Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Jury Duty

You could say I've been lucky to have escaped all these years. In as much as I'd had jury notices before but had never had to set foot in the courtroom for any, you'd be right. The summons always seemed to come on or right before the opening day of a deer season, an out of town assignment, or a scheduled vacation and I always seemed to get excused. This time however, I dutifully set aside all my plans and showed up as required.
And so it began. The commissioner of jurors greeted us and got us working on filling out questionnaires. Early in the process, fifty jurors were called away to a second court room for another trial. After about an hour had gone by, and the administrivia had been completed, the presiding judge entered and greeted us. He briefly informed us the nature of the trial--a medical malpractice case pitting a reasonably well known local family against a well known physician--and then asked all who had legitimate reasons to be excused to line up and be called forward. It was a long line and he did excuse the majority of those for whom this trial--expected to last well over a week--would be a hardship.
Then we moved to jury selection.
Jury selection is arguably the most important part of a trial. The process is centered around something called voir dire, a time of face to face discussion between the attorneys and prospective jurors. This is a long and arduous process in which the lawyers attempt to select those persons who will be honest and give their particular side a favorable, or at least a fair, hearing of the evidence and will adhere to the instructions of the judge.
Though I'd taken a book with me, to deal with the boredom expected from and during the process, I never picked it up. The question and answer period between the two attorneys actually impressed me. The questions usually started pleasantly with background information including experience with the medical profession in general, this doctor in particular and some other aspects that would be specific to this case. The candor of the prospective jurors, their honesty in revealing things about themselves that may have been difficult for them to address was striking. Some honestly admitted that certain things in their backgrounds might cause a problem for them and color their opinions as they deliberated. The skill of the litigators was exceptional. I read people pretty well, but these guys were amazing in their abilities to know when to ask a deeper question or change subject then go back later to dig more deeply into something. They were able to open the candidates up show their emotions, and maybe even their biases.
Though some prospects were dismissed by the judge in open court, all for reasons that were obvious from listening to the question and answer process, only the judge and the lawyers know what went on in chambers when they met to discuss whether to keep or release the jurors according to the requests of the the lawyers.  
It took well into the afternoon of day two to pick the eight member jury for the case. In a way, I'm disappointed that my name was not called, though a conversation with another judge suggests that my experiences with both parties (both favorable experiences) probably would have been a disqualifying factor and I'd have not been allowed to serve.
By the time the 8th juror was seated, the jury pool (199 had been summoned, about 40 were left) was all getting a bit itchy to get going, but most were patient with the process in spite of our itchiness, and were happy that the judge kept the process on track and moving pretty well. One man, however annoyed me to the point that I pointed him out to a court official. His continual snide remarks and visible appearance of frustration made me fear that neither party would get a fair hearing of the evidence from him. Fortunately for the integrity of the system, he was not called, though I'm sure the court officer would have brought him to the judge's attention, and I'm sure one of the attorneys would have found a reason to remove him.
In the end, a good mix of men and women, older and younger was chosen. I'm sure that they will give the evidence a fair hearing and that justice will be served.
For any who think that jury service is an inconvenience, it is. However, it's part of our process and we must be in the process to have any right to complain about it. I just spent two inconvenient days. Next time it might be your turn. Show up, don't make excuses to get out of it and enjoy the education.

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