About three weeks ago I received a summons in the mail informing me that I was to call the county courthouse on the weekend to see if I needed to report for jury duty. Upon finding out that I was required to go in, friends and family alike reacted in a nearly unanimous way: “Oh, no!”; “Poor you!”; “So sorry!”—and the like. And while it’s true that being called in as a juror disrupts one’s daily routine, I found the whole process quite interesting.
After passing through security, we prospective jurors—a real cross-section of American races and ages— were told to proceed to the Jury Assembly Room. We had been summoned to serve in a criminal trial which would last about a week. In order to serve we had to fulfill three requirements: be citizens of the U.S., residents of the county, and not convicted felons. For acting as jurors we would receive a badge to wear in the judicial center and forty dollars a day. In addition, over the course of the trial, a court matron (in our case a friendly, smiling woman named Judy) would attend to our needs—bringing us food and drink, cough drops, and even cookies. That being said, all seventy-four of us were led upstairs to the courtroom.
The Superior Court judge explained that, once chosen as jurors, we would examine the facts in a second degree burglary case and determine the guilt or lack of guilt of the defendant. (This is language that I noticed in the O. J. Simpson trial, too: "lack of guilt" substituted for the word "innocence.") The judge introduced the prosecutor who would present the case “for the people” and the defense attorney; he also pointed out the court reporter who records everything said in the courtroom. He made it clear that everyone in this country is entitled to a fair trial. The jury, therefore, performs a vital function and has a great responsibility. No more exemptions are allowed even for doctors and nurses. The judge noted that everyone knows that this service is inconvenient for jurors, but our job is a basic element of the justice system. We were then asked to stand, listen to the court clerk administer the oath, and swear or affirm to tell the truth by stating “So help me God” or the more neutral “I so affirm.”
Thus began the voir dire portion of jury selection, where people are questioned to see if they are suitable jurors for the case. In round one, twenty-one names were randomly drawn, and they were instructed to move to the jury box to be interviewed. The first series of questions centered on the town, occupation, and marital status of prospective jurors. In round two, the judge asked people to raise their hands if they knew the defendant, attorneys, witnesses, or police officers involved, or if they had read anything about the case. Then, questions focused on whether anyone had good friends or relatives in the legal field or law enforcement, or had served on juries before. We were also told to say “private” if we didn’t want to disclose in open court previous contact with the police or criminal justice system or any kind of sympathy or prejudice toward another race. The judge stated that it was important to be honest in regard to this last question and that it was no time to be politically correct. He also explained that both attorneys were allowed to excuse peremptorily—without giving a reason— up to five people from the jury pool.
The judge then explained that we were to draw no inference from the fact that the defendant was indicted by the Grand Jury. The burden is always on the prosecution to present evidence to prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” (and not “beyond a shadow of a doubt”) that the defendant is guilty of the crime. Jurors were to assess the credibility and accuracy of the witnesses, including police officers, and to come to a verdict without considering possible punishment of the defendant. As you can imagine, it was a long day at the courthouse, about nine hours. But it was a very informative day and, I believe, a valuable experience for all Americans.