Wednesday, August 18, 2010

My Jury Duty Experience

In all the years I've been a registered voter (going on 18 years here ...), I had never been called for jury duty. This past May, however, I finally received the "dreaded" summons in the mail. I had seen them before when my wife received them, but she was always excused as she is the primary care provider for our children. My anxiety in opening the envelope was more about the timing of the service than the need to go. With work being somewhat chaotic, and my presence needful, jury service was likely to be not just inconvenient, but rather intrusive to my professional life.

When I opened the summons, I immediately took note of the dates: report the week of June 28th. It took me about 3 seconds to realize that serving at that time would likely impact our plans for the 4th of July, so I went ahead and called into delay my jury duty until mid-August (this week). No problems so far.

This past Sunday night, I made the call to determine if I was to report, and was surprised when I was. So many times people tell me that they end up calling in night after night, never being called in, until their week of service is finished. That was not to be my luck; I had to report on Monday.

This caused me to have to shuffle a lot of things at work. While I knew that I was supposed to do jury duty this week, I didn't actually expect to have to be present at the courthouse for the majority of the week. I had to re-schedule some things, ask others to present for me at some meetings, have others run other meetings I'm responsible for, etc. With email, I was at least able to keep a thumb on the technical interchanges, but not in a very timely fashion.

Monday came, and I arrived at the courthouse at 7:50 am, prior to the 8:15 reporting time. I went to the San Fernando Courthouse and walked up to the front doors. There, I had to go through security where they made me drop my keys, phone, and book in a bowl for being X-rayed. Everybody did it and nobody complained and the line moved swiftly. It was a downright pleasant experience compared to going through airport security.

Once inside, I made me way to the "ground" floor, which is the basement, where they had a very large room filled with chairs and people. There, I found a chair and sat. And read. And waited. For a LONG time. It wasn't until about 9:15 that somebody came and gave us our "orientation" for the day. Some of the highlights:

* We were to treat our parking tag as sacred -- a replacement would be difficult to come by.
* We were to report back to that room when we were excused by a judge to return.
* We were to no longer call the 800 number to determine if we needed to report -- now that we were there, we were to report back until instructed otherwise.
* We were not to discuss anything about the cases with anybody. Not with our friends, our kids, our spouses, our church leaders, our dogs, and most especially not with our goldfish. You never can tell about those fish -- they tend to be rather slippery.
* We were to wear our badges ALWAYS when we were in the building and the local vicinity so that the chatter-box lawyers wouldn't accidentally spill secrets they weren't to share. (Hey, it's not MY fault that lawyers have loose lips ... yet it was I who had to look like a dork wearing my badge all the time ...)
* There were plenty of places to eat in the local vicinity. The lady gave a big plug for a nearby place that, upon my later inspection, looked rather unsavory.
* We were to return any given paperwork back to them, because their budget had been cut for copies. She was clearly disgruntled about that, but, ironically, after reading the material I was no better informed, and found that I didn't need anything within it.
* We were to be paid $15 a day (wow!) plus mileage for our troubles -- except for the first day. I don't know why the first day isn't covered.
* We could be excused from jury duty for reasons X, Y, and Z; none of which applied to me.

After the lady finished talking, she invited anybody who thought they should be excused to come to the front of the room. Swarms of people went that way, and many of them eventually returned to their seats, rather than walking out the door. I drew an obvious conclusion from that, and continued reading my book.

Finally, at about 10:45, the lady announced that we could go to the 3rd floor to "Department G" where the bailiff would take charge of us. Everybody swarmed to the elevators and me and a bunch of other people headed for the stairs, only to discover that you can't get to the 3rd floor from an interior stairwell, and the exterior stairwells are emergency exits only. I sat and waited for an elevator and squished in when an otherwise full elevator of people from the ground floor arrived on the 1st floor where I was standing.

At the third floor, we all stood around looking uncomfortable waiting for something to happen. I found a chair and started reading again. Finally, at about 11:30, the bailiff came out and told us all to go in, and to take a questionnaire, which we would need later. Once inside, we were seated, he gave us some instructions, and the judge finally came in and gave some more instructions.

The judge pointed out the defendants there in the room, two young men who were charged with residential burglary and several counts of assault on one or more (couldn't really tell) police officers; it was a criminal trial. She was careful to remind us all that in the U.S., people are presumed innocent until proven guilty, so we were to think of them as innocent even as the charges were read to them, with wording that assumed guilt. An interesting dichotomy.

She read the names of the alleged victims, and asked if anybody knew any of those people or the defendants. Nobody did, surprisingly enough, particularly since I later found out that many in the room were from Santa Clarita (including myself) where the crimes supposedly took place. The two defendants did look familiar to me, but I still don't know why.

The defense lawyers, both of them, looked us all over carefully. One in particular looked at us like he was contemplating whether or not he wanted to squish us. The prosecutor, the District Attorney, was calm and collected, and later proved to have quite a sense of humor. The defense attorneys were an interesting duo -- the desire-to-squish-you one was older, dry, and tended to issue very obvious and leading questions. The other was younger, a little more quick witted, and seemed to really enjoy what he was doing.

At noon, after all these instructions, the judge finally had the court clerk call out 18 juror ID numbers. Those people came forward and were instructed to sit in one of the 12 jury seats, or one of the 6 seats in front of them.

Then ... the judge called a lunch recess and we were all to return at 1:30.

So, went off for lunch. I ate my lunch then walked around a bit, looking at the different restaurants in the area. There were quite a few, as the jury lady promised. It was boring, and I ended up going back to the hallway outside the jury room by about 12:45, where I sat and read my book some more.

1:30 came around, and I sat in the hallway and read my book. 1:45 came and went. Finally a few minutes before 2:00 the door opened and the bailiff ordered us all in. Taking a head count, the judge finally got things going.

The 18 "prospective jurors" were to read through the questions in the questionnaire, telling everybody in the room their profession, marital status, parental status, and the profession of any adults living in their household. They were also to indicate if they had prior jury experience.

After that, pages 2 and 3 of the questionnaire asked questions about whether or not they'd been victims of crimes, had committed any crimes, knew police officers, understood that they could be excused from jury duty at any time for any reason (and not to take it personally), and if they had any religious or philosophical reason for why they couldn't be on the jury. If anybody had reason why they didn't want to share their information publicly, they could speak with the judge and lawyers "privately".

As things progressed, a few patterns became apparent:

* Very few people admitted to committing a crime until pressed by the judge, who specifically asked -- in every single case -- if they had ever received a traffic citation. By the third day, people started realizing that they should admit to it right away.
* Most people had been the victims of a crime, usually a home burglary or a car break-in.
* There were a surprising number of people who were students in the room (all of whom were released so they could get to school one to two weeks later).
* Most people had friends who were in law enforcement of one type or another.

The judge regularly asked people if they could be fair to both sides, and almost everybody said yes. Those who didn't were clearly just being belligerent and wanted out of jury duty (they were all obliged). She also grilled people when they mentioned they were in a medical profession about whether or not they knew anything about bone structure, particularly in the hand and lower arm.

By this time, it was 2:20 and the judge told us to take a break and to be back at 2:40. We left to the hallway where I, surprisingly, read my book. Eventually, at about 3:10, the bailiff came out and brought us back in. The judge then let each of the lawyers take 15 minutes each to address the prospective jurors. The first was the squish-the-bug lawyer for the defense who got up and ran circles around his own questions to the point where there was only one possible way to answer. He was particularly uninspiring, almost always starting his questions with "Do you think ...", which meant that he always got a yes or no answer, and the most obvious answer to the question.

The second lawyer for the defense got up and he was much more personable. He actually cracked a joke. At one point, he was talking about the police profession and was pushing on how people tend to believe what one in their position of authority has to say. He cited this as faulty, as law enforcement officers are just regular people and are therefore subject to making mistakes and, worse, often have an incentive to lie to cover those mistakes. He indicated that their training is strictly law enforcement, and not focused on more esoteric things such as ethics and honesty. As a supporting example, he began a statement by saying, "Take for example lawyers. We are not trained to be honest ..." He trailed off, the courtroom burst into laughter, and he flushed red with a smile and a laugh. It was a faux pas, clearly unintentional (or he's a really good actor), but it was quite funny.

Without having seen any evidence, we were beginning to draw a picture of what the case was about: these two dudes were accused of burglarizing somebody's house, wrecking it in the process. At some point, the policemen apparently attempted to arrest them and the two attacked the police (it was specifically highlighted that the charges were not that they had attacked the police with a gun), and managed to injure at least one of them in the hand and arm in the process.

Every step of the way, the defense lawyers were asking questions about whether or not the potential jurors could declare their clients as innocent when there was no concrete evidence. Even the question of race was brought up, which made the potential jurors squirm.

Around 4, the judge dismissed us all with instructions to return the next day at 10:30, but be early because the security lines to get in can get crowded and she wanted to start on time.

So, the next morning, I'm there by 9:50. I sat in the hallway reading, of course. About 10:50 the bailiff finally lets us in at which point the D.A. had the opportunity to question the first panel of 18 people. Contrary to the defense lawyers, the D.A. was asking questions about whether or not the potential jurors could make up their own minds about the truth based on witness testimony, even in the absence of "CSI-style" concrete evidence. I got the impression that the case would be settled as a competition of testimony.

At the end of this questioning, the judge asked each of those who had said they wanted to visit with the judge in person to come to the back hallway with the lawyers. One by one, they there spilled whatever embarrassing information they needed to, and then returned to their seats.

At this point, the judge dismissed several of those people to return to the jury room in the basement for further instruction. At that point, the judge allowed the defense lawyers and the D.A. to excuse, in turn, one juror at a time until there was only 11 people left. At that point, the judge asked the court clerk to read off 7 more names to add to the "panel". Once seated, the fun started again with the questions answered, the judge following up, and the lawyers each getting their 15 minutes.

We broke for lunch again at noon, with instructions to return at 2 pm. I ate my lunch, and, what else? sat in the hall and read my book. At 2:20 we were let back in. Throughout the day, the show continued with a second set of 7 selected, then a third set. Towards the end of the second day, another set of 7 was to be selected, and I was finally called forward. I sat down as prospective juror #14.

I answered my questions to the judge (Yes, I've had speeding tickets and, yes, I know some police officers. How well do you know them? Quite well. Do you ever talk with them about their work? Why, yes, as a matter of fact, I do; just like most people in their profession, they are rather fond of telling stories about dumb things people do. Thank you, Prospective Juror #14.).

Then the squish-the-bug lawyer got up and had nothing to ask me. Then the other defense lawyer got up and he asked me what kind of engineer I was. He then asked me what I was reading ("In the Court of the Crimson King" by S.M. Stirling. Is it good? Quite good. Would you recommend it to me? I'd recommend it to anybody who has an interest in science fiction. Thank you.) Then he started going off on how it is in engineering that there is usually only solution to a problem, and I interrupted him and told him that I'm an engineer, not a mathematician, and that in most engineering problems there are many solutions and my job is to find an acceptable one. He moved on.

Eventually the D.A. got up. He had no questions at all for anybody. The judge excused a few more jurors and I moved to the seat of Prospective Juror #7. At that point the D.A. asserted he was happy with the jury as presently constituted, but the defense released one more juror which meant we'd have to call forward more prospective jurors the next morning.

The day ended at 4:30. On my way out, the recorder asked me the title of the book, as she hadn't caught it before. I told her and she entered it into the official record for the day. I found that amusing.

The first two days of jury selection, I had intentionally under-dressed. I hoped to not show my true nature, for whatever reason, so I wore shorts, my Star Wars T-shirt, and sandals on Monday; and jeans, a junky T-shirt, and sneakers on Tuesday. By Wednesday, since I was in seat #7 and the D.A. was happy with the jury, I was totally expecting to end up on the jury. To that end, I figured there was no sense being something I'm not, so I wore what I would normally wear to work -- business casual khaki slacks and a green and blue plaid button-down shirt. I was wearing my typical brown belt, brown work shoes, and my phone on my belt.

The next day (today), I arrived at 10:00. I sat in the hallway reading my book until 10:55 and then walked up to my seat #7, which I assumed I was going to be residing in for many days. That morning, however, when the squish-the-bug lawyer looked at me, I could tell he wasn't comfortable with me like he was the day before, but I figured there were bigger targets to remove from the jury before me. The morning progressed with the seven new prospective jurors called forth and the ensuing questioning. We broke for lunch at noon, as usual. I went to McDonalds and was hit up by two separate people for cash; being the credit card person that I am, I honestly couldn't help them.

Upon return at 1:30 (getting in at 1:45, only 15 minutes late that time ... improvement!), I took my place and the releases began with the judge releasing a few who were clearly not going to work. Then it was time for the squish-the-bug lawyer to release somebody. He hesitated only two seconds, then asked, "The defense would request that the judge thank and excuse Prospective Juror #7."

I was stunned. I stood, attempting to suppress a smirk, and strode out of the court room. I went down to the basement, picked up my release form and left.

So ended my time on jury duty.

Throughout the week, I had been vacillating on whether or not I wanted to be part of the jury. I had the feeling that I had seen these two young men before, even in the same setting, strangely enough, but couldn't place that memory. I also could easily envision them committing the crimes of which they were accused, so perhaps I was somewhat unfit for the job. Perhaps it was their demeanor -- they honestly looked and acted like guilty kids who got caught and were hoping they could weasel their way out of it. Even the demeanor of their defense lawyers spoke that they knew their clients were guilty, and their questions to the prospective jurors heavily leaned towards "well, if you can't prove they did it without any reasonable doubt, then you have to say they are innocent" rather than "these boys are innocent and it's up to you to say so".

Even so, now that I've been released, I'm somewhat relieved. I was very stressed trying to defer things at work, and was constantly checking my email and dealing with things day by day. If I had been put on the jury, that would have ultimately been fine, because I could have at least planned to be gone for a few weeks, but the intermediate state of not knowing was a burden.

It was an interesting process, and one I somewhat enjoyed, and someday I do think I'd like to serve on a jury just so I can have that experience. This time, however, it took 3 days to know it was not to be.

Ah, well. Despite the uncertainty, I really did like sleeping in ...


Brian said...

The thing that got me dismissed from my one time from jury duty was one of two things... The one most likely was that I was related to someone in law enforcement. The second one, I kinda figure, is that I'd argued with the defendant in the Pet Shop a while back. Either way, I didn't have to serve.

It was interesting to see the process in action, but I'm glad I didn't end up sitting.

Nikki said...

I laughed every time I read "Squish The Bug". And I think it's probably likely that you were dismissed because you're too intelligent. You won't say that, but I will. I'm sure the defense lawyer was hoping to find someone a bit more gullable.
I'm with you. I'd like to have the experience of being on a jury (and putting the bad guys behind bars, but would be totally inconvenienced by the whole situation. But it does sound nice to have a few days to relax and read a book. Wes was dismissed a few months ago. He took it sort of hard, oddly.

Anonymous said...

Roy, my jury duty experience was only one day. It was horrible. I am truly sorry that you had to spend three days just in jury selection...


Ash and Brent said...

Wowie! My experience was A LOT shorter than yours. I was only there for 1-1/2 days. It is interesting watching it work though. The lawyers just asked us questions, but I thought they were weird - Do you have a bumper sticker?


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