So where have I been the last couple of weeks? I got selected for jury duty. It's been a full-time job. The following is a bit long, but I wanted to share a little about my experience.
A few weeks back I received a letter instructing me to report for jury selection. If chosen I would be required to sit on a jury for a trial that was projected to last the better part of two weeks. I cleared my calendar just in case and reported as instructed.
When I arrived at the courthouse, I was surprised to find that I was part of a pool of at least sixty potential jurors. We were each assigned a number and a corresponding chair to sit in and asked to fill out a preliminary survey. We watched a short video instructing us on the whole jury selection process. Then the judge began to question us as a group. If we had an issue with a question, we raised our hands and our numbers were recorded. When the judge had finished his questions, the attorneys for the plaintiff and the defendant each had a turn to pose questions. Again, if we had a problem, we raised our hands.
What kinds of questions did they ask? Did anyone have an undue hardship that they felt should excuse them from jury duty? Was anyone acquainted with any of the parties involved, or with anyone on the long list of potential witnesses? They wanted to know if we or anyone close to us had had any personal experiences of a similar nature to the case that was to be tried. They were trying to discover any potential biases we might have in favor of either the plaintiff or the defendant.
In the days leading up to this, plenty of people had offered me advice on how to get out of jury duty. I could try to come across as crazy or bigoted and they surely wouldn't choose me. Something that everybody jokes about in relation to jury duty, right? I had to admit that it would be nice to be dismissed from serving, go home and enjoy the next couple of weeks living my usual life. I was dying to get up in the mountains, view the fall foliage, and do some hiking. But somehow I didn't feel good about passing myself off as a crazy bigot!
After all questions had been posed, potential jurors who had raised a hand were called out one at a time for further questioning in the presence of the judge and both attorneys and their respective clients. Over the course of the process, some potential jurors were dismissed. After a lunch break and more individual interviews, we were ready for the final jury selection. Each side had the chance to strike three potential jurors as they worked together to agree on nine, one of whom would unknowingly serve as an alternate.
When the judge read the list of those selected, I was surprised to hear my name. Really, what were the chances? Slim, actually.
The nine of us, three women and six men, were immediately escorted to the jury room. We were given a few more instructions as well as a supply of snacks and drinks. This room would be ours alone for the next two weeks. Each morning we were to report between 8:15 and 8:45, depending on the day and the judge's docket. The trial would last each day until 5:00 or so. On the last day, it would last until we reached our verdict.
Then we were escorted back into the courtroom to begin the trial.
"All rise. Fourth District Court is now in session."
We filed in according to our numbers. I was juror number five.
It was a personal injury lawsuit. The plaintiff was suing the defendant for several million dollars, claiming to have sustained a mild traumatic brain injury after her automobile was struck by the defendant's. The defendant readily admitted that the accident was her fault, but denied that it possibly could have caused any harm to the plaintiff.
Big breath out.
This was going to be interesting, I thought.
We listened to witness after witness, testifying in behalf of the plaintiff. We heard cross-examination by the defendant's counsel. We heard rebuttals. We were shown evidence. I was fascinated by a plastic model of a head with a removable brain that came apart in sections and fit together again like a puzzle. (I'm thinking of ordering one off the Internet.)
We received an extensive education on mild traumatic brain injury. We became familiar with a variety of complex medical terms and conditions. We had lessons on bio-mechanical engineering, complete with a computerized simulation of the car accident that had occurred between the parties.
We broke for lunch each day and were able to leave the courthouse. We'd meet again an hour later and the bailiff would escort us back to the jury room.
On the second or third day, we were met instead by another court employee. As she escorted us onto the elevator, she said something like,
"Thanks for doing this. I know you all have better things to do."
It was kind of funny. As in strange or odd. We all just stood there. For a moment no one said a word.
Then one of us said,
"Actually, this is a really good thing we're doing."
Did we have better things to be doing?
By now all nine of us felt the importance of our job and it was sobering. I doubt that any of us will lightly joke about how to get out of jury duty again.
We spent a lot of time together in the jury room as the lawyers and the judge worked things out that we weren't allowed to hear. I can't tell you how many times we filed in and out of that courtroom. ("All rise!") We weren't allowed to discuss the case with each other until after all the evidence had been given, so we had to talk about other things. As a result, we got to know each other pretty well.
After several days of testimony by the plaintiff's witnesses, it was time for the defense to present its case. More witnesses, more cross-examination, more rebuttals. It was all fascinating. I was never bored. We were constantly reminded by the judge to keep an open mind, not form any opinions until all the evidence had been presented, not to discuss the trial with anyone or let anyone talk about it with us.
Every night I'd go home and say to a family member,
"Ask me how my day in court was."
"How was your day in court?"
"I can't talk about it."
(I think I'm so funny. I did get them to fall for it over and over though.)
Finally, on the last day, it was time to hear the closing arguments. The counsel for the plaintiff got to go first, then the counsel for the defense, and then the plaintiff's counsel got to have the last word. We were given instructions from the judge. We had to follow certain guidelines as we decided the case. The alternate was identified, thanked for his service, and excused. The rest of us felt bad for him. We had all invested so much in this trial. It would have been difficult to have been asked to leave at that point. We all felt we had earned our right to speak to the case.
Then we were dismissed to deliberate as a jury. We were escorted back to the jury room and allowed to make phone calls. Then our phones were taken, laptops were taken, and we were locked up together and would remain there until six out of the eight of us were in agreement.
We were finally allowed to talk about the case.
None of us had any idea as to how the others were thinking. We selected a foreman and began tentatively. It was soon evident that we were all pretty much on the same page, but had questions and concerns we wanted to discuss and be sure of. We proceeded cautiously. We covered everything and discussed every aspect of the case. We dissected our instructions and made sure we followed them minutely. We raised all possible questions and concerns that anyone had and discussed them thoroughly.
After almost five hours of deliberating, we finally buzzed our bailiff.
We were ready to re-enter the courtroom and deliver our verdict.
It was a tense moment. And a humbling one. We were affecting people's lives. Somebody had to win and somebody had to lose. We filed back in for the final time. The judge asked the foreman for the paper that contained our verdict. He asked the court clerk to read it aloud.
We had found the defendant not guilty. No money would be awarded to the plaintiff.
Before we knew it, the judge had thanked us for our service, informed us that we were now free to discuss the case with anyone, and we were whisked out of the courtroom.
Back in the jury room, we gathered up our belongings, thanked our bailiff for taking good care of us, received our phones and laptops back, shook hands and said our good-byes.
As I drove home from the courthouse last night, I thought about the past two weeks. I thought about the trial process. I thought about all I had experienced and learned. I felt confident in our decision. It had been an amazing experience, start to finish.
You got a letter instructing you to report for jury selection?
Don't be tempted to act like a crazy bigot.
It's an experience that you'll greatly benefit from.
I hope you're lucky enough to get selected.