Jury Duty

I am taking a little break from the Hank Wedding Musings to discuss my call to Jury Duty. It started with a letter from the Court informing me that I was to show up for Jury Draw on three consecutive days. I was given a month’s notice so there was time to reconfigure my schedule.  It meant calling several clients and figuring out where to put the new appointment slots. A postcard arrived in the mail letting me know that Jury Draw was postponed until the following week.  I hadn’t given the court my email address. Why make it convenient for anyone involved to contact me. It made me feel better to have one area of my life protected. It’s an illusion, but it makes me feel better.

Somehow this change in dates put me into a tailspin of resentment towards the court system. Didn’t they appreciate the hardship involved in changing one’s schedule? Later I found out that  although the court staff stated several times that they do appreciate the sacrifice, there actions said otherwise. More on that later.

I showed up at the appointed time which is 8am. There was a long line waiting by the door to the Court House. They let in five people at one time. It was hot but not raining. There was at least 100 men and women who arrived for Jury Draw. We went through security much like at airports only friendlier. No pat downs. You get to keep your shoes on. There was a little flurry over a suspected knife which turned out to be a pen. We were directed to the court room where we sat on uncomfortable benches. Everyone was seriously quiet. Then the two hour orientation commenced. We learned that there were two more dates for jury draw. One in October and then in November. We didn’t have to return for the two other days as stated on the ridiculous postcard. There was a potential for 7 jury draws on that day. Most cases do not end up going to trial. Each citizen can be selected for up to 3 trials. Most cases do not go to trial, but you only get credit for the pending trial if you show up on the appointed day and it is cancelled. If it is cancelled the day before, no credit. You could hear everyone’s mind working this number’s game. The Court Manager stated that there would be lots of breaks throughout the day. Not really true. There was one official break. When folks asked if they could use the bathroom or put money in the meter, the court staff would say well, you better be back right away, we will be  starting up in a few minutes. A few minutes was more like an hour. The presiding Judge talked during the second half of the two hour orientation. He is a lovely man who is a big fan of the Constitution and especially every Citizen’s right to trial by Jury. In fact, his favorite Judge duty is Jury Trials. There have been three such trials since January at Caledonia County Court. Three. Every other case is pled out. According to one of the Court letters, the appearance of a Jury can inspire defendants to request a plea.  The Judge’s main concern and I know this was his main concern because he said it at least 100 times was the presumption of innocence and the State’s burden to prove the case. We were warned not to assume guilt if a defendant claimed her right to silence and/or did not present evidence to prove innocence of the crime. We were also warned not to talk about the case with anyone especially our spouses. The Judge said he would take the heat for this mandate. I wondered if he was willing to talk with our respective spouses. We were also told that reading or researching about the alleged crime and defendant was forbidden. Any of these activities could lead to a mistrial. Then everyone would have to start over. No one wants that to happen.

I was not randomly selected to be questioned for jury duty. I did sit through the questioning because potential jurors were replaced and new ones stepped in. This took a few hours and went right through our lunch break. We waited for 1.5 hours while the Judge, lawyers and defendant talked behind closed doors. It took two more hours without a break for the process to be completed. It gave me time to reflect on the efficacy of trial by jury. The fact is that most crimes are managed by plea agreements, Reparative Boards, Mental Health Court and Drug Court. The concept of trial by jury is appealing if you are concerned about vigilante justice, back-room negotiations or dictator rulings. I’m not sure juries who are chosen randomly through a computer scramble then vetted by lawyers who are looking for certain “personalities” can make wise decisions about criminal cases. You can’t do research, can’t talk to anyone about the case, can’t take notes during the proceedings and a considerable amount of information is withheld from the jury in case it might influence their thinking.

I sat on a Reparative Board for five years. It was one of my most valued community experiences. Individuals who had committed petty crimes sat with a group of 5-6 community members to discuss the effect of their crime on the victim(s) and the community. The board members learned about the individual’s life and what led to committing the crime. The individual was instructed to write a letter of apology to the victim, compensate for any damage and perform a prescribed amount of community service hours. There were usually a few monthly meetings to discuss progress. I don’t know if anyone’s life was significantly affected but it had to be an improvement over going to court.

I would much rather serve on a Reparative Board than a Jury. There are two more Jury Draws.