Posted in Lessons Learned, Politics

“We have a criminal jury system which is superior to any in the world; and its efficiency is only marred by the difficulty of finding twelve men every day who don’t know anything and can’t read.”–Mark Twain

Tuesday morning the alarm went off at a time when Dawn was still considering her options.  An hour and a half of sleep may not mean much to you one way or the other, but the loss of it meant a whole helluva lot to moi.  But up I was, because I was supposed to report for jury duty at 7:30 a.m.

Now, unlike a lot of folks, the concept of jury duty does not make me recoil in horror and disgust.  It’s in the Constitution that people have the right to justice via the courts, and to be judged by a jury of their peers.  I’m for the Constitution; I’m for people having rights; therefore, I’m for jury duty.

So the fact of the matter is that when the summons came in the mail, I was fine with it.  What I wasn’t fine with, however, was the tone of the summons, which is something along the lines of this:

Listen, dirtbag, it’s your turn to do jury duty, and we know you are now, even as you read this, coming up with excuses to get out of it, but don’t even think about it, because we are about to tell you in bright red print and massive amounts of bolding that it is your damn obligation as an American to do jury duty, it’s the damn law, and if you do not show up, we’re totally going to hunt your irresponsible shirker ass down and put it in the slammer.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I kind of resent being written to in this manner when I was already perfectly willing to do my stint on a jury.  They’ve got no call to talk to me, or anyone else, that way.  And maybe if they weren’t so antagonistic, maybe people wouldn’t sigh and be filled with hate every time they get mail from the Jury Commissioner.

But it wasn’t enough that they assumed my belligerent non-compliance; they also informed me that there was to be no free parking downtown for jurors, or even designated parking, and that we would have to show up at 7:30 a.m. which is not a normal hour for government to begin.  There were actually two rounds of juror arrival—there was another at 11 a.m., and I was chuckling oh-so-heartily at the little cosmic joke that resulted in me, famous among those who know me for my lack of early-bird tendencies, being among the early group.  Oh, my, how fucking droll.

In a feat of sheer will I don’t generally exert to get going mornings, I was up at 6, out the door by 6:47, and parked by 7:15, and had walked the two blocks to the courthouse to arrive not only promptly, but a minute or three early.  Go me!

After an orientation video about jury duty in Arizona which inexplicably included an image of Mount Rushmore, we waited a bit for bailiffs to arrive to fetch various jurors for their cases.  My name was called and we all headed upstairs, where I saw in action the true secret horror of a jury trial, which is that people are idiots.  Every juror had a juror bio form, in triplicate, that they filled out when they arrived that day.  The bailiff asked everyone to keep the top form, and put the two bottom copies face down on 2 separate piles.  Of the 25 people up there, I would bet that at least half messed up that simple instruction, and yet they were going to be asked to listen to and evaluate testimony lasting 3 days.  They didn’t separate their pages.  They didn’t keep the top sheet.  They were baffled by the two piles and just handed their papers to the bailiff who repeated the instructions again and again to no avail.  Dog help you if you had a capital case; people who can’t manage three pieces of paper according to directions they’ve been told thrice hold your life in their hands.  Frankly, I think I’d take my chances with the judge alone.

By 8:30, I was seated in a small courtroom for a civil case, and because I was one of the first 19 called (I was 18), I was impaneled for jury selection, meaning I would have to answer questions.  It was a slip-and-fall case, and while the defendant had accepted responsibility for the fall, at issue was the extent of the injuries that could be attributed to the fall.

It became clear to me pretty quickly that I was not going to end up on this jury as the judge worked through his questions.  You had to raise your hand if you could answer “yes” to any of them, and then you would be probed further.  The questions they asked?

Do you know anybody in the Pima County court system?  Check.  I’ve got 2 friends who are county prosecutors.

Have you or any of your family members ever studied law?  Check.  I did coursework for a paralegal certificate.

Do you or any of your family members work in the medical field?  Check.  My mom’s an ultrasound tech.

Do you or any of your family members have arthritis or degenerative disc disease? Check.  1 parent for each.

Have you ever missed work due to an injury?  Check.  My hip and back problems have made me miss a few days and random hours of work.

Have you ever made a claim due to an injury?  Check—I was rear-ended 2 years ago and had to see the chiropractor.

Have you ever had back problems that you could not attribute to an injury?  Check…that’s been my whole life for the last 15 years.

Do you have any bumper stickers on your car?  Check.  Turns out, of 19 people on the panel, only 2 of us had any.  Mine peg me as a liberal on multiple fronts.

So I was not a bit surprised when I was not among the 9 jurors selected for that trial.  After each explanation, the judge has to ask you if you feel that your experience would bias you in a case, and in each case, I said no, but honestly, how do you know?  How do you know you can be impartial until the chips are down?  Isn’t bias very often unconscious?

I struggled a lot with the whole idea.  What is impartiality, exactly?  We spend our whole lives experiencing things and learning information and creating opinions and expectations about them; then we’re to walk in a room and pretend we know the English language well enough to understand the testimony, but nothing else?  Some people knew they probably would have a problem being impartial, and I wondered, in turn if a) they just wanted out of jury duty (which wasn’t necessarily going to happen, because you’d just have to go back to the pool until they sent you home later that day), or b) they were just more honest.  For me, I felt conflicted because I knew I had my own biases, but thought that my intellect could overcome them; still, I had my doubts.  They were somewhat assuaged in this case because negligence was already admitted to; had it not, I would’ve had a harder time, because I had biases on both sides.  Someone slipped and fell and hurt herself; that’s an accident, shit happens, and I don’t believe you’re owed a payday every time you have an accident on someone else’s property.  Yet I know what it’s like to live with chronic pain, what it costs in time, money, and mental health to go to a million doctors and still be hurting.  And I know what it is to feel in your bones (literally) what is going wrong, but having no one “official” being able to figure it out and name it, or even believe you when you tell them what you think it is.

By the time I was excused, it was too close to lunch for me to do anything else, so they said I could take my lunch and come back at 1 p.m.  I sat outside on the patio in front of Subway and watched people of varying levels of weirdness (I don’t get downtown much) walking by, gave a couple bucks to a mumbling homeless guy who hit me up, and then I chilled in the shade in the park across the street from the courthouse with my book, enjoying being out of my cubicle on a Tuesday, until it was time to go back.

I was called in the first group once we were back, late in a long list of jurors.  They kept calling names and calling names, and by the time we all made it upstairs to the waiting room outside courtroom, there were at least 50 of us.  I turned to another juror who’d been called for the same case in the morning that I was and said it must be something controversial, if they expect to possibly need this many alternates to fill out one jury.  I was only in the pool, and they never got to me, but it was fascinating to watch the process.

The afternoon case was a criminal case, with charges of discharging a firearm in a residence and 3 counts of aggravated assault.  The defendant was a youngish guy.  The judge started going through questions similar to those the first judge asked, and within a couple questions, jurors started being excused.  They were dropping like flies by the time she started asking questions about people’s individual experiences with law enforcement, family members and friends who had had dealings with the police, gun ownership, and the like.

I realized how hard it is to actually find an impartial jury, and the stakes seemed so much higher in a criminal case.  If you were biased one way or the other, you could send a kid to jail.  Or you could free a criminal you shouldn’t have.

The most interesting thing about this one was that before she even got started, the judge reminded everyone that in America, we are innocent until proven guilty; that it is the state’s job to prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt, and that the defendant is not required to prove anything—they don’t have to give any evidence or testimony at all.   I knew this, because I’ve learned what is meant by “burden of proof,” but it was a really tough concept for some, as would soon become clear.

At the end of all the judge’s questions, the attorneys were allowed to ask any additional questions they wanted.  The prosecutor declined, but the defendant’s attorney revisited the judge’s speech and asked how many people on the jury, having heard no evidence yet, would render a “not guilty” verdict at this time.  Constitutional law is very clear on this, of course, and every hand in the jury box should’ve gone up, but no matter:  several people needed more information before they could say one way or the other.  And that, I think, is the natural inclination, regardless of what the law says.  To most folks, including myself, ideally, you don’t make a decision one way or the other without the benefit of information, but in a courtroom, what is intuitive is not necessarily what is correct.

The lawyer actually singled a lady out to explain to her (and presumably anybody else who felt the same) the whole “innocent until proven guilty” and asked her to explain herself; they went back and forth several times, and then he went after another one after a short sidebar.  Finally the judge asked if anyone else felt the way the first lady did; 3 others raised their hands.  All 4 were excused.  By the time they recessed for jury selection, half the non-impaneled jury pool I was a part of had replaced dismissed jurors.  They knew what they were doing when they called so many of us.

And this is the reason why pure democracy is dangerous, and why we don’t have it, contrary to what some imagine.  I’ve heard so many people bitch about Prop. 8, approved by voters in California, being overturned by a judge who rightly declared it unconstitutional.  They scream and holler about how the will of the people was being denied, as if the will of the people is always right, proper, disinterested, and inviolate.  As if no one ever speaks or acts from less-than-noble motives.  Except that in a group of 25 people, at least 4 (4 who would admit it, anyway) couldn’t even get their heads around the basis of our American system of criminal law, which is that people are innocent until proven guilty.  Even when it was strenuously explained to them, they would not be moved.  And that’s why we have a balance of powers, among and within the branches of government.

I wonder if it was frightening for that kid, the defendant, to listen to various folks express their various concerns and biases and possibly to realize that his fate was in the hands of people he probably couldn’t trust at all.  How many saw the beating a few jurors took for being honest and decided not to say anything, even if they felt the same?  How many were sure they could be impartial, but ultimately would not be?  I realized as I sat there and observed that I made all kinds of judgments about everyone in the room, because we received a surprising amount of personal information from every impaneled stranger.  Would I really have been able to set all that aside, and make an impartial decision based only on the evidence and the judge’s instructions regarding how to interpret the law?  I’d like to think so…but I cannot say for sure.  Can anyone?

In the end, I was cut loose having done my civic duty for the day.  It was just one day for me, but it was a pretty educational day.

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Author:

I've been doing some form of creative writing since 9th grade, and have been a blogger since 2003. Like most bloggers, I've quit blogging multiple times. But the words always come back, asking to be written down, and they pester me if I don't. So here we are. Thanks for reading.

4 thoughts on ““We have a criminal jury system which is superior to any in the world; and its efficiency is only marred by the difficulty of finding twelve men every day who don’t know anything and can’t read.”–Mark Twain

  1. The tone of your jury summons reminds me of the tone from this year’s census survey, and it irritates me. No need to get belligerent until I do something to earn it. Coming off all hard like that right off the bat is poor etiquette.

    Anyway, sounds like a fun day. I’m kinda like you, where I don’t mind jury duty so much. Of course, I’ve never been on the type contentious, life-or-death case that goes on for weeks. Do they still sequester juries, like in that Pauly Shore movie?

    Your musings on impartiality ring true. There is no such thing as “pure” impartiality. Even if we see bias within ourselves, how do we know if our efforts to counteract it we actually over compensate to the extent where we bias ourselves in the other direction.

    1. Yeah, I didn’t care for the tone of the census paperwork, either. It was rude from the get-go, and that kind of imperiousness just stokes the anti-government flame of the weirdos who think the census is an evil plot against them, personally.

      I suppose they do sequester juries if they have to, but I think it only happens in high profile, high stakes cases.

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