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Jury duty: the system really works

A juror has an inspiring, if sometimes tedious experience in a civil case. The result is not "Twelve Angry Men," but "Thirteen Happy Citizens."
The jury box: long hours, deep justice traditions

The jury box: long hours, deep justice traditions

Jury duty over the past two weeks has left me with renewed faith in our system and, what is more, the people who live hereabouts. There were some surprises as well.

I had been excused on two occasions from Montgomery County, Maryland, and Los Angeles County jury duty because of work and travel conflicts. The notice I received from King County Superior Court allowed a one-time excused absence, without reason, but I thought it was high time to do my duty and am glad that I did. Here is how it went — and might go for you, if called.

On a Monday morning, as each Monday, a group of several-hundred King County residents checked into the first-floor jury selection room at the courthouse. It was announced that names would be drawn from the pool of those present and called aloud to be screened for various juries being chosen. If, after two days, we had not been selected for a jury, we were told, our service would be complete. Pay was $10 per day. Bus passes would be provided but no compensation given for parking, mileage, or meal expenses.

I seated myself on one of the few empty chairs in an extremely crowded room. It was announced that 60 persons would be called for screening for a two-week civil trial involving a personal-injury suit by a woman who had suffered an accidental fall in a discount warehouse. To my surprise I heard my name called among the first dozen. Each of the 60 filled out a form setting forth occupation, education, and other basic data. After a few minutes, perhaps 20 were told they had been excused and should wait until their names were called for screening for another jury. The remaining 40 of us went to a 9th floor courtroom to be winnowed down.

I half expected to be excused. (A friend had told me, only half jokingly, that he "could not imagine any attorney wanting you on a jury.") A few in the group excused themselves because of their views on such suits or association with people or groups where possible conflicts of interest could arise. The attorneys for the plaintiff and defense questioned us and made some peremptory challenges and others for cause. Of prospective jurors holding numbers one through 13 (mine was 11), about half had survived questioning and were in the jury box. The judge filled out our jury with selected candidates in the courtroom. The 20 or so remaining were sent back downstairs to reenter the selection pool.

Our final group of 13 (the required 12 plus an alternate) consisted wholly of college graduates. Only two were women. This surprised me, since the plaintiff was a woman and I had thought her attorney would make greater effort toward gender balance on the jury. All but two were Caucasian. Several, though still in their 30s, had served on more than one prior jury.

I had expected that many of the jurors would be senior citizens, since many others would have work excuses. But, no, I was the oldest person on my jury by 20 years, and senior citizens also were surprisingly few in number among the large group in the first-floor jury selection room.

The trial itself was not something out of "Twelve Angry Men." We sat through long and sometimes tedious and repetitive testimony, cross examination, and evidence presentations, broken up by morning, lunch, and afternoon breaks. Jury members took copious notes, in notebooks provided by the court, and submitted numerous written questions to witnesses. (Our questions, the judge later said, were more numerous than by any prior jury he had seen).

We strictly followed rules prohibiting us from discussing the case among ourselves or with others. Since we could not discuss the case, we took to entertaining each other during breaks with jokes, movie or music reviews, and generally irreverent discussions of non-trial-related topics. We frequently broke into roaring laughter. (What were the judge and attorneys thinking, I wondered, as they heard us laughing within the jury room? Were we laughing at them, at the testimony, what?)


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Comments:

Posted Sun, Feb 7, 12:58 p.m. Inappropriate

I see they haven't increased juror pay in the 9 years since I served on one!

I, too, gained a great deal of faith in the system and my fellow citizens through the process. Some of that has been lost in the years since, but I still had a much more positive — if that's a word one can use in talking about an in-police-custody wrongful-death suit — experience than I expected.

I'd like to go back, and more often. There may be no better way to have a sense of community instilled in one than by serving on a jury. It showed that 12 random (well, not entirely random, but that's another story) people could come together over a rather contentious topic and come to a reasonable agreement based on logic and evidence. That gave me hope.

Posted Sun, Feb 7, 10:53 p.m. Inappropriate

My experience of about 6 months ago was very similar, and also very rewarding. Those of us on the jury took the responsibility seriously. It was also fascinating to see the our judicial system up close, as well as educational. I am ready to do it again.

Posted Sun, Feb 7, 11:33 p.m. Inappropriate

I must confess that, when I served on jury duty three years ago, my faith in other jurors was raised, but my faith in prosecutors was lowered. I'm not sure the system works when prosecutors knowingly bring weak cases for minor offenses--I know that the other jurors and I in our case were actually offended that the prosecution thought that the case it brought was worthy of jurors' time and goodwill. It was not.

The system worked in that we appropriately acquitted the defendant, but the system did not work in that the prosecution felt that it was a good use of the jury as a resource to listen to their silly case. Had we had the option of penalizing the prosecution, we would have.

smacgry

Posted Mon, Feb 8, 10:47 a.m. Inappropriate

Ted's experience mirrors mine, in a minor criminal trial last year. Yes, it does help restore faith in the system. The option to donate jurors' fees, a nice idea, is a new feature, not there when I served 11 months ago.

smacgry, I hope you sought out the prosecutor after the verdict was given, to give him/her the jury's opinion. And followed up with a message to their elected boss. Knowing what juries think about such matters would be highly instructive, methinks.

Posted Wed, Feb 10, 1 p.m. Inappropriate

"......We sympathized with the plaintiff's attorney, 74, who had conscientiously represented a client who, unfortunately for him and for her, had told conflicting stories and quite early in the trial forfeited her credibility......"

In other words, it was a frivolous lawsuit.

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