Wednesday, December 14, 2005

civic responsibility

Everybody hates jury duty, right? Any excuse to get out of it. Boss says there's no way to do without you for that much time. Take advantage of the opportunity to delay it up to ten months. Ask a friend who's a doctor to write a note. Anything just to avoid it.

I understand. It seems like an imposition; an interruption of time, life, routine. I've felt that way, too. The first time I was called to perform this service, I was 27 years old. How is it I went nine years as a registered voter before being chosen? In any event, I happened to be unemployed at the time, and so I thought it was the perfect chance to see what the system looked like from the inside. I relished the thought of being part of a panel of "peers" discussing the details of a case. I really wanted to be involved. Plus, it paid $20 a day plus bus fare. More than I was making at the time.

Washington State Superior Court. I didn't know to bring a book, so the first six hours was spent waiting in an overcrowded room with unhappy people alternating watching cracks in the paint or spots on my shoes. On day two, I'd know better to bring a book. Good thing, as the next morning was more waiting. By that afternoon, the voie dire began. A group of about 75 potential jurors were filed into a courtroom with the judge, clerk, stenographer, lawyers, defendant, and translator all in their places. They asked the first 12 of us to take seats in the jury box.

The questioning was so lengthy that they didn't even get to me by the end of day two. And I was in the fourth chair. Day three, even though things were underway, I still needed a book while things got "settled" that morning. Eventually, we ended up back in the same courtroom and the interrogation resumed. They got to me early afternoon (yes, it took them about eight hours to get through the first three people). The first thing I had to do -- which made me terribly uncomfortable -- was to write a few personal details about myself on an easel pad near the judge's bench. My full name, my address, my age, my occupation, and my marital status. The defendant was sitting right there! I was anxious about a whole room full of people knowing that I was a young, single woman living on 37th Avenue NW. I was maybe a little embarrassed about being unemployed, too.

Once through that hurdle, I believe that the two lawyers asked me conservatively 120 questions. It was an amazing process to experience. The prosecutor wasn't too bad. Basic stuff (but a lot of it). The defense lawyer, once striking upon the theme of drugs and alcohol, was ruthless.
  • Did I take illicit drugs. No.
  • Had I ever taken or even experimented with them? No.
  • Did any of my friends take drugs? Not when they're with me.
  • Did I ever go to places where people were taking drugs? No.
  • Was I an alcoholic? No.
  • Did I drink alcohol at all? One drink every month or two (special occasions).
  • Was I on any prescription drugs? No.
  • Had I ever ingested cough syrup to get a buzz? I didn't even ingest it to treat a cold.
  • Did I smoke? No.
  • Did I take aspirin when I had a headache? Only if absolutely necessary.
It was a barrage. His client was caught in a police sting. Guess what he was doing at the time? Selling drugs! I was dismissed on a peremptory challenge by the defense. Three days of my time, and I didn't even get to see the trial. Oh well. I still wonder how long it took them to pick a jury. The wheels of justice grind slowly.

Since then, I have been called several times for jury service but have either postponed it (a neat trick that the state of Connecticut allows you to do once per summons) or been excused from reporting the day before (another neat trick). It was bound to catch up with me and did last week.

On Tuesday, I submitted forms, went through metal detectors, sat in uncomfortable chairs, shuffled from here to there, listened to recorded and live instructions, and read about half of the book I brought (lesson learned from 1993). As the afternoon was coming to an end, I was brought into a jury deliberation room with about 15 other people.

The voie dire was much different this time around. Still in a courtroom with all the players in their places, but each potential juror was questioned individually. That was a bit better: there was no audience full of people listening in, plus I didn't have to write a bunch of personal information on a board in front of the defendant. It probably took ten minutes. No question was too personal or vehement. Within a minute of finishing questions and being escorted out of the courtroom, I was escorted back in and told that I had been chosen. I signed a form and was shuffled out the back door of the courtroom, walking directly in front of the defendant.

The trial started two days later. Evidence presented. Testimony heard. Opening statements. Closing arguments. It was not like movie trials, though, in that both lawyers read from hastily scribbled notes, had long pauses while gathering thoughts, and frequently mussed the wording of their questions. I was also surprised to find how much traffic there was at the back door while the trial was in session. Someone walked in or out of that door nearly every minute. Any every time the door opened, a bitter cold draft blew through. The composition of the 'audience' in the courtroom was constantly shifting.

A woman who appeared to be intoxicated was alternately sleeping, mumbling, or being escorted out by a marshal. The beeps of a cell phone brought the whole proceeding to a halt while the judge determined the origin of said beeps and instructed the busy marshal to remove him, as well. Testimony was stopped several times so that the marshal could receive and execute instructions of his own. It was its own little whirlwind of activity.

The big thing I didn't anticipate was the huge amount of time dedicated to explanations. The judge spent half an hour explaining the whole process before anything began. Any time there was a recess, there was another long explanation. When both sides "rested" that afternoon with 15 minutes left in the day, that the judge didn't even try to give us our deliberation instructions. We had to wait until the next day in court to get them. As it turned out, the next day was actually Monday. Friday's snowstorm cancelled the trial for the day.

Monday morning, we started by listening to the judge read verbatim a set of specific instructions, along with the exact wording of the statutes. Again, it was more than half an hour before we were escorted to the deliberation room.

I had hoped to blend in, be a part of the group, contribute my opinion and discuss others, and go on with my life. But when it came time to choose a jury foreman, the hemming and hawing was too much for me to take: I volunteered to be foreman. I did not want to do it, but I also did not want to sit there and let the debate rage on as to who would take the reins.

We deliberated thoughtfully and spoke about many details. It was a good conversation. The mix of personalities was conducive to a discussion inclusive of many considerations. Lunchtime arrived at 1:00pm, but we weren't done. We returned an hour later and started again. We sent a question of clarification to the judge, were escorted back into the courtroom and given instruction and clarification, and brought back to the deliberation room. That happened twice.

In the end, we were able to reach a unanimous decision on one count, but not on the other. The judge decided to accept our partial verdict. As jury foreman, it was I who had to stand alone in the jury box and respond to the clerk's questions.

Clerk: "On (Count 1), how say you?" (abbreviated version of this question)
Me: "We were unable to reach a unanimous verdict on Count 1."
Clerk: "On (Count 2), how say you?"
Me: "Guilty."

It wasn't until a split second before I had to say that word that I realized how amazingly nervous I'd become. My fellow jurors assured me that I spoke loudly and clearly with no hint of hesitation or waver. But back in the deliberation room after it ended (and waiting for the judge to come talk to us), I was shaking. When the judge arrived, he assured us that he didn't want to talk about our deliberation or deadlock. He wanted to thank us for our service and remind us how very important it is to the process. He was very nice.

It is no easy task to take someone's freedom into your own hands. Thankfully, the others appreciated that fact as much as I did. Nobody was willing to change their positions simply to finish up and get out of there. Some opinions genuinely changed when certain facts were discussed at length, but ultimately everyone stood their ground.

I learned a lot from my time as a juror. Now, I won't be called into service again for at least another three years. I'm not certain I'll be ready by then to tackle it again.


Will Brady said...

I've always been intrigued about Jury Duty. Many of my friends have been called, but I've never received the mandate. I would welcome the intrusion, even if all I did was sit in on some convoluted minor case

kellycoxsemple said...

I was equally intrigued and annoyed. I did want to be a part but didn't want it to interfere with my life. Having been through it now, though, I'm glad I did -- despite the inherent difficulty of trying to arrive at a verdict with limited information.