Bringing my poker skills to the jury room

It's been a while now, but I still remember when I got the letter that it seems every American citizen dreads more than anything except an audit notice from the IRS – it was a jury summons.  

This is a poker article and not a civics lesson, but let me suggest something: when you get your jury summons, go ahead and step up to the plate. There’s a fair chance you won’t be chosen anyway. Quite often you just wait out your appointed time period and are never called. Or if you’re called, they may choose to dismiss you for reasons that may or may not make sense to you.But if you pass through all the filters and end up empaneled on the jury, accept the opportunity to serve as part of your civic responsibility. The jury trial is an important part of the western judicial tradition and most of us are fortunate enough to live in nations which use it. Believe me, if you ever find yourself on either side of a courtroom dispute (especially as the defendant in a criminal case), you’ll be glad that juries exist.

Juries are also, as you’ll see, a real-life opportunity to test out your poker skills. 

I ended up on a jury in a small criminal case. A man was charged with “felonious possession of stolen property.” I don’t know what the potential punishment was – we weren’t told. We were simply there to determine guilt or innocence. And in fact, the judge turned us and somberly reminded us,“Your job is to determine which witnesses you think are most credible and the importance of evidence which they give.” I smiled inwardly; this was right up my alley. “Do I believe the three-bet preflop or the check on the flop?” “Should I trust the shrug, or the extra oomph he gave to the chips he put into the pot?”

The facts of the case were relatively simple. A trailer for hauling brush, wood, and the like had been stolen. Later, the defendant had purchased the trailer from a third party. The original owners of the trailer had seen it in the defendant’s possession, and now here he was in court. The state needed to prove five things to establish the defendant’s guilt – three were virtually stipulated by everybody involved and require no further discussion (for example, one of those points was, “Was the trailer stolen?”). But two points were at the core of the dispute:

  1. Did the defendant know that the trailer was stolen or should he have known?
  2. Was the trailer valued at more than $1,000? (the amount required to raise the crime to a felony)

For most of a day, we listened as the defendant, his son, the investigating detective, and a handful of other witnesses told their story to the court. We watched as the defense attorney tried to raise confusion in our minds about whether the trailer recovered was the same one stolen.


Well, the prosecutor did her job – she showed us a bunch of repair welding on the trailer that was recovered and then records of the welds being made to the trailer before it was stolen. One issue settled. Throughout the day, I felt very much as if I were in a poker game – but with stakes much higher than any game I’d ever played: a man’s criminal record, perhaps literally his freedom.

I watched, listened, and tried to draw lines of logical reason between varying descriptions of events. Would the defendant’s son have put signs advertising his hauling business on a trailer he knew to be stolen? Should the cut control cables have told the defendant that something was dodgy about the trailer he was purchasing?

But the first time my poker antennae truly went up involved (surprise!) money. The prosecutor wanted us to know that the trailer was valued at $1000. “After all, the defendant paid the seller $1000 for the trailer.” Well, not exactly, Madam Assistant District Attorney. It turns out the seller had been renting a garage from the defendant, but was in arrears on his rent to the tune of $1500 or so. When the defendant wanted to buy a trailer (and it turned out that the seller had one), the seller said he’d sell it for $1000. Defendant told him, “I won’t pay you $1000 for it. But I’ll give you $500 cash and I’ll deduct $500 from the rent you owe me.” That’s how the deal was consummated. My poker player brain snapped to attention. “That’s an EV computation right there. He knows he’s never going to get that $1500 out of the guy. The EV of that $1500 debt is probably more like $300 – he’s 4:1 dog to ever get the money. So in his mind, he’s getting the trailer for $600: $500 cash plus $100 in lost EV.” Even sitting there in the courtroom, I knew I wasn’t going to vote for the felonious possession charge, even if the defendant had said under oath, “Hell yes, I knew it was stolen.” 

Ultimately, we learned that we could also find the defendant guilty of a lesser charge – misdemeanor possession. That, at least, was still under consideration in my mind when I got to the jury room. I was honestly conflicted. I was virtually certain that the defendant didn’t know that the trailer was stolen, but there was also the test of “Should he have known it was stolen?” Fortunately, I had 11 other people in the room to go over the “hand” with me. I listened to each and considered his or her points. Interestingly, over the course of an hour, we all slowly reached the same conclusion, one that rested on one of the key points of American criminal law: perhaps the defendant should have know that the trailer was stolen, but we all had reasonable doubt that he should have known – the bets made by the prosecution just wouldn’t add up to the hand they were representing.

After about 90 minutes, we found the defendant not guilty and reported that back to the judge. In fact, I was chosen as foreman and had the responsibility to tell the judge that, “Yes sir, we have a verdict.” The clerk read the not-guilty verdict in the courtroom, the judge thanked us for our work, and we all went back to our regular lives. I’m glad I don’t do that every day; it’s much easier making tough decisions when there’s just money on the line. But I was awfully glad for all my poker training when the chips were truly down.


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