lunes, 18 de marzo de 2019

MY FIRST EXPERIENCE AS A JUDGE IN A JURY TRIAL (Buenos Aires, Argentina)

My name is Luciana Irigoyen Testa and for more than 20 years I have served as a judge in Necochea, a small coastal town in the Province of Buenos Aires, Argentina. This week I had my first experience presiding over a jury trial. For various reasons, previous cases that might have gone to a jury trial had been resolved by other means.

Judge Luciana Irigoyen Testa

I would like to share my experience from a human point of view, rather than a technical or legal one, where so much has been said already. On that level, all went very well, as expected. 

However, as a citizen of Argentina, my country, I was particularly moved. I must say that I have a deep democratic and republican sentiment. I strongly believe in respect for others, for their differences, and for our coexistence.

To begin with, I was pleasantly surprised when I parked my car at the courthouse early that morning and I could see a long queue of 26 potential jurors that were summoned for that case. The attitude was one of utter seriousness and circumspection, in light of the duty for which they had been summoned.

They came to the courthouse, complied with the schedule, left their routines and civically took over the duty for which they had been called. At this point, I must highlight the intense logistic efforts from the court’s personnel, led by clerk Eugenia Gómez. As I began to explain, all these citizens came to fulfill their jury duty. Minutes later, everyone took their place in the courtroom and the voir dire started.

​Today, reflecting on the experience in hindsight, I could tell a different story. But I must confess that, in the moments before the proceedings began, adrenaline was rushing through me and the entire team.

The jury

An analogy came to mind of hosting a lunch with various people who do not know each other: anything could happen. At least, it seems that way in the imagination of those of us who have tried cases and conducted hearings exclusively among lawyers, where everything is scheduled and almost completely predictable. Now, for the first time in my life, I was in front of a large group of neighbors who did not know each other, and the task at hand was absolutely stressful: to decide whether another neighbor, a peer, was guilty of a very serious crime. We, lawyers, know that we were referring to the potential application of a severe sentence of many years in jail. The jury did not know it specifically, but it was clear to everybody that such a heavy feeling was hanging in the air.

The judge directing the jury

​The voir dire began and, when we were all prepared to hear a flood of questions, peremptories or disqualifications of potential jurors, then came the first surprise: this did not happen at all. Within minutes, voir dire came to an end, so we swore in the twelve person jury (six women and six men) and the alternates. We were ready to start with the trial.

The trial proceeded normally, within the legal scope that we, lawyers, are used to and with which we feel at ease. The jury, with an attitude of attention, listened and observed seriously. Only one member took notes. The other jurors decided to rely on their own recollections of the evidence. I was particularly surprised by this since I am the kind of judge that obsessively notes down even the sighs and body movements of a witness.

The judge taking notes

​In the evening, the trial was over: we heard the closing statements from the parties, the defendant was given the last word and I instructed the jury on the law. We were then ready for the trial’s real climax: the deliberation of the twelve jurors. Alternates were dismissed and, once again, my staff and I crossed our fingers, begging that no juror got sick during deliberations. The bailiff stood firm in front of the jury room’s door, guarding them.

We went back to chambers to drink mate tea while we waited for the verdict, losing track of time. From behind the door, one could hear a lot of discussion, arguments, different tones of voice. A real, robust deliberation was taking place. The fate of the defendant was in the hands of those twelve persons behind that door. The whispers were incessant. And, finally, we, the lawyers, were left out of that decision. We had returned to the ancient Athenian democracy, to popular deliberation, to the sense of the People. 

After more than an hour of deliberation, the bailiff shouted: "They have a verdict." I cannot describe my emotions. I started to print something that I thought might be useful to the close of the trial (of course, nothing more was needed), and I paced back and force a couple more times. The People have a verdict. The People…

We returned to the courtroom. The defendant and jury returned as well. My staff and I were in our places to one side of the courtroom. The jury faced the defendant, ready to deliver its verdict. We, the lawyers, were not part of it.

Forewoman reads the verdict


​As a lawyer, I was concerned about the verdict forms and potential errors, so before the forewoman read the jury’s decision, I even asked her if she was sure they had filled in the verdict forms properly and checked the correct boxes. At this moment I realized I was giving priority to the forms over the heart of the matter of what was being decided. If I’m not quite so hard on myself, I was trying to protect the validity of what was going to be announced. The forewoman smiled at me, said everything was correct and read the verdict. I explained to the defendant the legal consequences of the decision.

Finally, I discharged the jurors and thanked them for their duty. When I came to the part that goes “…jury service is not only one of the burdens of citizenship, it is also one of its privileges" and "...how important jury service is to the workings of a democracy,” I got choked up. I could barely finish my closing words.

I thought that the previous paragraph would be the proper end to these reflections. However, as I shared them with my family, they said that one important thing was missing: how moved I was when I got home that night. "Alright," as a dear colleague would say ...

Necochea, March 15, 2019

AAJJ (03/12/19):"Necochea: A 73 year old retiree was found not guilty of murder for acting in self defence of his disabled son and guilty of unlawful gun  possession" (see the main story)