Somehow, I avoided jury duty for much of my adult life.
- I worked for County government, and was classified as an “essential employee”.
- I was teaching, and they couldn’t figure out my vacations.
- I had primary responsibility for a child under age 16.
- They forgot about me.
Then I turned 50, and started getting regular greetings from the County court system. Every two years I was summoned to Civil Court, hung around for a day or two, and watched other people be put onto juries. Once I was called for grand jury, an even more solemn venture, but two 16-member panels were generated without my name being called.
I was called to Civil Court again this month and was (again) not seated as a juror, but was exposed to a new, higher level of judicial seriousness. Hence, these comments…
I’ve always been called to Civil Court, and each case has involved assignment of responsibility and financial compensation. These are not criminal cases where someone may be sent to prison. I assumed, therefore, that I was unlikely to be exposed to something violent or sordid. Wrong.
In my current service, I began by waiting through the selection of a jury to determine who was responsible for damage to a house – homeowner vs contractor – but it was implied that the next case coming up was “big” and might last more than a week.
So on my second day of duty, the jury assembly room was crowded. The group led into the courtroom was so large that all seats were occupied and at least 20 people stood along the walls. The judge introduced himself and the case, which dated back to 2010. A city police officer arrested a man carrying drugs, who was convicted of possession and (I think) served prison time. That, of course, was the criminal side of the case.
The civil case resulted from an accusation that police brutality was committed during the arrest, in violation of the civil rights of the suspect. In this civil case, the police officer was the defendant; the man arrested was the complainant. The jury would decide whether the actions of the officer constituted a violation of rights, and if so, how much money should be awarded to the complainant.
The details of the alleged brutality were sufficiently grim as to send a wave of distaste across the prospective jurors. I felt like I could hear my neighbors’ thoughts, predominant being “I don’t want to deal with this.” The first stage of jury selection, excuses for hardship, began. A quarter of the potential jurors departed. Then came the issues of knowing any party to the case (including a long list of witnesses), familiarity with the location of the arrest, etc. Some potential jurors asked to speak to the judge privately.
We were handed long sheets of standard voire dire questions and told they would be supplemented by additional, case specific questions. All questioning was handled orally, one potential juror at a time. We were advised to pay attention.
After lunch the first panel of 8 jurors was seated. Each had to rise and introduce him or her self, following a list of questions supplied by the court and including “how do you spend your spare time?” and “do you have any bumper stickers on your car, other than political election stickers?” Bumper stickers, it turns out, are rare in this County.
My mind was racing. Should I tell the judge that I don’t believe in the war on drugs? That it has become a war against the poor and disadvantaged? That it isn’t reducing drug use or making us safer? I have considered this carefully. I would be unwilling to convict in certain drug cases, on religious/moral grounds. But this was a civil case. No one would be sent to jail. I could very likely get myself off the case by expressing my opinions to the judge. Should I do so?
My one and only bumper sticker would probably get me off in any event. “War is Not the Answer”. It also appeared that anyone with education beyond a Bachelor’s degree was being excused from duty. The judge repeatedly told us not to “take it personally”.
As time wore on and the slow process was carried forward, I realized that the TRUTH about this case was very important. If police are brutalizing suspects and breaking their own ground rules, we-the-public need to know. Conversely, if this is a false accusation, the police officer in question has to be defended. I consider false accusation to be especially heinous, because the damage done to an individual may be so far beyond repair.
Considered as a process being conducted in service of truth, this case seemed to me to be more and more weighty as the day passed.
As the afternoon wore on, juror after juror was “thanked and excused” by one side or the other. The pool was down to perhaps two dozen tense and tired citizens when the jury of eight was finally sworn in late in the day. The lawyers and their clients rose and turned to face us as we filed out, a polite gesture many did not appear to notice.
What did I learn? Does “the system” work? I don’t know, but I am not as cynical about it as some of my friends. I felt that the judge and the eventual jury were acting in serious good faith. If we aren’t going to use this system to determine truth and defend rights, WHAT IS THE ALTERNATIVE?
I assume this case is important enough so that I will eventually find the outcome in the newspaper. I deeply hope that it will be based on truth.
But even if it is, there’s still something troubling me. The jury trial process is so unremittingly adversarial. One side or the other will WIN. The other will LOSE – completely. Might the “truth” be somewhere in between?
Either way, the resolution of this case will do nothing to restore the faith the between police and community which has been so very badly damaged in our country over the past year or so. It will not rebuild trust or understanding.
There is a new concept on the horizon – RESTORATIVE JUSTICE. The idea is to facilitate some kind of reconciliation between perpetrator and victim in criminal cases. It’s hard to see how it would apply to the case described above. RESTORATIVE JUSTICE has been around long enough to have an entry in Wikipedia. Maybe, over time, “the system” can be changed to serve us all better.
I welcome comments from anyone who wants to discuss his or her experiences with jury trials and the pursuit of justice.