Wednesday, January 03, 2018

Jury Duty!

I have been called for jury duty several times. In this state, there's a lovely call-in program. You are given a phone number to call to find out if you have to report in person. When I got the call this time, my call-in dates were 12-26-2017 to 1-05-2018, so I was fairly sure I wouldn't be called to the courthouse the first week, and relatively sure I'd be safe the second week.

Well, I was wrong. Last night I was ordered to report to the courthouse.

I wasn't the only one. In fact, a friend who teaches at the high school got called, and she offered me a lift to the courthouse. Not thinking it through, I accepted and we carpooled this morning. A number of other people from town got called as well, including the teacher that Eric subbed for today and a parapro at the same school. We also had a few other folks we knew from town show up in the courtroom.

I've been to the courthouse before, as a reporter, and I have sat in a LOT of different courtrooms as a reporter. That part of the process, getting scanned and up into a courtroom, was not at all nerve-wracking for me. After checking in at the door to courtroom #6, my friend and I ended up sitting in the comfy jury seats instead of on the benches because the benches were already full. After waiting for stragglers, the woman who checked us in set up a video on jury service and said they were seating for two cases.

The half-hour video was mostly interesting for the bad direction and sometimes poor acting, but it provided a good overview of jury service. When it was over, we sat around for quite awhile before the bailiff came in to give us our jury numbers. My friend was given #10, and I got #38. The bailiff made us sit in number order, and because a few people had been sent to another courtroom due to overflow, we had to leave gaps for people from the other room. I thought I was on the end of a row, but it turned out juror #39 was supposed to sit next to me, so we had to squeeze up for him. He smelled like cigarette smoke.

Juror #37, on my other side, thought both cases we were called for were murder cases. I didn't know what to think, especially when they gave out 70 numbers and dismissed the remaining 19 people. I later learned (via hearsay) that there was a murder case, and it was one of the two cases, but it was settled literally minutes before the jury selection was to start. So there was only one case that was being seated. Good thing, too, because the murder case was expected to last 8 weeks.

Once the bailiff got everyone numbered and in order, he marched us - in order - to another courtroom. It felt like elementary school. In that courtroom we were introduced to the judge, the prosecutor and the defense attorney, as well as the defendant. The judge read the charges to us: robbery, attempted robbery and a felon in possession of a firearm. The last charge was of interest because the judge basically said "this guy has been convicted of a crime before" - which I generally thought we aren't supposed to know.

After reading the charges, the judge said the case would probably take five days, and asked if anyone had any reason they couldn't serve for five days. There were plenty of people. My friend (and ride home) said she has a trip next week starting on Thursday, and the judge said he couldn't guarantee the trial would only last five days and dismissed her.

About 20 people were dismissed in the first round. The rest of us were asked to give our bios by answering questions from a sheet of paper they'd given us. The questions included what town we are from, occupation, spouse's occupation, hobbies and whether or not we've every been involved in a court case before. I am not sure how I answered because I was embarrassed and blanked it out a bit, but I mentioned I was a former reporter. A juror just a few down from me was also a former reporter.

After everyone gave their bios, the prosecutor started asking people about their previous jury experiences and whether or not they watched crime dramas on TV. One lady loudly announced, "I watch Judge Judy" and got a laugh from almost everyone in the courtroom. The prosecutor only had about 15 minutes before noon hit and we were dismissed for lunch.

As we left the courtroom, I asked the teacher Eric subbed for today if he could give me a lift back to Sunnyside so we could let my other friend go home. As she's a mutual friend, he agreed and so I ended up going home in a different car than I came - but my friend who gave me a ride out didn't have to wait another 4 hours to go home. If I'd been thinking in the first place, I would have realized that one of us might get seated and the other not, and would have driven myself out.

We had an hour and a half for lunch, and I went with my ride home and the parapro to Jimmy John's for lunch. I've never had a sub sandwich shaped quite as rudely as that one was, but I don't think it was deliberate. We chatted about substitute teaching and the concept of jury duty. We got back to the "holding" courtroom in plenty of time.

Again we waited for quite awhile until it was time to head back into the courtroom for final jury selection. The prosecuting attorney had 15 more minutes to work with, and he started with juror #7, who said he was an engineer, asking him if he believed DNA evidence was always right. The juror said he understood that DNA evidence wasn't always a sure thing and said he would rely on expert advice if asked to judge it.

I was the next juror called to answer questions, and he asked me essentially the same thing, and I gave essentially the same answer. Then he asked about me being a reporter, and I confirmed that I had been, but was not currently, a reporter. He gave me a very knowing look and asked if I could judge a case by only the information presented in court. I affirmed that I could. I have covered court cases where I, as the reporter, knew that evidence was being withheld. Also, I suspect the nature of reporters - to pry and find out as much as we can - might have been working against me there.

Next he called up the other former reporter and asked pretty much the same questions. That juror gave pretty much the same answers as I did.

Then the prosecutor asked all jurors if they understood that DNA evidence is not always perfect. There were some confused looks, including myself, and so he had me stand up again and asked me if I understood what he'd asked. "I think so," I said. He asked me to restate it in my own words. I said something along the lines of: "Do we understand that DNA is not a magic pill that will automatically do the job for us and make the decision in the case easy, and are we ok with that."

He said, "What she said!" to laughter, and gestured jokingly for me to take his place up front - at which point I shook my head and handed the microphone back to the bailiff before sitting quickly.

He asked quite a few more questions, and then the defense got his turn. The defense attorney started by focusing in on people who had said they had been victims of a crime before and asking them if they felt their prior experiences would make it harder for them to be impartial. The defense attorney also asked people if they had any sort of relationship with police and if they would give more credence to an officer's testimony than to a lay person. During that portion of questioning I stood up and noted that I had worked closely with police as a reporter and probably would give their testimony a little more credence.

I'm not entirely sure that's true, after some serious pondering on it. But it was too late to call back my words.

Finally, the attorneys and judge went into a flurry of activity to eliminate jurors and the bailiff got a new set of numbers out - the actual seated jury numbers. When the judge called for order again, he read off the numbers of the people who had been selected, and they were seated in the nice comfy jury chairs. They started with potential juror #1, who became actual juror #1, and went up through the numbers, skipping the rejected people.

I know I was rejected because the last juror seated was #39 - the one right after me who smelled like cigarette smoke.

The rest of us were released then, but informed we still have to call in tonight for potential seating tomorrow and tomorrow night for potential jury seating on Friday. The judge said he didn't think they would be seating any more juries this week, but to call anyway (I just called, no jury duty tomorrow).

It was an intriguing experience, and I will probably be checking the newspaper to find out what happens in the trial. There was a lot of waiting around with enough noise and distractions that I didn't even try to read before lunch. My efforts to read after lunch were derailed because I started to wither from lack of energy and couldn't concentrate. I was never bored, but there were times I wished the process would move along more quickly. Pretty much all of the action took place in courtrooms in the uncomfortable audience seating. We were basically in rows and usually next to complete strangers. It was not conducive to reading or relaxing. After sitting on the benches for a few hours, I was really sore and wanted to go home. I found, to my surprise, that I really did want to serve on the jury and was both relieved and disappointed that I wasn't picked.

I would gladly go in again, though I might hope for a stadium cushion to make the sitting easier.