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Afterthoughts: I, the Jury

Jury duty can be less of a chore than you think.

 

 
Photo: Michael Austin

 

So you’ve been called for jury duty? Before you start grumbling, consider one unlikely possibility: Jury duty could be fun. Well, maybe fun is too flippant a word, but the other, more Hallmarkish terms that come mind, such as rewarding or enriching, don’t entirely convey what I experienced recently as a first-time juror.

I’d better start at the beginning. It all began with a piece of paper arriving in my mailbox. “Summons of jury service,” it read, for the District Court of the First Circuit, 111 Alakea St. I’d been drafted!

Nearly 40 of us randomly selected citizens showed up in Classroom C, on the third floor of the courthouse. We watched a short video about the judicial system and the role of juries, then it was off to Judge Steve Alm’s courtroom for the actual jury-selection process. The court secretary literally spun a wooden wheel of jury fortune and pulled out 12 names. I was the fourth person called up.

They told us the experience wouldn’t be anything like what we see on TV or in the movies. But it kind of was. The defense attorney and the prosecutor started sparring immediately, even though we were only in the process of “voir dire,” where the attorneys on both sides can quiz the prospective jurors on their potential biases. I mean, they were already throwing objections at each other and even clashing over the origins of the term voir dire itself. “It’s from the French,” the prosecutor told us. “That’s news to me,” said the defense attorney later, “I thought it was from Latin. But what do I know.”

(From what I’ve since gathered from the legal dictionary at www.law.com, the term is French, a Romance language, yes, but not Latin.)

After voir dire, I ended up staying on the jury for the whole trial. It really was fun, in the way, say, a trip to Sea World is fun. You get to see a lot of odd critters you’ve never seen before, observe them in their habitat, then go home. The trial was remarkably brief, one day. We heard the opening statements from the attorneys at 8:40-ish a.m., and rendered our verdict by about 4 p.m. (The charge? Assault. Our verdict? Not guilty.)

Of course, I realize that my enthusiasm stems partly from how convenient it was for me to serve. I work downtown anyway, less than a five-minute walk from the courthouse, so I could jog over on long breaks to catch up on work. Plus, I already had secure, covered downtown parking. Some of the other jurors weren’t so lucky. Many of them were hourly workers, who worried about the extra shifts they’d have to put in to make up for their lost time. Parking was more humbug for some of them, too.

Talk about irony—the state’s plan for juror parking, what they actually instruct jurors to do, is to park in the metered stalls on the street, get a parking ticket, then turn the ticket over to the bailiff for the court to cancel. Just imagine: All day, every day, one set of government workers is out ticketing cars, while another set gathers and voids those tickets. Wouldn’t a parking lot make more sense?

Speaking of facilities, I’m never surprised anymore, but still disappointed, to see the shabbiness of our state buildings. The main entrance to these hallowed halls of justice is a makeshift security checkpoint. At the fifth floor courtrooms, the windows were filthy and three out of four water fountains were broken, shrouded in gray plastic garbage bags. The whoosh of every urinal flush from the men’s room carried out into the hall. Not inspiring impressions.

Fortunately, the people working in the courts were universally cool. Our bailiff always let us know where and when to be places and what was going on, and made sure we had water or coffee. When the trial was over, the judge himself visited us to see if we had any questions or complaints.

In fact, people went out of their way to constantly thank us jurors for participating, always acknowledging the hassle that jury duty could be. Maybe that was the biggest difference between the real thing and its Hollywood depictions, where the jury is always a silent, panel of blank faces. That wasn’t my experience at all. Instead, my jury was made to feel that we were, in fact, the whole point of the American legal system, the conscience of the community. Perhaps that is why, before anyone told the court to rise for the judge, the bailiff escorted us into the courtroom with five words I’d never heard on TV.

“All rise for the jury.”


 

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,July

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