Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Jury Duty

kw: jurisprudence, jury duty

In the county where I now live, the courts are trying to make jury duty as unobtrusive as possible. A couple of weeks ago, I received a summons to report, with the instruction to phone in the prior evening to find out if I actually needed to appear. At work I told my supervisor that I might have jury duty April 4.

I was in Group 3. When I called, I found that Groups 1 through 4 were to appear, while Groups 5 and above were excused. So I called my boss and left a message confirming that I had to spend a day at the court house. While I have received such a summons six times since moving here, I was excused without appearing on three occasions, and on three I went in.

I arrived just as people were being let into the court house through metal detectors, and a couple of minutes later, I was in the Jury Assembly Room, where I spent several hours. In contrast to the other two occasions, the room only filled about a third of the way. Jury Instructions made it clear why. There were no Superior Court cases scheduled today, only cases for the Court of Common Pleas. Thus, none of us would serve on a jury for a felony case, only misdemeanors and traffic violations at the most. That was good news, because a typical felony case is two days or longer, but the minor cases seldom last more than a half day or full day.

We were also told that, in this county, service is considered complete after one day or one trial. In some nearby counties, the instructor said, service is required for a full two-week period, or one trial, so if you keep getting excused from juries (more later), you could spend two weeks sitting in rather uncomfortable chairs, "so think twice before moving to one of those counties!"

There was time for a break after that, and then we sat and sat, waiting for the lunch break, or to be called to a court room for empaneling of any jury. Lunch was expected at 12:30 or 1:00. Just before Noon, a different instructor came in and announced that all the cases for the day had been either settled or excused, and we were free to leave, as soon as we picked up our certificate of service, which is the proof needed to get out of Jury Duty if we are summoned during the coming two years. This time around, that was it!

On the prior occasion that I served, three years ago, I got as far as one court room. About forty of us were taken up, and twelve were chosen at random to sit in the jury box for the attorneys to look over. They use up their peremptory challenges first. They might ask a question, but usually they just decide they don't like someone's looks, and pass a note to the judge, who reads the name and excuses that person. I got excused rather early on, and returned to the Jury Assembly Room. Somebody there kidded me that defense attorneys try to get rid of all the "old, white guys", because they tend to convict at high rates. That day we were all sent home at 3:00.

By contrast to this experience, when I lived in California I had Jury Duty just once. It was to be a two-week stint. On the third day I was empaneled on a jury (I wasn't an old, white guy then; I was 24). We convicted a guy of drunk driving. It was a pretty open and shut case, and deliberations took only an hour. One of the men I sat with today told of a case that was sent to the jury after four hours, but deliberations took three days because a couple of the jurors need a lot of convincing to agree with the other ten.

That's one thing about Jury Duty. You need plenty of negotiating skills. It is amazing how differently people view things, when all twelve see and hear the same evidence and arguments. So the process can be a bit messy, but if you are a criminal or civil defendant, it beats having your fate decided only by a judge, who may not be as impartial as you'd like.

I appreciate the way this county makes it much less of an annoyance, compared to some others. Annoyance or not, I don't mind serving as a juror. If I am ever a defendant, I'll sure be glad a dozen people (more if there are alternates) were willing to hear the case and argue it out, not leaving it to someone's dyspepsia to decide.

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