Jury duty and what you need to know about getting selected
It’s 8:45 in the morning. I’m in a large room with packed seats facing forward. I do not want to be there. I doubt anyone does. There are two flat screens on the wall. A video made in the 80’s describing jury duty flips on. What you do. What you need to know. How jury duty is actually a really great experience and one you’ll never forget.
Nobody cares. I see a guy with a hood on. He leans against a white pole with his black shoes. I wonder briefly if he’ll scuff the paint, but I remember nobody cares.
A young woman walks to a podium in front and announces names. I’m one of the first. Please report to D19 on the second floor. Here we go.
There’s 70 of us waiting outside D19. Next to me, an old man with a cane speaks in hushed tones to someone next to him. The doors open and it’s an actual court room. Wait, this can’t be right. Isn’t there supposed to be a jury selection before this point? I have no idea what’s going on.
The public defender is there. Her client is there. The prosecutor is there. So is the clerk and an officer of the law. The old man with the cane proceeds to engage the clerk to describe his ‘hearing problem’. Hmm. Seemed perfectly fine just a minute ago. The clerk sits him near the officer so as to better hear. He’s not getting out of here that easily.
The judge comes in. “All rise.” We’ve seen this before. Law and Order in real time. We take the oath. And then the clerk starts naming names.
12 people. They go sit in the jury box. I’m not one of them. Alright, I’m thinking. Jury duty averted! But the clerk keeps naming names. Another 12 are called. These are the people on deck. And I’m Juror #17. Shit.
I take a seat and wait nervously. On the wall opposite the jury box is a list of 7 questions. Name. Residence. Occupation. Marital status. Occupation of other residents in household if applicable. Any kids? Prior jury service.
For a person with a stammer and no interest in speaking in front of a large group of total strangers, this is not looking good for me.
I’m looking at the jurors. Juror #1 is the hoodie in black shoes from before. I recognize others from outside.
The judge is talking. He’s going over our civil duty and that this is an honor. Okay. He goes over the differences between civil and criminal cases. Civil cases can end with a split jury. Criminal cases must be voted unanimously. Got it.
Now he’s got a list of questions and he’s choosing jurors at random. He seems like a nice enough man. Very attentive. He really wants to know which family member is in law enforcement or which cousin twice removed got that DUI ten years ago. He’s getting pretty specific. He spends an inordinate amount of time on whether some of us have donated to Mothers Against Drunk Driving. No one has, but I make a mental note.
I look at the prosecutor and public defendant and they both have folders of post-its. They’re writing on different post-its each time a new juror speaks. Ah. So each post-it is a juror. They’re keeping track of everyone’s answers. Presumably to use later in questioning to weed the bad jurors out.
I say ‘bad’, but it’s not really that. Some people should not be on this jury. It’s about driving under the influence. Of meth. That’s a pretty fucked up drug and some individuals have more experience with it than others. And those specific people with those specific experiences need to go. They’re the bad apples that will hang this trial if they stay.
A couple lucky contestants are excused quickly. Some are deferred because of family emergencies – through tears, one said her mother had just died – and others because of school or work-related problems. I keep quiet. I could probably get an extension due to my work, but it’s only a 3 month extension. I don’t want to come back so soon.
Then there are those who object to certain aspects of the law, specifically the burden of proof. These people mention problems they have and why it matters for them. The lawyers scribble furiously in their post-its. I have a flash of intuition: I need to disagree with something, anything! But whenever the judge asks a question, I don’t have a problem. Damn.
Juror #18 – directly on my left – is checking her phone. Nobody seems to notice but me. She’s already answered a couple questions. She’s just out of college. She works in the advertising industry. And she’s checking her phone in a court room. What kind of person does that? A millenial, that’s who. God damn millenials and they’re– I stop myself. Wait, I make the millenial list by one year. Fuck. Nevermind, we’re the best and we’re going to clean up the mess you baby boomer fucks have left us.
The jurors are introducing themselves. Oh man, here we go. In college I had this class – I don’t remember the subject – and every morning the teacher would have us go around the room to discuss our thoughts about the assigned reading. When it got to me, I got up to go to the bathroom. Every time. I’d stare at myself in the bathroom mirror and grit my teeth, counting down the minutes until I’d be sure they’d gotten through the exercise. Then I’d go back in. Weirdly, the teacher never took me aside and asked what the fuck I was doing (looking back, just what was I thinking?). All she did was give me a bad grade.
And now here I am in the same situation. But this time I can’t get up to go to the bathroom. Ugh, fuck this courtroom. It gets to me and I answer the seven questions. It’s not so bad. I mean it’s pretty fucking bad, but those situations are always bad. So it goes into one of the dark corners of my mind that I explore only when I’m trying to go to sleep. Fun!
We’re done with introductions. The public defender is up, looking at each post-it in her folder and throwing questions at us. She’s very pretty. Can’t be older than me. She’s got a huge rock on her finger. I watch the defendant watching her. He’s just enthralled. Or maybe she’s his last hope. I can’t decide.
She has this funny thing she does when she asks a question and the juror replies and she nods her head and says, “Okay.” It happens after every reply. I can’t tell if it’s a tactic, if she needs time to think, or it’s just a bad habit. Does she know she’s doing it? Being a lawyer is hard. All eyes are on you. I expect you must know all your tics, right?
“What would happen if it was 4 pm on Friday and you were the lone dissenting voice against eleven other jurors? Would you stand your ground? Or would you change your mind to stop the deliberations and not push the trial into the next week?”
She’s asking this to Juror #16, on my right. He tells her he can’t be in the courtroom the week after next, so even if he thought the defendant was not guilty – when the rest insisted the opposite – he would change his mind so as to keep that week free.
The judge interrupts here. “Why would you do that?” Because, Juror #16 explains, his wife is out of town that week and he has the kids. He’s the lone parent and he would have to be with them.
“Okay,” the public defender says. She turns to me. “What about you?”
“I’m with him,” I hear myself saying. Wait, what am I saying? Am I just going to roll over like that? But I am, I think, because I need to work. I can’t take time off. I don’t have that luxury. I’m a freelance video editor and time is money. So I tell her that. “I’m gonna do what I gotta do to keep working. And if I have to do that, then I will.” Eh, not so elegant, but it’s true. She nods her head. “Okay.”
The prosecutor has his own way. He’s quick to joke, like this is all some game and he’s already played it before. I suppose that’s true. This is just another round that he aims to win. But he keeps forgetting to say the juror number when he asks a question (for the recording device). The judge must correct him every time. It’s annoying to everybody.
The prosecutor’s questions mirror the public defender’s until this one: “Let’s say you’re at home with your child and you’re baking cookies. Ten cookies, to be exact. You pull them out of the oven and leave the room. When you come back, there are now just eight cookies. Who took the two cookies?”
He turns to Juror #7. She stares at him, perplexed. “I don’t know, is there a dog?” The prosecutor shakes his head and explains that this is all the information we have. Juror #7 is unshaken. “But is there a dog?”
He turns to the rest of us. What if your child has crumbs all over them? What would you think then? He asks for a show of hands. Who thinks it was your child? Not many raise their hands. Who would need more information? The rest of the hands shoot up. No further questions.
Now the prosecutor and public defender each get ten votes to switch out their ‘bad’ jurors. And so they begin. Naively I think that once one of the twelve would go, someone from outside would be called in to fill the seat, that us lucky devils in the queue would be left out. But that’s not how queues work.
By the time the prosecutor had switched out his fourth juror, I was swapped in. I was now Juror #10. Right in front. And then lunch is called.
Here is where I’d like to say something that is a strange phenomena that I can’t really explain but that most jurors can probably understand. When you’re looking across the room at the accused, you forget the foundation of the American justice system: innocent until proven guilty. This seems so basic, so obvious, and yet when you’re looking at the accused, it doesn’t come off that way at all. It comes off the opposite.
Which is terrifying. All throughout the day (seriously all you can do is sit there and think and listen – or in the case of Juror #18, check your phone), I was thinking about being in his shoes. And praying for a good jury. No wonder the judge and public defender and prosecutor took this whole process seriously. Innocent until proven guilty is a difficult concept to swallow when you’re in that room. The jury needs to be the fairest it can be.
And there I was, back from lunch, as Juror #10. I had eaten lunch and come to terms with serving in the jury. The judge made it clear this would be a short trial – a week at most – and that really we were all lucky it wasn’t longer. So hell, if I need to do this, might as well get it done now. That’s not to say I wouldn’t be called back again in a year and this whole damn process would start over. I’ll miss some work but it will be a good experience.
Right then, I was already rethinking my soul searching. Because the clerk had called thirteen new contestants into the jury queue and the whole question and selection process started anew. Oh fuck me. Again? And yes, again. So we sat there and listened to the same questions. The same terminology definitions. The same introductions. The only thing that was different were the answers. That gave me a bit of solace. But not much.
The judge went through his questions. The public defender asked her own questions and said her okays. The prosecutor made his jokes and used his cookie test. Finally it was 4 pm and it was time to excuse some jurors. Both the prosecutor and public defender have ten dismissals, and had already used up four.
Five, sex, seven, eight. Jurors were getting dismissed and I was still there. Shit. I was adding up the money lost next week when I heard my name. I looked around, disoriented. I probably looked very stupid in that moment. And then I left.
The hallway outside was completely empty except for the previously dismissed juror. “We made it!” I exclaimed. He looks at me like a human views an ant and steps into the bathroom. Alright, so no celebration then.
I do regret not going through with it. It was fascinating to see the process of the selection, and I would have loved to see how the actual courtroom differs from what we see on television. If I had kept my mouth shut, I very well could have been in that courtroom right now. Maybe next time.
I was trying to see this situation as a film. How could I make it into a script? There were moments that might work. But moments do not make a film. While it’s always fun to imagine a real life situation as the basis of your next script (and a single courtroom location would keep your costs down), it helps if that real life situation is something people actually want to see.
Jury selection is probably not one of them.
December 10, 2016