September 26, 2003 (Tuesday) – First Day of Trial
This is the fifth entry in a series of entries on my role in the jury in a double murder case in the county of Contra Costa, California. You can see a more detailed view of the case including links to these posts and other items at this page.
This starts the trial itself. I think it will be interesting for folks that have never gone through a long trial to hear the insights and see what it’s like to endure a trial this long and this serious. I’m also doing this for my own sanity because of the rules of the court which I’ll cover next. I’m not going to use the names of jurors or if I do I will use first names only. As for witnesses I will occasionally use their names if they are materially involved and not just witnesses that establish specific facts such as criminalists and people that came across the scene innocently.
Case Overview – The People vs. Dominique Alexander Wright
We have been told at this point that the charges against Mr. Wright are two counts of felony murder with both firearm and robbery enhancements. Apparently there is also another count of robbery. They’ve spoken of narcotics being involved as well but I was surprised that there were no narcotic enhancements. My guess is that it is not considered an enhancement as part of the felony murder rule but I’m sure I will learn more as the case goes on. We’ve also been told that the murder occurred in Concord California and the bodies were disposed of in unincorporated Contra Costa County on Morgan Territory Road.
I’m sure I’m going to miss a few of these so I will probably come back and edit this later but here goes.
- Don’t discuss this case with anyone, especially and specifically other jurors, either of the lawyers, the defendent, other people in the courtroom, anyone outside the courtroom including friends and family. Pretty much, just don’t talk about this case at all during the course of the trial.
- Don’t go and visit any of the crime scenes.
- Don’t research anything offline or online.
8:30 am – The court rules for jurors are read and the judge goes over terminology that will be used such as an objection, or the parties involved or other terms that we will hear in the course of this case. The official charges against Mr. Wright are also read at this time.
9:00 am – The Deputy District Attorny Mr. Cope makes his opening statement. The statement is pretty detailed in his case. He goes through the entire crime as the prosecution wishes to present it to us later through witnesses and evidence. This is where we really start to get an idea of what we are going to hear in this case. The items above were just what we had been told during the jury selection process. Now we’re getting to the details.
During the opening statement the DA detailed the timeline that the prosecution believes it. Some of this statements about what happened during the commission of the crime start to raise questions in my head about just how they know it. Then he tells us that it came from the defendent himself. So of course that grabs my interest a bit although I assume that the defense will have a different take on this statement.
10:00 am – The public defender Daniel Cook starts his opening statement. He pretty much says that most of the facts in the case are not in dispute but that what crimes that were actually committed is the real question. To me this means this will come down to what rules we are given at the end and then what we are able to draw from all of the testimony and evidence presented to us.
10:20 am – The prosecution’s first witness is someone that lives on Morgan Territory rd. She sets the timeline of when the car was on fire and where it was found. The witness describes the scene and tells us that it was about 3:45-4:00pm when her and her family came across the car. She tells us that the fire response came within 5 minutes of them calling 911. The police came much later she said.
For a first witness this was pretty uninteresting. All she did was establish the timeline of when and where the car was discovered and the condition it was in at the time. I assume most witnesses will be like this but there was that part of me that kind of expected a more dramatic witness since I’ve never been in a trial and have only seen them on television.
10:35 am – The prosecution presents their next witness. He is an engineer for the forestry service, which in this case means he is a fireman. He testifies about the events that led to him arriving at a burning car and putting the fire out. He also established the time of 4:00pm. He then talks about checking the engine and realizing the fire didn’t start in the engine. Next, he tells us that he looked in the trunk using the keys no less and found the two bodies. The keys had been left in the ignition and apparently hadn’t melted. After he discovered the bodies he notified police. He also tried to insure that the scene was preserved as much as possible since he knew it was now a crime scene. There was no cross-examination from the defense.
This was the last witness before lunch.
1:20 pm – After lunch our next prosecution witness is the pathologist that performed the autopsy on the two bodies. I figured this is where we would see the photos that we were warned about during jury selection.
The pathologist discussed his background and qualifications first. For expert witnesses they have to officially establish their expertise and then ask the court to qualify the person as an expert in a particular area(s) for the case. The pathologist is a medical doctor and then has more extensive training in pathology, specifically of a forensic nature. The prosecutor had this guy explain how the coroner based system works here in California and how it differs from most other states in the country. Of course, we have to be different than most other states. Anyways, the long and short of it is that he works for a private entity that contracts with the county to perform autopsies.
The pathologist was here to testify as to the cause of death. In both cases it was gunshot wounds to the head and/or neck. The female victim was shot twice in the neck in close proximity and at nearly identical trajectories. He estimated that it took her 1-2 minutes to die due to blood loss. I seriously hope she was fully unconscious for that period of time. The male victim was shot twice in the head and once in the neck. The shots to the head would have killed him immediately. The pathologist could not say in what order they were shot.
In all 5 cases the victims were shot at relatively close proximity because of the presence of stipling and tattooing from gunpowder and metal fragments from the barrell of a gun. There was tight contact on the shot to the male victim’s head and neck while there was most likely near contact on the female’s body. This showed that the shooter was standing very close when they shot them. Based on the trajectories it was also likely that the killer was standing over the victim (like from standing outside the trunk looking down).
In addition, he testified that the victims were not killed by the fire or the smoke in the vehicle since neither’s blood showed any trace of carbon monoxide.
The pathologist also testified that the victims both had bruising on the face indicating that they had been hit with blunt objects. He felt that the male victim had been hit more than the female victim.
The photos were of the bodies, how they were bound and the positions they were placed in when they were in the trunk of the car. It was hard to see the photos since they were broadcast on the wall of the courtroom.
The defense attorney asked his first questions today. They were more about the definition of death. I’m not sure where he was going but it didn’t seem to really challenge anything the pathologist had testified too. He also had a report from a different pathologist that disagreed with how many times the victim (I forget which one) had been hit (blunt force trauma). The pathologist said that he was aware of the report and that it agreed with everything except for how many times the victim was hit but that because it wasn’t the cause of death it really wasn’t relevant. I agreed with this statement. I was thinking the same thing as the defense tried to ask the question because I couldn’t fathom how many times someone was hit would mean anything because the gunshots were the cause of death.
This witness was the first key witness of the trial. He specifically established cause of death in the victims and how many times they were shot. On a side note, I didn’t find the photos as gruesome as we were told to expect. I think I’ve seen more graphic photos on CSI before but that’s neither here nor there. The photos were all just of entry and exit points to illustrate the findings of the pathologist.
3:30 pm -That was the end of the first day of trial. We got out a little early since the prosecution had exhausted his list of witnesses for the first day. Obviously we haven’t heard enough evidence yet to get a feeling for anything but you can see the foundation that the prosecutor has to lay before he gets to the evidence that could establish guilt. It’s hard to say what the strategy of the defense is at this point although based on his questions during jury selection and his opening statement it seems as though it’s going to rest more on whether or not his client committed the specific crimes he is accused of vs. any crime.
On a work note, I’m getting good WiFi signal from the McDonald’s across the street so that’s good news. I can answer e-mails at lunch and during break.
I’m also starting to get to know some of the folks on the jury. It turns out that there are two jurors whose daughters are roommates and they didn’t even know it. Basically, they had each met their daughter’s roommate but not the roommate’s father yet. I also found out that one of the jurors is the girlfriend of the son of my wife’s department secretary. If you followed that, you get a special reward. It’s really a small world.