Choosing the Jury

A courtroom

Dear Children, I am on-call for jury duty-

“Okay, imagine a woman tells you that sun will come up in the West each morning from now on. Would you believe it? What if a man told you, is that more believable? A teacher? A police officer? Your best friend? How about you hear it on the nightly news? What would it take for you to believe it? One fellow says he’d have to see it, and get a very good explanation. “Okay, say an astrophysicist explains it and you believe it beyond a reasonable doubt. Does that make it true?”

Philosophy 101? No, this is voir dire, during a jury selection process where attorneys question potential jurors about conflicts of interest, biases, ability to remain fair and impartial after given the facts of the case. This is my first time making it into a courtroom doing my civic duty, responding to a summons-(which, BTW is not an invitation). Sadly, this part of the process resonates with me because of books I’ve read, movies and television. They are my only experience and maybe not the best representation.

Each day was long, the benches hard, three hours seemed like six, then we got to the vior dire. Oxygen filled the room or maybe the air conditioner went on. I may have smiled and sat up taller.  Each good citizen was called one by one to respond to a question. The first 18 people were my community. Some young, some older, (only a few), some with children, still working, recently married, recently divorced, never been in a courtroom or served several times. Some needed assistive devices to hear, spoke Spanish better than English and some were students. Each person seated in the jury box was not yet selected to serve, but once selected by random number to reduce our group size. There were about fifty of us at this point. This was the culling phase and 18 good citizens, doing their civic duty, moved to the hot seat.

I wished I’d been selected for the hot seat. I wanted to answer their provocative questions. To see what I’d say when singled out. Of course I imagined the answers as they were asked. Each of us must have been doing the same. I imagined me raising my hand, calling out, “Me, me, me, call on me.”

Each of them told the courtroom their employment, or former, how many children they have what each child does, if grown, and who they live with and for how long they’d lived in the county and where. “ (Me, your honor?I have lived in the county for forty eight years, am a retired teacher. I have a partner, a retired aeronautical engineer. We raised four boys: an electrical engineer, a fly fishing guide, a grocery clerk and a global sales rep for an Australian surf company). Then came the hypotheticals, not directly related to the case, a case I am sworn not to talk about, but these ideas are posed so that each side, the public defender and the defense attorney in this criminal case, can watch people struggle through an answer to get the best jury.

I learned some things about my community: that ten people of the 18 had moved to the county within five years after retiring from high tech and dot com work, had well paying jobs and no children. Whoa, those are not my peeps.  But…they may be the only ones who can afford local housing. No time for kids. Or maybe jurors have fewer children as a lot, because the others get released for child care hardship. What will happen to the schools if new residents are retired?  The age bracket will rise again. When I moved here in 1970, it was a retirement town. Few jobs for young families. But housing affordable. The other seated prospects were a mix, thank goodness -a carpenter, a doctor, a farm laborer, an office worker, a librarian, stay at home mother, ages dipped and many more had children among that group.

“What if you were told one story by one witness and that was all you got, no more witnesses or evidence presented. You believed this testimony beyond a reasonable doubt. Could you find the defendant guilty with just that one testimony?” Wait, weren’t we instructed that if you believed beyond a reasonable doubt then you decide based on that, your personal best choice?  Even if we got no more information? These questions are not right and wrong, but more for the professionals to watch citizens react, manage confusion, ask for clarity, answer to the best of their ability. They were prompted, pushed and pushed some more to see how they would react. The attorneys and the judge observed as they squirmed, scratched heads, ducked to tie our shoes.

“If one witness were to state a fact and another state another fact neither supported by a testifying police officer, who would you believe? What if one witness was a priest? How about the rest of you? Please answer.”

“If a friend tells you she believes you stole something from her, but you did not do it, what might you do to clear it up? How do you get at the truth?” Several people were confused about this question. After a discussion among many seated, the attorney said, “Okay, so you would convince her with evidence or tell her what might have happened and get to the truth. This, the attorney explained is not what happens in this court case a criminal case, not a civil case, remember. The burden of proof is not on the accused, to show they are innocent. No, it is on the district attorney to prove guilt. Do you see the difference?” The burden of proof must be demonstrated by the DA, beyond a reasonable doubt.

Whew. I was exhausted after three hours as a mere a mandated observer, a marathon of thoughts and opinions. Besides it was time for my afternoon catnap. Before my final dismissal, when the full selection process would be complete with 12 jurors and 3 alternates selected, (I was not one of them), another series of questions were posed. “No one has talked about race here. Let’s face it. Race is a factor in criminal justice. We see more people of color, blacks and Latinos incarcerated, arrested and charged. Why is that?” Me, me, me. (Its a pervasive social issue, people of color are underrepresented in the predominantly white power structure and marginalized by poverty, lacki access to worthy and well-paid jobs, high cost of living and prejudice and bias. And…) The members struggled: I am not racist. I don’t think profiling is right. We all are racists, the system reflects that problem. Whew. Good one.

The final question that puzzled and prompted rattled discussion among three potential jurors, who were later dismissed: “If the victim gave the only testimony at the trial (no one else) and you believed the victim, could you deem the suspected perpetrator guilty?”

The judge invited us to attend the three week proceedings, as though he wanted an audience, to be observed, do his best for his public, in public. He has developed a style. But, for me? I will get back to my daily life and don’t plan to return until invited back at least two years from now. I’d prefer to read a good book about a trial, a judge, attorneys, the testimony, about the same offense while sitting on a soft chair, a cup of tea hooked in my finger and indulge in a short stroll when the knees get antsy. But, none the less, I was fascinated by my few days in court. Hope you get to sit in should you be summoned.

2 thoughts on “Choosing the Jury

  1. I’ve served on juries twice now. The last time I got a summons if was told that “as I was over 75″ I was not required to serve”. I was shocked and angry. I said something along the line of “If I were on trial I would want someone like me to be on the jury”. It’s what I always say to friends who want to “get out of jury duty”.
    It is a fascinating experience, and a little scary to have that much power. I love your write up here. You caught the flavor of the selection process beautifully.

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