevator and I could go on ahead. Heaven forbid if we were caught in the same elevator together. The world might end or something.

But I said I was actually looking for the staircase. I seemed to have misplaced it. He mumbled something and tried to point me in the right direction, but wouldn't say anything more explaining to the people waiting on the elevator that he couldn't talk to me because I'm one of his jurors, so then someone on the elevator pointed me in the right direction. So I took off for the staircase and the attorney got on the elevator. It was an awkward moment, though. Me, wanting directions, and him, knowing the answer but unable to tell me.

I rushed down the six flights of stairs and out the courthouse where I found a payphone to call Amanda and my mom to tell them, "Guess what! I'm on a jury!" Then said I couldn't say anymore than that because, well, we were given strict orders about blabbing too much about the case or discussing it with others.

October 5

At 8:30 the next morning, I headed up to the courtroom on the seventh floor. This time, taking the staircase since I still had ten minutes before I had to check in. There's a backdoor to the jury deliberation room, and I went in though that to wait until we were told to do something else. I was kind of surprised to learn that I was the first of the six jurors to arrive—I wasn't that early! But it was only a couple of minutes before the rest of the them started showing up.

And we started chatting and getting to know each other. One was a bus driver for the city who had all sorts of interesting stories about people he's picked up along his routes. A second was a younger man was a college student working at Game Stop or something like that at a local mall. He seemed fascinated with me upon learning I used to work as a software engineer at Intel wanting to know what I did and how I got into that field. It seems he was very interested in pursuing such a career.

He was the only juror younger than me. Most of the others seemed to be well into their 30s and a couple getting close to retirement. Three men and three women, which I wondered was by chance or design.

The court reporter told us that the attorneys were working out last minute stuff and she'd let us know when our presence in the courtroom was required. For the meantime, we could make ourselves comfortable in the jury deliberation room.

That's also how I found out all the interesting trivia about the courthouse. They had an information sheet with the history of the courthouse pinned up to the wall and I copied everything down into my own notebook. =) The top couple of floors used to be used as a jail. You can still see evidence of that, in fact. The courthouse is roughly shaped like a donut where there a large atrium in the middle. Like the Pentagon, except with four sides instead of five. (The Quadragon?) If you look through the windows where our courtroom was, you could see across the atrium to the other side of that floor where bars covered the windows. Which is kind of surprising, really, considering it was up on the sixth and seventh floors and anyone stupid enough to escape would have quite a challenging time of it that high up. But it also made it very clear exactly where prisoners were once held.

Over an hour later, we were finally called into the courtroom. Things started off with the opening summary where each side got to tell their side of the story. Teshome, the prosecutor explained, is a taxi cab driver and his Ford Explorer was stolen the year before and trashed. The air bag was stolen, a window broken, and lots of damage to the ignition where someone tried to hot wire it. The police found it three days later, abandoned, and he tried to collect the cost of the damages from his insurance, Farmer's Insurance. Both sides agree on the cost ($12,176)—that was never the issue—but rather that Farmers Insurance denied the claim claiming breech of contract.

The defense attorney claims that they had reason to believe Teshome stole and trashed his own vehicle. He cut out the air bag to resell for a little extra cash then the insurance money would cover the so-called damages and he'd wind up with a nice little profit. And they had witnesses that would show this is what happened. Including the cop who took the police report of the found vehicle, and a forensic locksmith who would show that the only person who could have started that car had to have the original key.

That really got our attention. I had no idea there was such a thing as a forensic locksmith! It was as if it were right out the CSI files. I expected everyone in the courtroom to suddenly gasp with astonishment. The shocking twists and turns of an otherwise typical case. But that didn't happen. Everyone just sat and watched.

Here's one page of my doodlings while I listened to witnesses testify

I started doodling on a notepad that was provided to all the jurors to take notes. I have this annoying habit—and any of my former teachers will attest to this—I can't pay attention to anything for more than about five seconds. I can't listen to a lecture and take notes at the same time. My mind likes to wander. And I've found that the best way to keep my mind from wandering is by doodling. It's just enough to keep me from falling asleep due to boredom. Just enough to distract that part of my brain that tends to get distracted. Look at the piece of paper so I can't think about how bad that one attorney's hair looks, or notice the people walking outside of the glass door leading to the hallway. So I doodled. And doodled.

My teachers always thought I wasn't paying attention, but this wasn't true. I have a very good memory and rarely needed to take notes during lectures. If I did try to take notes, I didn't hear what was being said. So I doodled.

I did vaguely wonder of the attorneys noted my seemingly lack of attention, but I didn't really care. =)

The initial summaries filled us in on the perspective each side would be arguing, but neither side really provided any evidence to support their side of the story. Next would come witnesses, and that's when things really started to happen.

The first witness was Mr. Gebrekidan himself. He was sworn in and his lawyer started grilling him on the events that happened. He claimed he came home from work on August 15th and his Ford Explorer was there in front of his house. The next morning, Monday 16th, the car was gone. However, he didn't report it as stolen to the police because he thought his brother had borrowed it. In fact, when the police found it on the 18th, he still hadn't reported the vehicle as stolen. The police had called his mother trying to find the car's owner, and his mother had called him to tell them the police were looking for him.

So he showed up where the car was found and told the officer that the vehicle was obviously stolen, even though he hadn't reported it as such.

The defense attorney had a chance to ask the witness a few questions, and he was ruthless. "You thought your brother had borrowed the vehicle, did you?" Then, "How often did he borrow it without asking?"

And the witness replied, "Often."

It was like watching a TV show. The attorney went back to his desk and pulled out a transcript of his conversation when first filing his claim. "According to this transcript, when asked that same question, you replied: 'Once in a blue moon.' Which was it?"

I expected a hushed murmur throughout the courtroom at this critical juncture. And the judge would bang her gravel yelling, "Order in the court! Order in the court!" But that didn't happen—no, those things only happen in the movies.

The defense attorney also said that in that same transcript, he told the investigator that he hadn't talked to his brother between the time the vehicle was allegedly stolen and the time it was found, but his phone records show he talked to his brother multiple times during that period.

Not only that, but his brother had a vehicle—why would he need to borrow one? And why did he pick up the vehicle in the dark of night without letting you know? And how did he get there to pick UP the vehicle in the first place. You didn't see your brother's vehicle parked in place of yours, did you?

I was particularly fascinated when asked what his brother would need the vehicle for. Gebrekidan hemmed and hawed, but clearly didn't have a good answer before finally mumbling something about 'clubbing.'

Then the defense attorney asked about how his cab business was doing. Gebrekidan said it was doing quite well, which surprised me because I was always under the assumption that cab drivers didn't really make a whole lot, then the attorney pulled out tax records showing that he lost money in 2002. Curses, caught in another lie.

I didn't really give much stock to that little piece of information. The alleged theft happened in 2004, so presumably he made money in 2003. And the vehicle in question was brand new and completely paid for in cash. Whatever his other lies, I didn't really buy into the fact that a loss in 2002 caused him to steal his own car, resell the airbag, and trash the rest of the car two years later.

And finally, another little inconsistency in his story. He originally claimed to be out of town when the theft occurred which was why the vehicle wasn't reported as stolen until after it was found by the police. Now, it seems, he was in town the whole time.

It was very incriminating. His story was leaking pretty quickly.

When the prosecuting attorney could ask follow-up questions, he asked why he originally told the investigator that his brother only borrowed the car 'once in a blue moon' if that wasn't the case, and he claimed he didn't really understand the term. He was from Africa and didn't learn English until he came to the United States a dozen years before.

Which, frankly, I didn't buy for a second. Nobody uses the phrase 'once in a blue moon' without knowing exactly what it means. Even if the person doesn't know what a blue moon is, they still know the meaning of the phrase. I spent four months in Central America in countries where I didn't know the local language, and I'd never made a mistake such as that. And while he still spoke with a heavy accent, his grammatical use of English was quite good. He knew exactly what 'once in a blue moon' meant.

As for the issue of him talking to his brother, during this same time their father had had a heart attack or some medical problem and was in the hospital and they communicated several times regarding that matter. It never even occurred to him to ask if his brother had borrowed his vehicle or what he needed it for.

And as for the business of claiming he was out of town when he really wasn't, that was because an agent for Farmer's Insurance told him that it would sound 'fishy' that he didn't notice his car missing and report it stolen for three days after the theft occurred unless he were out of town. He lied because the agent suggested that he should do so.

We were told, from the very beginning, that would should not form opinions on guilt or innocence until after all evidence is submitted. But I was getting some very strong opinions. Mr. Gebrekidan was lying his ass off. He already confessed he deliberately lied about his whereabouts during that time to help pave the way for his claim. I got the distinct impression he'd happily lie his way through anything as long as it meant he'd get his money.

I imagined he saw the claim like a safe, that if he gave just the right answers—regardless of whether the answers were correct or not—the safe would pop open and he'd get his money. If he answered truthfully but gave a wrong answer, the safe would stay shut. Before each answer, you could see him thinking hard about which answer to give us. The 'right' answer to open the safe, or the correct answer that may not.

I was also starting to wonder—why isn't Gebrekidan's brother testifying? If his brother really did borrow the vehicle often, it would go a long way to help prove that Gebrekidan thought his brother had borrowed it. Unless, of course, he was lying now and that his brother really didn't borrow the car very often. It was a puzzling absence—unless one assumed Gebrekidan was lying on the witness stand. I even wrote that down in my court-provided notebook. "Why not have the brother testify?"

And that was it. After hearing the prosecution's sole witnesses, I was ready to side with Farmer's Insurance. It's not like listening to the defense witnesses are going to change my mind against them. Nope, even without hearing a single witness for the defense, I was ready to side with them.

The doodling page with the creepy "I am watching you!" message

At this point, looking at my doodling, I noticed it vaguely seemed to look like a giant eyeball. This wasn't by design, it just happened. Kind of like looking at the clouds and finding pictures of them. I noticed a distinct eyeball shape starting to form. I also noticed the juror next to me had noticed my doodling, and thought it would be funny to write "I am watching you! Muhahaha!!"

Farmer's Insurance called their first witness: Officer Julia Rica of the Portland police department. She was the officer at the scene of the found vehicle. She had the report she filled out at the time, including answers Gebrekidan provided while asking about the car including if anyone was ever allowed to borrow it. His answer: no. Which, if he's to be believed now, was a lie since now he claims that his brother was allowed to borrow the vehicle at whim.

The lawyer for Farmer's Insurance also made sure to stress that the airbag looked like it had been 'surgically' removed. Julia said she'd found a lot of vehicles whose airbag was stolen, but never had it looked like it was done with such precision. This was someone who knew how to remove airbags and wasn't rushed to get in and out as quickly as possible.

Clearly, the lawyer wanted to emphasis this fact. Someone had to have taken their time removing the airbag. Somehow implying that Gebrekidan must have been involved because normal thieves wouldn't have done such a nice job of it. I didn't really put much stock into that theory, though. The car had been missing for three days. It's not like someone had to rush to get the airbag out because it was sitting in someone else's driveway. Heck, the person who stole the car could have driven it to someone else who actually removed the airbag to be removed at their leisure.

The policewoman was dismissed and the agent that allegedly told Mr. Gebrekidan to lie about his whereabouts took the stand next. He, too, was from a small, impoverished African nation, though a different one that Gebrekidan was from. English isn't the first language for either of them, but it is the only language they have in common. I can't imagine it's easy for them to communicate with each other for that reason. I know from studying Spanish that listening to two different people from two different countries can speak the same language, but if you're tuned to the accent of only one of those countries, the other person can be darned near impossible to understand.

The agent, of course, claims never to have suggested that Gebrekidan lie to investigators, but did admit to saying that it seemed suspicious that he waited three days to report the vehicle stolen despite being in town. Whatever conclusions Gebrkidan drew from that observation were completely his own.

This fascinated me. Gebrekidan just testified that the agent told him to lie, and the agent just testified that he did no such thing. One of them is lying, on the stand, in the court of law, after being sworn in to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help them God, and now one of them is going to Hell. Pretty severe consequences for lying under oath, if you ask me. Every single person in that room knew, without a shadow of a doubt, a crime is being committed right there in our presence. And yet, nobody really seems to care. Not that there's any way to prove which of the two are lying since neither of them thought to record the phone call.

But I'd even be willing to believe that both of them think they're telling the absolute truth. It could be that the agent did say it seemed suspicious that he wasn't out of town but neglected to report his vehicle as stolen. He may have even said that Farmer's Insurance Company may think that's suspicious. And given the heavy accents of both of them, Gebrekidan thought the agent was suggesting that he lie to the claim investigator.

All-in-all, it amounted to a he-said-he-said argument and was more a waste of our time than anything damning.

By now it was time for lunch. We were told to leave our notebooks in the jury deliberation room and it was then that I learned that the notebooks were reused after each case. I was stunned. Well, whoever got my notebook afterwards might be amused at the doodlings I drew all over the cover. =)

Lunch, the judge explained, would be a bit longer than normal because they were using the courtroom for a courthouse-wide Oktoberfest party. So I spent the hour and half mostly wandering around town enjoying the waterfront park along the Willamette River. I just love it out there. Portland is often called the 'City of Bridges' because there a series of major bridges crossing the Willamette River, and I love going across them, stopping in the middle, and spitting over the side. =)

If you've ever seen the movie The Hunted with Tommy Lee Jones, many of the outdoor scenes were filmed in Portland. There's a dramatic action scene on one of the MAX trains—Portland's form of light rail and solution to mass transit—that was filmed on the Hawthorne Bridge. Funniest thing about that, I thought, was that MAX doesn't go over the Hawthorne Bridge—it goes over the Steel Bridge at the north end of downtown. They dressed up a Tri-Met bus to look like the MAX train and drove it back and forth across the bridge each weekend for a month filming the scene. I saw the bus disguised as a train myself, and it was a pretty credible job. Unless you happened to notice the tires coming from the bottom of it, it looked pretty legit. When I saw the movie, I also couldn't help but noticed that the bridge seemed about ten times longer than it really was. In the movie, it just never seemed to end!

Anyhow, back to court. They were still clearing up their Oktoberfest party when we arrived, so us jurors waited outside in the hallway until they cleaned up. They left the leftover cookies in the jury deliberation room, which we happily finished off. =)

The next guy on the witness stand was the forensic locksmith. The witness that would blow us away.

The man explained how he had gotten into the business—his credentials, if you will. He also admitted that Farmer's Insurance was paying him to testify which didn't really surprise me. But to help keep his analysis of the situation fair and impartial, he requests that insurance companies not tell him what it is they're looking for before he examines the locks, which I thought was a pretty smart thing to do.

Then came out all of the evidence. The key was a special key that not only needed to be cut right like the regular sort of key that's been in use for decades, but it also had a small computer chip that had to contain the right code to make the car work. Helps prevents thefts since they're impossible to duplicate. The only way to start such a car is with one of two keys that came with the car.

The man brought out another key more-or-less identical to the keys of the vehicle he had examined, except that the black casing was clear so we could see the chip inside of it. He brought out photos of the ignition and the damage around it where someone had tried to hot wire the car, or at least try to make it look like it was hot wired. But all the parts worked exactly as designed and he could conclusively prove that the vehicle in question had been started with a key, one of two in existence that could start that car, and not from being hot wired. He provided a lot of evidence that was officially entered as exhibits that we could look through later.

It was a fascinating explanation of how modern car keys worked. Farmer's Insurance made sure to point out that Mr. Gebrekidan had originally told the claim investigators that he had both keys in his possession, but when asked to produce the keys, claimed he could only find one. The implication being, of course, that when he realized they had proof the car had been started with one of those two keys, he changed his story and said it was missing. The person that stole the car must have gotten it.

Which I wouldn't have put past the known liar who'd already testified about lying about his whereabouts at the time the vehicle was missing. Except somewhere along the way, the timeline of events was cleared up for me when the forensic locksmith mentioned the dates he examined the Ford Explorer.

As it turns out, Mr. Gebrekidan did originally tell investigators that he still had both keys to the vehicle in his possession. When asked to hand them over, he went home and could only find one, then returned with that one with the explanation that the other key appeared to be missing. It wasn't until a week or two later that the forensic locksmith was brought in who concluded the stolen vehicle could only have been moved with the original key. I was astounded!

Mr. Gebrekidan couldn't have changed his story just because of the results of the forensic locksmith. He had 'changed' his story because when asked to produce the keys, he could only located one of them. He probably told the investigators that he had the keys believing that he did have them both. Until he actually went to look for them, he didn't realize that one was unaccounted for.

If he had stolen his own vehicle, he'd have still had both keys in his possession and would have given them both up when asked, not knowing that by doing so would have been damning evidence that he taken his own vehicle.

There's absolutely no way Gebrekidan could have been guilty of stealing and trashing his own car. And oddly, it was questioning by the defense—who wanted us to think this had happened—that convinced me that wasn't the case.

Actually, I always thought him stealing his own vehicle didn't make any sense. If he wanted to collect insurance on it, I'd have thought he would have reported it stolen before the cops told him they found it. What kind of stupid criminal plans to collect a claim, then doesn't even bother to report the vehicle as stolen? So the story seemed kind of fishy to me. But after this witness, I was absolutely convinced that allegation was nothing more than a desperate ploy to throw mud at Gebrekidan and hoped something stuck.

At this point, I also concluded, both those lawyers should be fired. They're both incompetent. Mr. Gebrekidan's lawyer should have explained this timeline long before, and the lawyer for Farmer's Insurance should never have put this guy on the stand that would essentially clear Gebrekidan's name.

Okay, now I felt absolutely certain Gebrekidan didn't steal and trash his own car, but he still had deliberately lied to claim investigators about his claim. He wasn't off the hook yet. I could write off 'accidental' lies—such as saying he had both keys when he really did not. He could very easily have thought he had both keys and thought he was telling the truth. But he admitted on the stand that he deliberately lied about his whereabouts at the time of the vehicle was stolen and any idiot could tell he lied to us about how often his brother really borrowed his vehicle.

The last witness for the defense was an representative for Farmer's Insurance. He told us his name and the reasons they started taking a closer look at Gebrekidan's claim. (Apparently, lying is a big one.) He also pointed out that so far, they've already spent a few thousand dollars more defending themselves from Gebrekidan than they would have had they simply accepted his claim to begin with. For them, it wasn't about the money. Paying the claim would have cost them less! But they felt it was a bad precedent to pay false claims, so they were fighting it.

I'll admit, that got me mad. I'm no idiot, but I could easily conceive of a more sinister motive for denying the claim: probabilities. Let's say they get ten claims more-or-less identical to this one. They do a little background checking and learn the guy making the claim already has a felony on his record. He's black. And he's an immigrant. None of those make him guilty of a false claim, but I'm sure they keep statistics and statistically knew that if they denied it, half the people they deny would let it slide. Of the other half, most might be willing to settle for less than the full value of the claim. And of those who take it all the way to a jury, they just need to find a couple of people who are bigots, xenophobes, or formerly battered housewives to slip through the cracks and deny the claim. All told, they could lose money on one out of ten denied claims, but still come out way ahead from the other nine.

And when it comes to most for-profit companies, they always seem plenty willing to settle out of court if it'll save them a few bucks than stand up for a noble cause.

But the slant that Farmer's Insurance wanted to put on things was that they were doing the noble thing—standing up against fraudulent claims to keep insurance prices down for the rest of the honest public. I was so mad. I was even more mad when Gebrekidan's attorney didn't say or do a thing to dispel this notion when he got a chance to question the man. Sure, it is possible they're doing what they think is 'right', but since I so totally did not believe Gebrekidan stole and trashed his own car and I bet Farmer's Insurance Company didn't think he really did either, it seemed like Farmer's was throwing whatever mud it could find at Gebrekidan hoping something, anything, would stick. Then claiming they were doing the ethically and morally correct thing. Ha!

That was the last of the defense witnesses, and the prosecution put Gebrekidan on the stand once again to answer some additional questions. None of which was important enough or provided anything useful enough for me to justify writing down.

And by now, it was the end of the day. The judge asked us to return again the next morning to hear closing arguments. And after the closing arguments, we'd go to the jury deliberation room to make our decision.

We left our notebooks in the jury room once again, though before we left everyone admired my doodles. The other juror who had noticed me doodling earlier had asked if I were an artist. Hahaha! Oh, that was a good one. So I pulled it out and showed everyone, which had a kind of dark theme with those creepy words "I am watching you! Muhahahahaha!" because I thought it would be funny to freak everyone out. They only laughed.

I left the courthouse down the stairs again, this time racing down as fast as I could trying to beat some of my fellow jurors. I hoped to get down the six flights and be walking past the elevator as the doors opened, walking by (trying hard to pretend like I wasn't winded for the mad dash down the stairs) and ask what took them so long. It worked too. =) Then we headed our separate ways.

Stay tuned next week for the concluding chapter of this adventure by trial, same bat-time, same bat-channel.

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