Years ago, I was on a jury for a murder trial that lasted 6 or 7 weeks (it started during semester break, and ran longer than expected). Much as I (like everyone else) don’t want to interrupt my life for jury duty, I learned from that that the system of trial by jury is impressive.
Here I want to reflect some on today. If I end up on the jury, there will be a lot of things I can’t say. For now, I won’t describe the case other than to say it’s a major felony, but predicted to be a short trial.
But first, about my prior experience.
I came away from the murder trial with tremendous respect for both the jury system and my fellow jurors. Unlike TV shows I’ve seen (I’m one of the few people in the US to NEVER see EVEN ONE Law and Order episode), everything was aimed at the jury; t all the arguments, witnesses, and evidence. And when the case went to the jury, I was astonished to find that the verdict was not a foregone conclusion; it was NOT obvious what the verdict should be. And it was up to US.
Not only were we not professionals. We knew less than anyone else in the courtroom. We kept getting sent out of the room while the lawyers debated about what evidence we would be allowed to hear. After the trial, the jury went to a bar and talked about all the things we couldn’t during the trial. For example, did the defendant have a record? Prior felony convictions of course would not mean he was guilty; but someone had murdered an old man with no enemies, the accused’s step-uncle. The defendant had the man’s car. Who would be so dumb as to murder a man for his car and then keep driving it around town?
If the defendant had a history of violent outbursts, that would make the whole scenario more credible. But nothing about his history was admissable. (We convicted on second-degree murder; we didn’t believe premeditation was proven, which was necessary for first-degree.)
The jurors all took our task very seriously. Our deliberations were amazingly civilized, and efficient, while giving everyone the opportunity to air their views. Our views did change during deliberations; everyone listened to one another, no one refused to reconsider their opinions.
And now for today:
- I was in Oakland, a multi-racial city, with a jury pool drawn from Alameda County, almost as diverse. The jury pool was impressively multicultural (only citizens are called). They staff called roll and had trouble pronouncing such varied names: Chinese, Vietnamese, Arabic, as well as the more predictable ethnic names (e.g., Italian) and many that completely mystified to me. The group was all colors, as well.
- The group was varied in other ways as well. I walked over from the parking garage with a biker-looking guy with long graying hair and a black t-shirt for some band I’ve never heard of. I talked with a guy in construction and a woman running a small company that’s going out of business.
- The judge and the defendant looked disturbingly alike: graying, balding, portly black men. This could be a 1950’s movie: two boys from the neighborhood, going different directions as they grow up, meeting again 30 years later, on opposite sides of the courtroom.
- The staff in the jury assembly room were a black man and a black woman, both with pronounced accents: African, perhaps. It seemed particularly American to have two immigrants working for the courts. (another movie; OK, so I imagine sappy, uplifting stories).
- Eighty-five of us were called to a courtroom to begin selecting a jury of 12. The judge read a prepared statement, with strong feeling, about how unfortunate it is that many employers are reducing the number of days that they will pay people’s salaries during jury service. (Jurors’ pay from the court is $15/day; those of us working for government — specifically including UC — signed waivers. No $ for us.)
- We were all given a 20-page questionnaire; that’s worth a post in itself.
- Seventeen of us, including me, came back after lunch to ask to be excused for “hardship.” (More below.) The judge made it clear that it would be almost impossible to getting completely excused. People who were self-employed and would lose income were asked when was their slow season, and told they would be called back then for another trial. One self-employed man said that with prior notice to set things up so that he could be away — the judge just noted that that’s not how jury service works. (The laws have been changed over the years because of how few people were serving, and what a limited and homogeneous pool that created.)
- By the time the judge got to me, he had said that this would be a 7-day trial, and he was confident in this estimate; his court only meets 9-1:30 M-Th; and, if I was excused, he’d simply ask when to call me back. I told him that if all that was true, then I could do it (my TuTh class meets at 2), and I didn’t really want to be recalled later. (I was also aware that the attorneys were watching my interaction with the judge carefully; they have to decide who they want on the jury.)
So I go back Thurs for continued jury seletion.