An Ordinary Juror: Part 1 of 4
Updated: Mar 4, 2019
The postcard I received was one most of us dread; the jury summons. For weeks I was afraid I would lose that card and felt like quite the responsible citizen that not only did I call the weekend before to see if I had to appear, but I didn't lose the card in the month that it was in my possession.
The morning I had to appear, I folded that card up, put it in my pocket and walked the mile to the courthouse. It was a cold blustery day and I was grateful that I could walk and not have to worry about where to park or how long the hike from the lot would take. I knew many had a thirty-minute drive to our small historic square and it was not lost on me that living so close would prove to be a huge asset during breaks.
8:00 am: I was early to arrive and had zero clues about what to expect. We were told not to use our cell phones and yet people used them anyway while waiting in that dull, sterile assembly room. There were several hundred others waiting in the long line that stretched outside the room and down two stories of stairs. I watched as elderly people who had not answered their online questionnaire attempted to use an iPad to do so. I wondered, "What things will I not understand when I am that age?" The experienced people knew to bring a book, while others resorted to ignoring the "no cell phone rule". I fell into the latter category. There were 350 of us waiting for over an hour and most conversations were about NOT wanting to serve and the interruption it would cause in their daily life. I, on the other hand, was excited at the idea.
After about an hour of waiting, and as the last people were checking in, a well-dressed man stood up to talk to us. I had no idea who he was, but I assumed he must be a lawyer or judge based on his nice suit and tie. He was quite charismatic as he thanked us for being there, made a joke about how this was clearly a government-run activity and talked to us about the importance of jury duty as a citizen of the United States. He gave us examples of how our country, by using ordinary people like us, does things a lot differently and a lot better. He introduced himself as a judge and explained that soon some of our names would be called to possibly be chosen for a civil or a criminal case. Those not chosen were allowed to go home. Did you know that the judges like to get up and greet the jurors during voir dire because they want you to remember their name when it comes to reelection time?
I made a friend while waiting. I will call her "Julie". My name was called by the court assistant just after hers which we thought was funny. From that point forward everything would be a mystery. Every step was something new. I found it exciting and fascinating!
We were called into the courtroom one by one as the court assistant checked off our names. There were pews on either side of me as I walked in. I found the room to be somewhat majestic with its size and dark furniture and giant. I was shown by the bailiff, who would later be more like a friend, to my assigned seat that would be my spot for the next several hours. I walked by paddles with numbers on them laying on the pew bench....like those you would see at an auction. I sat down at number thirty-one. Number thirty-two was a woman with a stroller who couldn't make it down the row. She was shown to the back where she and her baby spent 2 hours waiting and were finally excused. That baby never made a peep and I wondered if it were a louder child if she might have been excused earlier.
At this point, the judge explained a few things that he read from his notes and told us that the case was a criminal case, who the charges were against and that they were for statutory sodomy......oh....... My stomach dropped. That was tough to hear and tough to consider.
The assistant prosecuting attorneys both looked as if they were 12, but were so incredibly professional. The defense attorney looked a bit disheveled as her hair was tossed up in a messy bun and her clothes had seen the washing machine a few too many times. Then the questioning began. We were to hold up our numbered paddle if we could answer "yes" to any questions and then would be further questioned. If they asked a question that nobody raised a paddle for they would say, "I see no hands". If there were paddles raised then once everyone had been questioned they would say, "I see no further hands" They do this so that everything is recorded. Speaking of which, the court reporter was wearing what resembled a gas mask over her face which I assumed she was speaking in to in order to record.
I had no idea how entertaining, boring and frustrating this part would be. Hours of questions and so many long answers that could have been shorter. If anyone wanted to answer privately they were allowed to do so at the break. A few did request privacy and I understood why. Some of these questions were extremely personal.
"Have you heard about this case before today?"
"Are you or any of your family members police officers?"
"Have you or anyone close to you been a victim of sexual abuse?"
"The sentence for this charge is no less than 10 years up to life in prison. Do you have any issue with charging the full amount of this sentence?" (We were reminded of that later on.)
This questioning process, called "voir dire" means "to see, to speak" in French and I have since learned that it is all about striking potential jurors from the pool. The attorneys will excuse jurors as a part of their "strikes". There are two different types of strikes: strikes for cause and peremptory strikes. Strikes for cause are when you have some kind of connection to the case (i.e. you know the judge or attorneys, you work at Bank of America and that's where a robbery took place, etc.). Then the premptories are those that the attorneys use to strike the jurors. Attorneys may strike for any reason. They want to strike people they don't want, or don't want their opponent to have. I heard stories from the other jurors that often people would be excused immediately upon answering some basic questions, but this was not the case this day or in this court.
You wouldn't think that this process would be entertaining, and maybe it was the fact that it was so boring and serious, but there were some prospective jurors that just seemed to like to hear themselves talk or gain attention. Bless. I have to admit that on at least four occasions I found myself along with a few others giggling as if we were kids in church. No, we don't need to know that your "brother's sister in law's cousin was a police officer" or your long story about a question that has absolutely no relevance whatsoever. I wish I could recall the stories but they just aren't the same unless you hear it from that person in the setting of voir dire.
There were at least 30 or more questions that took a long time to process through, but after a couple of hours, we were let go for a short break. Julie and I chatted a bit about the funny answers some were giving but we knew we probably shouldn't discuss anything else. When we came back I truly expected them to narrow down the group and was very surprised that they had not let a single person go. Clearly, there were some people that we all knew would not get chosen and some that I swear were trying their best to not get chosen but they kept on questioning. It reminded me of a game of "Have you ever....?"
"Have you ever served on a jury? (with multiple questions if you said "yes.")
"Have you or anyone you know been accused or charged with....?"
12:30-2:00 We were allowed to break for lunch and I assumed that the next time we assembled we would find out how they had narrowed down the group.
As our large group assembled once again, I was taken by surprise to learn that they were going to announce the jury. The actual jury. Sixty-eight down to twelve...or thirteen as I found out later. I had no idea there would be an alternate amongst us. I found myself wondering, "Am I gonna make the cut?" Later we all compared it to a feeling like getting the "yellow ticket" on American Idol.
After 11 names were called I heard, "Laura Smith"...Bam! I'm in!!! Guess whose name was called next? Julie's. I was excited that my name had been called, but of course, remained subdued as I walked to my comfy chair in the jury box. As a matter of fact, I have never spent so much time being calm, cool and collected and wearing a "poker face" as I did during my jury time. The last name to be called was Julie's which again surprised me. She and I sat down in the front row with one other younger gentleman and we looked at each other in disbelief. How did we, two people who met at the very start of the day, both get chosen?
4:00 pm My jury experience had begun and I could not WAIT to get started. I traded my juror number for a yellow "Jury" lanyard and just as I was ready to get started the judge told us that we would be breaking for the day and that he would see us tomorrow. He read his "rules" from his paper and let us go. My journey had to wait just a little longer. I couldn't wait to get home and tell Jay I had been chosen. I sent this selfie to my close friends and family as I walked the sunny, but cold mile home.
To be continued...
**Shout out to my long time friend and jury administrator for helping with my research which allowed me to provide information along with my personal account of the jury experience.