Jury Duty: Fourth Time’s the Charm
My latest adventure in jury duty is over…. for the 4th time, I was called to perform my civic duty as a member of a jury. For the first time, I was not selected to actually sit on a jury during a trial. Thank God. The jury I was nearly placed on was going to try a doozy of a case.
If you’ve never been stuck with, I mean had the privilege of serving on, jury duty, the process goes a little something like this:
First, you and 200 of your peers are corralled in a large room. Approximately 1/3 of them will not be able to follow the simplest of directions which are displayed on billboard-sized posters everywhere. This leads to scolding from the sole jury clerk, who at 7:30 on Monday morning already looks like she’s had it with the work week. Once roll has been called (again, witnessing grown adults who can’t follow the same roll call protocol they’ve been following since preschool), the waiting begins. Even with the modern-day distractions of Facebook, Angry Birds and People magazine, it becomes clear that the human mind and body was not designed to be kept waiting for hours on end in a stimulus-free environment this early on a Monday. ‘Mindless tedium’ is defined in situations like this.
The wait continues until a judge and lawyers in a case are ready for a trial. They’ve been unable to reach a deal, and need to plead their cases to a jury. The word comes down to the jury room, and the disgruntled jury clerk randomly wakes 40 jurors from their waiting room stupors to head upstairs.
Once upstairs in the courtroom, more tedium awaits. From this group of 40 or so jurors, the courtroom clerk (there’s a film about these courthouse employees waiting to be made; I’d call it Clerks, but Kevin Smith beat me to it) randomly selects 14 to sit on the jury. Now the real fun begins. The judge briefly describes the case, and then the lawyers take turns peppering the prospective jurors with questions in a vetting process designed to weed out those jurors who each lawyer think may not be beneficial to their case, or who may not be as impartial as they need them to be. What do you do for a living? Ever been to jail? Ever seen a grown man cry? You get the drift.
Once the first round of questions is over, the lawyers can dismiss whoever they like, for whatever reason. The clerk then picks another juror to take their place, and the questioning starts over….. this continues until all sides are satisfied that they have a jury of 12 (with 2 alternates) that they feel will be as impartial as possible. The process can take all day. It can be interesting to see how things play out, or, for people like me who have been through it several times, it can be mind-numbingly boring. I shudder to think what the judge thinks of the whole process.
In my prior jury experiences, the worst trial I came across was a drunk driving case. This time, the case I was selected for was much, much more serious. Criminal sexual conduct, 3 counts, with minors between the ages of 13 and 16. Ouch. You could hear and see the jurors deflate when the judge announced the case; this was going to be a bad one.
In all seriousness, despite the time-consuming and rather boring process of selecting jurors, it’s a vitally important part of our country’s justice system. Our founding fathers knew that the type of society they were trying to build, one ruled by a free people, had to have at its heart a system of justice that allowed every person to receive a fair trial, and to be judged by a fair and impartial jury of his or her peers. It’s a great system theoretically, but it’s not until you’re sitting in a courtroom looking at a man who’s accused of some very serious, very heinous crimes, knowing that you may be asked to judge him and send him away for a very, very long time, that you realize how important our judicial system can be, and how difficult it can be to make it work as intended.
In this particular case, during the questioning of jurors by the lawyers, more than one juror was brought to tears by the questions being asked. Difficult questions about very private things. I saw and heard from people who had to admit to a roomful of strangers that they had been victims of sexual crimes when younger; people who admitted to having served time for crimes ranging from DUIs to armed robbery; people who knew someone who had been a victim of a sex crime or who had been found guilty of committing one. I’m sure for many this was the first time ever making these admissions. This is real life stuff going on here, and it’s tough.
When a jury is being selected for a serious crime, the hours of horrible waiting and boredom come to a crashing halt. All of a sudden, the reason we are here becomes crystal clear: we are going to be responsible for determining the fate of one man, determining whether or not he spends most or all of the rest of his life behind bars for crimes he has committed. Worse, we would be responsible for determining his fate NOT KNOWING WITH 100% CERTAINTY whether or not he had actually committed these terrible crimes or not. The only thing we would have to go on would be the word of the prosecuting attorney, and the rebuttal of the defendant’s attorney. The prosecutor’s questions for the jury led me to believe, in my opinion, that there was not a lot of concrete evidence in this case, only the word of the victims. A true “he said/she said” situation with grave consequences.
Questions like “Do you consider yourself good at telling whether people are lying,” and “Could you reach a guilty verdict without 100% proof of the crime?” tell me that this wasn’t going to be an easy trial. But that drives home the importance of, and perhaps the limitations of, our judicial system. A trial by peers is not, and can never be, a perfect thing. This is why picking the best jury possible is so important. The prosecutor must convince 12 people BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT that the defendant has committed a crime. The defendant doesn’t have to do a thing; he is presumed innocent unless the prosecution convinces the jury otherwise. It’s a down and dirty process sometimes, and with a case like criminal sexual conduct, the stakes are high. If the prosecution can’t prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, the defendant HAS to be found not guilty. Oftentimes, defendants who are guilty of crimes walk free because the prosecution and the evidence they present can’t eliminate a certain amount of doubt in a jurors’ mind. That’s the way our criminal justice system was designed to work; many potential jurors can’t presume a person innocent until they’ve had the evidence laid out for them. These are the jurors the lawyers are trying to weed out; impartiality is not a universal trait. But it is an important one. The hardest part of the job for any jury is to find a defendant not guilty due to that reasonable doubt remaining after all evidence has been presented, ESPECIALLY when that jury knows the defendant probably did commit the crime. Placing the burden of proof on the shoulders of the prosecution, not the defendant, is what makes the whole system work.
The last piece of the trial by jury puzzle? ALL 12 jurors must agree to a verdict, one way or another. If just one juror has doubts about a case, there cannot be a guilty verdict. Again, this is a difficult, important job. Jury duty isn’t easy, especially for serious crimes.
In the end, I was questioned to be a juror in this case, but was ultimately dismissed. My wife is an elementary school teacher who deals with young kids. Apparently, the lawyers felt this would bias my opinion of the defendant (it was alluded to that these crimes may have been of a teacher/student variety.) I was relieved, for I know how difficult it was going to be to try to fairly judge someone for such horrible crimes. Worse, I know how difficult it will be for this jury to let this man go if they aren’t convinced beyond a reasonable doubt of his guilt. One of my prior juries had to find a man we all knew was guilty of the crime (assault) go due to a lack of evidence by the police and prosecutor. Even for that lesser crime, it was a difficult decision that took us all day to reach. My heart goes out to the 12 jurors who are given the task of determining this man’s fate.
If you ever get the jury duty questionnaire in the mail, don’t dread it. Getting to see our judicial system in action up close can be a very educational, fascinating experience. It has left me with a respect for the process, flawed though it may sometimes be. It also reassures me that, God forbid I am ever in a situation where I am accused of committing a crime, guilty or innocent, I will have 12 of my peers sitting in the jury box across the room ready to hear my case and judge me fairly and impartially. There are too many countries around the world where even today, that luxury doesn’t exist. Plus, you get 40 of your tax dollars paid back to you every day for your troubles.