Thursday, October 21, 2010

Please rise for the jury

This week I had jury duty. When I mentioned this to friends, there’ve been two responses. Either they’re eager to be on a jury, or they say they’d try to get out of it.

If you or someone close to you was the person in that plaintiff or defendant chair, wouldn’t you want the most capable jury possible?

Yes, jury duty takes you from your everyday life. I had to devote what turned out to be two whole days-9 to 5 one day and 10-7:25 the other. Yes, I had to drive to the burbs, which took over an hour in the morning and around a half hour to return. We got paid a whopping $17.20 per day, and spent a good portion of the second day locked in a cramped room…without our cell phones.

But the jury is a fundamental part of our country’s legal system. It's part of what makes America America.

Day 1: Arrive at the court. Wait in metal detector line. Go to spacious jury assembly room, hand in your summons, choose a panel number. Watch the You, The Juror video (in which I happen to be the plaintiff’s attorney, filmed in 1997).

My panel was one of the first to get called. A sheriff led around 30 of us up to a courtroom. We sat on the hard wood benches. The judge gave an overview of what would happen and thanked us for our service. Fourteen of us were called to sit in the softer jury box chairs. Each was questioned (voir dire) about a variety of things including education, occupation, and, in this case, whether we’d been in a car crash. After that, the parties/lawyers/judge left the room. Only a few of us were retained, the rest returned to the assembly room to await another panel.

After a long lunch break, my new panel number was called. Off to another courtroom for more voir dire. This to me was the most tedious part…all of us had to sit and wait while the first group of 14 were questioned, then while the parties deliberated on whom to keep, then while the next group of 14 were questioned. Finally around 5pm the jury was complete. I was among those selected.

Day 2: The 12 of us…ranging from 20s to 71, assorted occupations, educational backgrounds and ethnicities, waited for at least an hour locked in our jury room. Finally we were called to hear the case: a dual robbery. There were four witnesses: the two victims and two police officers. The goal of the defense is to raise doubt(s)…because, if you didn’t know, in a criminal case the defendant is presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

The actual trial was quite different from those seen on TV. How the judge and attorneys handled objections and re-worded questions showed how much I still remember from law school about hearsay rules.

Time to deliberate….12 strangers unanimously deciding a man’s fate on the evidence we’d seen and heard. Who and what did we believe?

I was pleasantly surprised by how smoothly and how professionally we worked together (some bosses could learn from that), how committed everyone was to doing the right thing and allowing each of us to have our say. We returned a guilty verdict. Justice was served.

Then the judge and one of the attorneys came to ask if we had any questions. We learned that the defendant had had prior run-ins with the law. This was his ELEVENTH conviction. Wow.

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