We, The Jury

Travis Richardson square crop headshot

 

 

by Travis Richardson

 

From June 19 until July 14 of this year, 12 Los Angeles citizens including a TV writer, a student studying fashion design, another getting a PhD in Political Science, a teacher, a retired teacher, a clinician and cancer researcher, a Home Depot manager, an Edmunds.com content provider, 2 in real estate, a mother, and myself served on a jury. For over 3 weeks we (as well as the 3 alternates) went to the Santa Monica Court House, infamously known in popular culture as the place where OJ lost his civil case.

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As courthouses go, this was not bad. Not only had the jury room been updated within the last decade, the court is located about 3 blocks away from the ocean. I walked to beach during most of our lunch breaks and even got a slight sunburn one day I forgot to wear sunscreen.

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about a five minute walk away from the courthouse

The civil case, Herzig vs. The State of California, started back in 2010. We juried the second phase of the trial, the damages portion. The state had already lost against the real estate developer and we had to decide how much the plaintiff was due with some other questions. Picking the jury was a major hassle taking 3 days. Of the 90 potential jurors summoned, 89 were interviewed by the counsels before they settled on the 15. Some people desperately didn’t want to be on the jury, giving passionate (and in one case tearful) declarations against developers and their “greed.” One guy was an environmental expert and after several questions, he was dismissed. In contrast there was a newly minted citizen from Eritrea who was excited to be on a jury. The concept of suing your own government for damages blew her mind. It was something that could never happen in her home country or in Ethiopia, another country she lived in before coming here. Unfortunately she was cut too. I might have been close to the chopping block for both parties as I told the plaintiff’s lawyer that while I understood I was to award damages, I didn’t plan to give anything outrageous. The lawyer asked what my definition of outrageous was, but the defense objected. My answer for the outrageous sum would have been an 8-figure number. (Which they asked for.) The defense later asked whether my grandmother losing land to taxes would make me biased against the state. I said I could remain unbiased, but I felt she gave me a skeptical look.

Once we were sworn in as jurors, our judge, Mitch Beckloff, ended up being one of the kindest, best pro-jury judges I believe anybody will ever encounter. To begin with, he gave each of pens with a message thanking us for our jury service. We started the trial at 9:50 every morning with an hour and a half lunch break. Then another break around 3pm where he had a box full of treats for us. And by treats I mean full sized Snickers bars. He also baked cookies for us, bought cupcakes from Vanilla Bakery (my wife and I used them for our wedding), and later donuts when we were in deliberation.

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amazing cupcakes

 

He was a stickler with the lawyers about our break times, making sure that we didn’t sit for too long. Also we started the trial in the afternoon twice. Once to accommodate a juror’s job interview and another for a juror to complete an NIH research proposal.

The case itself was both interesting and frustrating. In 1995 the plaintiff entered into escrow for Malibu beachfront property from the US Marshals. The property had formerly housed the Albatross Hotel that was built in the 1950s and burnt down in the 70s. Here is a photo of the place in much better days. http://www.tikiroom.com/tikicentral/bb/viewtopic.php?topic=25533&forum=2

 

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A vintage photo of Albatross Hotel from tikiroom.com

The purchase also included a flood channel that flowed from Los Flores Creek into the ocean. In 1998 with the escrow complete, the plaintiff tried to develop the property. The plans he submitted between 1998 and 2010 included an 8 room condo plan and later a restaurant. Each time there was an issue with either the city of Malibu or the California Coastal Commission that led to the projects being turned down.

So in 2010 the plaintiff was on his property when he noticed erosion behind his retaining wall that bordered the creek/flood channel. He found out that a drainage pipe owned by CalTrans went under the Pacific Coast Highway and through his wall had burst in 2003. Because of the erosion, his lawyer argued, the plant life growing behind the wall became an extension of the creek and would now be considered an ESHA (Environmentally Sensitive Habitat Area.) ESHAs require 1000 feet of undisturbed land, thereby reducing the development potential of the property. Using that argument, the plaintiff forced an inverse condemnation against the state of California – a sort of photonegative of government property condemnation. He made the state pay him for the value of his land before it was devalued as an EHSA. (Technically the land has never been declared an ESHA since no development proposals were submitted after the lawsuit began in 2010.) Our job was to determine the value of the land (in today’s prices) before and after the pipe broke.

Here is an aerial Google Map shot of the property today:  https://www.google.com/maps/@34.0365031,-118.6365605,127m/data=!3m1!1e3

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The property that took 3+ weeks of my life.

We watched a dozen plus witnesses from a smorgasbord of engineers, competing real estate experts, and the plaintiff himself. We also had to determine if the retaining wall built in the 1950s was repairable or not. I took over a hundred pages of notes as did a few other jurors who requested new notebooks. There was a lot of technical talk and acronyms, but I think we followed the arguments for the most part. Towards the end of the trial, the plaintiff’s wife suffered a heart attack during the defense’s evaluation of the property value. We were rushed out of the courtroom and eventually sent home.

Once we deliberated, I was made foreman. I have to say that I was impressed with sincerity and intelligence of our jurors. We were given an impossible task with limited information that none of us were qualified to make. We had 3 questions to answer:

  1. Could the retaining wall be fixed under Malibu’s 50% or less replacement restriction? (Anything over 50% is a teardown and requires new materials.)
  2. What is the value of the land (in today’s prices) before the damage?
  3. What is the value of the land after the damage?

Fortunately we only needed 9 out of 12 to make a decision. On Monday and Tuesday we argued about the wall. I tried to make sure everybody got to make their points. We had poster sized Post-It paper on the walls with timelines, regulations, estimates, and other details written out. We voted 4 times with the mood slowly shifting to no it can’t be repaired. (Part of the no campaign relied on changes in deposition testimony by defense engineering experts). I was a soft yes, believing the wall could be repaired, but not as precisely as the defense laid out. We were stuck at 4 yes and 8 no. Two others were soft yes (it can be repaired, but it would be close) while the Home Depot manager believing the wall could absolutely be repaired under the 50% replacement rule. I finally gave in late Tuesday afternoon.

Part of Tuesday and most of Wednesday was spent on the value of the property. The plaintiff’s expert claimed it was worth $16M before the damage while the defense’s expert claimed only $2.5M. Two jurors believed the land was worth $2.5M or less while another two believed it was $8M or more. The rest of us were in between, but still not close. Again, none of us were experts and we had to come up with numbers based on surrounding properties. It was tough and tense. At the end of the day on Wednesday we had 8 jurors agreeing on a number. We were close, but the bailiff came to get us and a juror need to go to her job. Thursday morning we took votes in $5/square foot increments starting at $115/sf (~29k of property.) We found the number at $130 (or $125) and valued the property before the pipe break at $3.8M. The twist is that we valued the property higher in the after damage at $3.4M. So the plaintiff, while he got money, was not an “outrageous” 8 figure sum. It was around $400,000.

ten of the jurors in Malibu

Ten of the jurors in Malibu, not far from the wall.

After the verdict was declared, I got an email list of all the jurors and we decided to meet two weeks later at Duke’s, a restaurant next to the #%! wall. After drinks, food, and conversation we wandered over to the wall and gawked at it. It was in bad shape and probably not repairable under Malibu code. A few jurors learned from the defense that the plaintiff had bought the property for a mere $300,000. It boggles my mind to think he sued the state for $16M. (And according to the defense post verdict, he originally wanted $28M!)

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Here is that @#$! wall.

I have to say serving on a jury was a great life experience. I feel like we shouldn’t have had to rule on such a complex issue, but I’m proud that we did our best to come up with a fair solution nonetheless. It gives me hope for America when things looks so bleak. If everybody is respectful of each other and willing to listen to opposing sides, we can get things done in this world. If you have an opportunity to serve on a jury, I’d recommend doing it. Besides these guys below did it as well:

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The biggest star of the Jury Service propaganda in the courthouse.

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I can’t think of juror I would rather sit with than Weird Al.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Travis Richardson has been a finalist for the Macavity, Anthony, and Derringer short story awards. His novella LOST IN CLOVER was listed in Spinetingler Magazine’s Best Crime Fiction of 2012. He has published stories in crime fiction publications such as Thuglit, Shotgun Honey, Flash Fiction Offensive, Jewish Noir, and All Due Respect. He edits the Sisters-In-Crime Los Angeles newsletter Ransom Notes, reviews Anton Chekhov short stories at  http://www.chekhovshorts.com, and sometimes shoots a short movie. His novella, KEEPING THE RECORD, concerns a disgraced baseball player who will do anything to keep his tainted home run record.  www.tsrichardson.com 

My story “Quack and Dwight” from Jewish Noir is up for Macavity and Anthony Awards this year. I’ll find out in September. Wish me luck!

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29 Responses to We, The Jury

  1. Mike Staton says:

    I went ahead and copied a portion of your post. Here it is: Then another break around 3pm where he had a box full of treats for us. And by treats I mean full sized Snickers bars. He also baked cookies for us, bought cupcakes from Vanilla Bakery (my wife and I used them for our wedding), and later donuts when we were in deliberation.

    I’m moving to California and registering to vote as soon as possible so that they can call me for jury duty in that man’s court. My sweet tooth won’t be denied.

    Like

    • Travis says:

      Come on over, but be sure and get this judge. I’m sure there is nobody like him. I have a feeling I will be disappointed on my next jury experience now that my expectations are so high.

      Like

  2. pauldmarks says:

    Only in Santa Monica re: the judge baking cookies for you, Travis. And there’s got to be a story or two to write from this experience!

    Like

    • Travis says:

      Thanks for the comment Paul. Since it was civil, there was less juicy stuff, but there were funny taglines used in the closing arguments. The plaintiff lawyer kept referring to “common sense” in awarding $16M and the defense used the phrase “pie in the sky.” Also somebody beat me to the burning of the Albatross Hotel. It looks like there was a movie called Malibu Road with that as the plot line: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=19xg_C-tiX8

      Like

  3. Wranglers says:

    Did you enjoy it? Probably hard being away from your family.

    Like

    • Travis says:

      It ended up being okay. I dropped my daughter off at daycare every morning (1.5 mile walk) and took a bus to Santa Monica. I’d take the same bus back to pick her up. The pick up was later than usual, but it was okay. I also wrote a little on the bus which was nice.

      Like

  4. Doris says:

    A very good description of the process and I thankl you for that. I agree all of you did a good job of dealing with a complex issue. And I would like/love to be on a jury with Al. Doris

    Like

  5. That’s so fascinating, Travis! I must say, I’ve always dreaded jury service (been summoned but never placed on one) but you make it sound so interesting. Love the photo of your jury reunion. I love that everyone got to have their say (thanks to you) and you all reasonably discussed the issues. And CUPCAKES! Did you get your mug framed and hung on the courtroom wall next to Al?

    Like

    • Travis says:

      Thanks Sarah. I was looking forward to serving and it wasn’t that bad. It was great to meet new people and work towards a goal. When we were first seated in the courtroom and told the case was about Malibu real estate I thought it might be about U2’s The Edge who has been trying to build a compound for the last decade. That would’ve been insane. Perhaps somebody if I sell enough books they might put my picture on the wall next to Al.

      Like

  6. What an experience! You must have been so engrossed in the facts and trying to come up with a fair settlement. I’ve never served on a jury but your post puts me at ease. Especially if it means cupcakes! It’s so great that the jury met afterwards. It’s neat how people from all walks of life come together for one common purpose in these cases. Really enjoyed the post Travis!

    Like

    • Travis says:

      Thanks Linda. The cupcakes has to be super rare for a judge to do, but it really made for a happier, pleasant tone in the jury box even for those who didn’t want to be there. I think all judges should consider Beckloff’s approach.

      Like

  7. Nancy Jardine says:

    What a responsibility you had there, Travis. I agree that serving as a juror is an experience. A few years ago I did jury service in the city of Aberdeen, Scotland, but wasn’t allowed to speak to anyone about the case afterwards-except to say that it involved a drugs sentencing. It gave me an eyefull of how much public money can be spent on what ends up to be small scale sentencing (for that particular case). Police time, court time, juror time and the costs of the lawyers etc was incredible. BTW – I didn’t get cookies but I did get a 3 course lunch on 2 out of the 3 days I was on ‘duty’.
    I was heartily relieved though that I was chosen for that minor ‘drugs offence’ case in the Sheriff Court because I could have been chosen on the first day for the High Court of Aberdeen which was a murder case that ran for 3 weeks. Those jurors were not allowed home at night, and were put up in a hotel each night including the weekends. It’s usual here for more people than are needed to be cited for juror’s duty at the start of new cases for both Sheriff and High courts. The people like me who get a summons/ citation turn up as requested and then some people are filtered out for the Sheriff and the others for the High court. The numbers are then filtered down to 15 for each jury. They need at least 12 to continue and complete the case.

    Like

    • Travis says:

      You’re right Nancy, the costs are extraordinary. That’s what got a lot of us upset. That this case had been going on for 6 years at taxpayers expense for something that should have been settled by experts in arbitration (or something like that). When i think of a presidential candidate with over 3k lawsuits, I can’t help to think about what a miserable waste of system that was built to protect, not to use as a tool for the wealthy. I am a bit envious of the 3 course meal. I brought a lunch most days.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. This sounds like an interesting experience. Maybe you can use it later in your writing.

    Like

  9. WOW, Travis — what an experience! I applaud you and your fellow jurors for working on a resolution in a respectful, thorough manner; you should all run for office and teach politicians a thing or two! Like Abbie said, you can probably use that experience in a story or two.

    Like

    • Travis says:

      I think people are capable of wonderful things together. The problem in politics is that differences are exploited and collaborating with the other side is considered weakness by surrogates for both parties. (Which is BS, b/c It takes more to compromise than to do nothing.)

      Like

  10. Neva Bodin says:

    Interesting case and enjoyed reading your comments about it. I served on a jury once and enjoyed it also, a small case for only a few days. I get upset with people who try to get out of serving, I see it as our civic duty and think those who are ethical, moral and achievers, (the ones who often try to get out of it in my experience) are needed on juries. I was actually disappointed that I had to be excused because I am a nurse last time I was called.

    Like

  11. katewyland says:

    Wow, that was a complicated trial. Sounds like you all came to a fair decision.

    In all my years as a registered voter, I’ve only been called three times. First time I was dismissed after a couple off hours. The next, I got into a jury pool, but they choose the jury before I was called to be interviewed. The last time was interesting because a law professor was part of my jury pool. She commented that they would be foolish to keep her and apparently the lawyers agreed and she was dismissed. Overnight I came down with a nasty bronchitis and had to in and request to be dismissed. The judge gave me a bad time about it, but finally agreed. The funny thing is I’d really like to serve on one.

    Like

    • Travis says:

      Hopefully you’ll get your chance Kate. I’ve been called three times in three decades. One was on another civil trial that was interesting in that the plaintiff was suing for lost wages after a car accident although she made more money after the accident. (She was real estate agent and the market improved.) I was in a jury pool for a criminal case in Oakland, but the defendant plea bargained before we started. I’m looking forward to the next case.

      Like

  12. Joe Stephens says:

    I served on a jury once. It was a criminal trial involving the videotaping of an underage person performing a sex act. I came home wanting to take a shower using a wire brush. I was proud to have served, but it was the stuff of nightmares.

    Like

  13. Kathy Waller says:

    A very interesting post. You put a lot of thought and care into making the decision. I’ve been called three times in the twelve years I’ve lived in Austin and several times in the mostly rural county I lived in before, but have served only twice, both criminal trials in the rural county. I was called for one civil trial, a dispute over compensation for farm land that had been crossed by high voltage electrical wires. During the voir dire, a lawyer said that Mr. XYZ would testify about land values, and did anyone know Mr. XYZ. I raised my hand. How did I know him? I said, “He’s my cousin.” At that everyone laughed. I didn’t think it was all that funny–at one time, I had had cousins all over that county. I was excused. Leaving, I saw XYZ sitting on a bench in the hallway. I stopped and said, “I’ve never been so glad to be related to you as I am today.” I believe in doing my civic duty and have never minded being called, but I dreaded having to decide about land values.

    Like

  14. S J Brown says:

    When I served on a jury we met a week later, but it was to serve on another case. Jury duty can be a real learning experience. In my case I learned a lot more after the trails when I read the newspaper accounts. In one case we all felt bad about sending a young woman to jail for such a long period of time, until we read the rest of the story in the paper.

    Like

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