- I love Jesus. I love my family. I love photography. I love books. I love thinking. Probably in that order. I have a wonderful husband, five beautiful daughters, a house, and a camera. I enjoy spending time talking to my husband, playing with my girls, redecorating my house and shooting things with my camera. In my spare time, I sleep.
Thursday, February 20, 2014
A View from the Juror's Seat
I'm 34 years old and I just served my first stint of Jury Duty. I gotta say that when I received my notice before Christmas just days before I was to leave town for the holiday, I was a little freaked out...wondering if I should try to get out of it. After all, I am still nursing my youngest and nursing mothers have an out. But the letter said I needed a doctor's note and that I only had 10 days to respond...and since my nursing baby is actually a toddler who can go most of the day on regular food...I just decided to suck it up and go. But with major reservations. I had NO idea what to expect. Was is for one day or several? Would it last all day or just a little while? How many others would be there? Were they choosing jurors for the next 3 months or would I be called back? Was there a chance of sequester that would be a problem for my nursing baby? Do we get to leave for lunch? What exactly happens in that room? I just had sooo many questions that I couldn't find answers to anywhere. So that first day, (January 21st) I had a bag loaded to the hilt with snacks and reading material and I had a stomach full of butterflies.
I showed up at the courthouse at 7:45, fifteen minutes early, and followed the flock of people making there way into the old brick building that has served our county for over 100 years. I first felt that I had overdone it on the packing when I took my turn going through the metal detector and my bag barely fit through the opening of the window for the guard to check. It was then that I glanced around and noticed that none of the other potential jurors had more than a small purse with them. I began to feel even more self-conscious then I already had.
I made it through security without even a hiccup beyond my own insecurity (can't resist a fun play on words) and climbed the stairs to the second floor where a line of potential jurors had formed to check in with the Clerk Magistrate. At the front of the line, I gave her my name, she checked me on the list and handed me a list of all the days that I needed to show up at the courthouse to serve. That was instant panic! There were 8 jury selection dates for 12 different juries. It looked like a lot and I was really wishing I had gotten that doctor's note. Because every day I had to show up for jury duty was a day that my husband had to take off of work to stay with the kids and I had to subject myself to this anxiety!
I was directed to Courtroom 1 which was a tiny awkward room that was quickly filling up with potential jurors. I found a seat in the middle but next to a support beam (so I would only have a person on one side). It quickly became apparent that there were more jurors then there were seats in the room and it was very crowded. It was at this point that I began to have a mild anxiety attack due to nerves and claustrophobia. My heart rate became elevated and I started to get lightheaded and dizzy. I held it together though and by the time the bailiff came in the room, I had convinced myself that I was going to be okay. The bailiff was a young woman (probably about my age) with long blondish hair and a pleasant demeanor. She showed us a short video about how jury duty works and our responsibilities as jurors. It was clearly made in the late 1980's and I found it quite amusing when the video pointed out that the court system has ran "virtually unchanged" for hundreds of years.
When the video ended we were all moved to Courtroom 2 for the actual jury selection. Again the room was crowded and there were a couple people left standing. The attorneys and the defendant were already present and we all stood as the judge entered the room. He thanked us for coming and again did a quick rundown of what was expected of us. I discovered that we would be selecting the jury for the case that very day--those chosen would stay and everyone else would go home and return at the next scheduled trial date. The judge swore us in and then did a preliminary qualification survey of the room. Making sure that everyone present was qualified to serve. Anyone who didn't live in our county, anyone who couldn't understand English, anyone under 18, etcetera, got sent home and didn't have to come back. There was one person who didn't qualify. Next thing I knew it was time to choose the first 12 people to go up and be questioned by the lawyers for the case. I almost laughed when I realized how high tech the selection process is...with the bailiff almost literally drawing slips of paper out of a "hat". (She had one of those spinning dealies that she drew names out of.) I was so relieved when I didn't hear my name.
The trial was for a theft case. A person was accused of 'theft by taking' (this made me raise my eyebrows...what other kind of theft is there?). The lawyers asked the potential jurors all kinds of questions about their opinions and experiences regarding theft. It was so uncomfortable. People want to have the right answers. This was the first major lesson I took away from my time on jury duty...people want to have the "right" answers, people want to believe that they are unbiased, and people want to give the impression that they have more integrity than they probably really do. For example...the defense attorney asked if any of the jurors golfed; if any of them ever came across an abandoned golf ball, and if any of them ever picked them up. Everyone on the panel said 'No.' In my head, I called them all liars. Really!? No one has ever picked up some random item they found on the ground that they figured was 'lost' and took it home? I found that hard to believe. At any rate...not one person in the original twelve was dismissed during the questioning process so when it was over the 6 jurors were chosen and the rest of us sent home. It felt like Id been there forever but when I got in my car and look at the clock it had barely been an hour and a half!
Two weeks later (on the day after my birthday), I went back for day 2 of service. This time I just brought my purse with a couple of Nutrigrain bars and a small bottle of water. The beginning of the day was the same, checked in, waited in the first courtroom before being moved into the other. This time I was able to get the end seat closest to the door in both rooms so I didn't have quite the feeling of claustrophobia as before. The room was extra tense this time...the case was one of a teenage girl writing a racist epithet on a teenage boys car. The selection process was a bit more lively this time as person after person was dismissed due to having heard about the case prior to court. I had not and therefore was beyond happy that my name was never drawn. The questions asked of the potential jurors this time felt so much more loaded. In today's culture racism is a VERY touchy subject and to answer questions of this nature in front of a crowed room of your peers is beyond nerve racking! Even though I wasn't being directly questioned, I was so uncomfortable. I had to keep my head down through a lot of it because I felt so ill-at-ease. And partially because I had very strong opinions on some of what was asked and no one answered the way I would have.
That is the second major realization I took away from jury duty...I really do have strong opinions on some things and actually feel compelled to share them when asked. I did NOT want to be on that jury but at the same time, listening to all the talk in the room, I felt like I might burst keeping my thoughts inside. It's probably needless to say that Russ sure got an earful when I got home! That is another thing I thought that day about jury selection...it kinda stinks to go and get all worked up about a case, not get picked, and then have to go home and not know how things turned out. Thankfully, I did get to find out what happened in that case because it made the paper. (The case got dismissed on a technicality of the law and it never made it to the jury.)
The next day's trial was cancelled so I didn't have to come back until Thursday. Thursday morning I decided to not bother showering and instead slept in a bit longer. I came to regret that decision as my name was one of the 12 drawn for selection. The case was a DUI. I was glad it was something fairly straight-forward and non-controversial. I figured that this was one that would be easier to be fair and unbiased on. We were questioned on our drinking habits and thoughts on alcohol. I was one of 4 who had never drank. While I grew up being taught that drinking is always bad, my current opinions on the subject are a lot more balanced. We were questioned about our thoughts on the government and the government's burden in providing evidence of guilt. This is where my opinions got a little more focused and strong and I volunteered answers without being called on...which surprised me because I told myself that first day that I wouldn't do that. There was a VERY strong emphasis from both sides put on the state's burden of proof and the fact that evidence must show guilt "beyond a reasonable doubt" before you should give a guilty verdict and how our job was not to start in neutral until we see the facts, but to start out in 'Not guilty' mode until all the evidence is shown and proves otherwise. In fact, the questioning went on so long and became so tediously repetitive in this vein that I almost literally rolled my eyes at the defense attorney when he made all of us one-by-one say 'not guilty' in response to one of these questions. In fact, I can't say "beyond a reasonable doubt" that I didn't roll my eyes at the guy at that time. I just felt it was such a manipulative tactic. However when the questions were finally over and the lawyers narrowed down the list of jurors, I wasn't a bit surprised when I found myself on the list of those staying to hear the case. I was officially a juror.
There were 4 men and 2 women on the jury. After the room was emptied of all the other potential jurors we were given a brief overview of what the day would be like. We were dismissed and I went straight to the bathroom to pee. When I got out, I called Russ to tell him I wasn't coming home. It was then that I realized that I had no idea where the rest of the group was and what I was suppose to do. Apparently we were suppose to follow the bailiff to the jurors' room (which has it's own bathrooms) but I didn't know that. Thankfully she found me and took me back. She answered a few of our questions and we all put in orders for lunch, grabbed a bottle of water, chatted a bit and then headed to the courtroom when the buzzer went off.
I'll leave out all the details of the trail except to say that we heard two witnesses speak about the events of the night, the woman who called 911 and the officer who responded to the call and when they were done giving testimony and the state said "case closed" we all felt like there should be more. It just didn't seem like they gave us all they should have. We were sent back to the jury room for deliberation at about 3 pm. It was a relief to finally be able to talk amongst ourselves about the case. Over our hour lunch break, we enjoyed chit-chat with each other and the bailiff and skirted the edge of acceptable conversation, never talking about the trial but talking a great deal about life at the courthouse and our own experiences with alcohol and the police. Now we were free to say whatever we wanted.
I feel lucky to have served with the people I did. They were all very respectful and reasonable people. Everyone got a chance to talk and no one was disparaged in any way. We gave our initial thoughts, read through the jury instructions, raised our concerns and questions, examined all the photo evidence carefully and gave our impressions of the situation. We weren't always in agreement but the overall feeling was the same--that the situation was highly suggestive of guilt but the evidence to prove it was lacking. So after a mere hour and a half, with a heaviness about our decision, we voted unanimously to deal a verdict of 'not guilty'.
We went back in the courtroom, the verdict was read, and we were dismissed. We talked on the way out about the heaviness of our hearts at coming to that decision. What if we were wrong? What if he is very guilty and we just sent him out to do it again--and maybe this time, to hurt somebody besides himself? But given the emphasis on burden of proof, 'beyond a reasonable doubt', and 'innocent until proven guilty' we all felt that we did right by the law. Which leads me to my third observation about jury duty--it just feels so weird to give such a huge responsibility-the fate of another human being-to a bunch of schmo's off the street who mostly don't even want to be there. For one hour, the trajectory of that man's life, was within my power to decide. I'm nobody to him and yet me and 5 other people, with a few differently chosen words could have swayed the room and he would have been found guilty. Just like that. And that is the feeling we six people left with. Did we do the right thing? And how on earth did we end up with such a responsibility in the first place?
That wasn't the end of my jury duty experience. I went back for an eventful day of selection for multiple trials and I have one more selection day left until my three month service is up but I think what I've written covers enough. This was my view from the juror's seat.