At your service

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As he had with other prospective jurors, Judge Charles E. Stafford Jr. asked the guy in seat No. 18 to state his name, profession and city of residence. Joe Blow, physician, Rancho Mirage. "And I'm a Chicago Bears fan."

In the 30-plus years I lived in Santa Monica, I was summoned for jury duty five or six times. As part of the jury pool, I made it into an L.A. County courtroom three times. Sports loyalty never came up.

I've lived in Palm Desert for not quite three years. I have received a jury summons from the Riverside County Superior Court three times. When you give up the congestion of living with 4 million neighbors for the more spacious Coachella Valley, you get more frequent demands on your citizenship.

Last week, it took parts of two days to select the panel from our pool of 75 prospective jurors at the Larson Justice Center in Indio. Before asking who wished to be excused because of financial hardship, Stafford told us the case involved a single charge -- misdemeanor DUI. He introduced the prosecutor, and said she would call two witnesses. He introduced the defense attorney and the defendant. He said he expected the trial to last four, maybe five days.

This was the day the Manafort verdicts came down. That case involved 18 charges of complicated financial felonies, had a couple dozen witnesses and was over and out in 16 days. This case involved a guy who might or might not have driven impaired in December 2016, and 16 months later it might take five days to tell the story?

According to the DMV, in 2013 (the last year for which I could find figures), there were 9,704 misdemeanor DUI arrests in Riverside County, where there are 14 courthouses. Only five hear criminal cases. In 2012, 8,031 people here were convicted of DUI, 98% of which cases were misdemeanors. If only 10% of them were tried in Indio, and half of those took five days, I blame Da Bears.

Judge Stafford is a short, florid-faced man whose head is shaped like a bullet and grows about as much hair. He looks as grumpy as the Manafort judge really was. But Stafford's demeanor was only the first surprise in this exercise in jurisprudence. In fact, he has the softly cadenced voice and instincts of a kindergarten teacher.

The first day, he listened patiently to 12 or 14 members of the pool party who asked to be excused. All but two were dismissed, not including the therapist with two suicidal clients. Stafford felt her pain, but it was not financial. Justice can be merciful, but not, necessarily, if you're a juror.

Be glad you are in the U.S., Stafford said, and not the Taiwan where he was stationed in the military during the repressive rule of Chiang Kai-shek. Justice for people considered unsavory by Chiang's soldiers was getting beaten to death in an alley. Dear juror, remember that the defendant here is innocent until proved guilty.

Such proof, he said, is the burden of the D.A. to provide, and for you to convict, it must be convincing beyond a reasonable doubt. That's the most rigorous of the three standards of proof, which Stafford described in a circuitous tutorial. He cautioned that if you watch too much "Law & Order," you might be biased against circumstantial evidence.

Don't be.

Factual evidence, he explained in a circuitous tale about an imaginary neighbor's stolen TV, is the difference between what you see happening at the fake neighbor's house versus what you see on and around the premises before and after the fake burglary. Your judgment, Stafford said, must determine the value of evidence, whether factual or circumstantial.

The next day, when questioning of individual pool partiers was well underway, he revisited this distinction, choosing another appliance as a teaching aid. A flame or red stove burner is factual evidence of heat that you can see, he said. You don't see food being cooked in a microwave, but if you remove the dish with bare hands, you will be burned. That's circumstantial evidence of heat.

His grandfather, Stafford said, would have been a lousy juror. Born in Blackburn, England at the turn of the 20th century, he was the oldest of several siblings. His father, a laborer, died young. His mother was taken ill when gramps was 11. Doctors promised the kids that she would get well, but she never came home. For the rest of his life, grandpa refused to see a medical practitioner; as a juror, Stafford mused, he would have dismissed doctors' testimony because he thought they were liars.

We all make judgments every day, Stafford said. Many of them come from personal bias, which might not be good or bad, just human. But it doesn't belong in a jury deliberation.

The attorneys, he said, will question you to determine if you can overcome your biases to focus on the evidence in this case. Launching into a circuitous lesson in medieval architecture, Stafford said the attorneys ask his permission to enter the "well" -- the space between the bench and the tables where they and the defendant sit -- to pose their questions, because the U.S. is a child of Mother England. In the Middle Ages, Stafford said, moats were constructed around castles to protect residents from invaders. U.S. courtrooms invoke that territorial imperative, and what's more invasive than a lawyer poking into your biases?

"I'm biased," he acknowledged. A UCLA grad, he "bleeds blue and gold." Although his children did not attend UCLA, Stafford noted, they did go to college in California, and he is grateful that they did not put him in the difficult position of wanting to go to USC.

Bias makes people less fair, but more interesting.

Stafford is not from Chicago. He has never lived there. You'd think there was no good reason on God's green earth he would choose to drive an orange Mini Cooper with a blue convertible top. It was 108 degrees outside this courtroom when Stafford said that you haven't lived until you attend a playoff game at Soldier Field when it's 15 degrees.

"I'm biased toward the Chicago Bears," Stafford announced. "I'm biased against any team playing the Bears. I'm biased for any team playing the Green Bay Packers."

The jury was empaneled before I made it into the box, so I don't know if the defendant was guilty. I do know that next time I'm called to serve, I hope it's in Judge Stafford's court.

Photo: Ellen Alperstein


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