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."
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The jury box: long hours, deep justice traditions

A juror has an inspiring, if sometimes tedious experience in a civil case. The result is not "Twelve Angry Men," but "Thirteen Happy Citizens."

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?)

At trial's end, one of our group was 13 was excused after a random drawing of numbers. We were instructed, first, to decide if the warehouse store had been negligent in contributing to the plaintiff's fall. If the answer was no, the trial was over. If yes, we then were to decide on other counts to determine damages, either at the level sought by plaintiff or at some other level of our choosing. A decision on each count would require at least 10 votes.

As it turned out, we voted 11-1 after a 90-minute deliberation that the store had not been negligent. The other counts thus became moot, although the vast majority of testimony and documentation had been devoted to them.

We had spent two full weeks working hard. Comparing notes, we jurors found we had been tired each evening from the close attention we had paid to the proceedings. When it came time to deliberate, there were no angry exchanges or even friction in the jury room. Discussion was wholly substantive and followed the judge's written guidelines.

Afterward the judge, who had presided in a low-key and professional manner, visited us in the jury room to exchange small talk. We complained about the low quality of jury-room coffee. He asked if we would be willing to enter the courtroom to meet and talk with the plaintiff's and defense's attorneys. We did so. The attorneys were self critiquing their cases and wanted to know where we thought they had done well and badly. 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.

As jurors, we left feeling we had done our best and reached the right decision. There were suggestions to get together for a drink and to maintain contact after the trial. But we came from different places and lives and knew we were unlikely to connect again. As we headed our separate ways, it reminded me of past partings with Army buddies who had shared an experience but whose lives would not again intersect.

One strong memory from the experience came from the first minutes in the first-floor assembly room where prospective jurors gathered. How many would be willing to waive their $10 daily juror's fee, we were asked, and contribute the money to a legal-aid-associated cause? About half did so.

There is justifiable citizen cynicism about the performance of public officials and institutions. But, at least we 13 jurors, serving at the King County courthouse over a fortnight, gained faith in each other and in the system meant to serve us all.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk has been active in national policy and politics since 1961, serving in the White House and State Department and as policy director of several Democratic presidential campaigns. He is author of Heroes, Hacks and Fools and numerous essays in national publications. You can reach him in care of editor@crosscut.com.