A jury of your peers
The right to trial by jury is so precious in our legal system that there are not one, but two amendments in the Bill of Rights that protect it: The Sixth Amendment for criminal matters, and the Seventh Amendment for civil trials. The flip side of that jury right is the obligation of citizens to serve on juries when summoned.
A few weeks ago, I got summoned. Today was the date I was to report.
Who picks a lawyer to be on a jury?
Frankly, I knew it would be long odds that I would actually get picked. Few lawyers want someone on the jury second-guessing their every move. But it was certainly possible – after all, the lawyers on the case get a limited number of strikes, and there just might be someone one the panel they liked even less than me.
I was interested, though, to see the process from the inside. If not actually to be on a jury, to see what it was like from the other side of the rail. As it turned out, my experience was very limited but still somewhat informative.
The pool’s warm, come on in!
I showed up at the duly-appointed time this morning, and made my way back to the jury pool room. I showed my summons, got checked in by the very courteous and helpful courtroom staff, and sat down. There were about a hundred people there, out of more than two hundred summoned. (I was number 213.) Many people must have gotten excused, some others may have just not shown up. The people who were there were mostly white; the women were of all ages, but the men seemed to skew slightly older – more retirees. I have no idea how that reflects the demographics of eastern Pasco County, but it matches other juries I’ve seen in Florida.
At the front of the room, a large display screen played some early-morning news show apparently geared towards the slow-witted and easily entertained. Some were able to block out the noise enough to read; I put down my book and mostly observed. There was one thing I saw that stunned me.
A few minutes after 8:00 am, the jury administrator made a few announcements, then plugged in a DVD with the local clerk’s jury informational video. We learned all about the importance and history of the right to a jury trial – even invoking the Magna Carta – before explaining one-by-one who would be present in the courtroom. So far, so good.
Then the real trouble started.
One in four quadrillion
After the video, they turned the TV back on. To daytime TV.
First up: one of those fake TV-judges who mediate disputes between trailer trash of various types. The case on today’s show involved $538, an ex-girlfriend, cross-accusations of rape and prostitution, and a general sullying of what purports to be our legal system. Not exactly what you want prospective jurors to be seeing, if you’re a party on either side, right? To make matters worse, fully 2 out of 3 commercials were for local personal injury attorneys whose views on insurance companies were made very clear… not exactly something a defense lawyer wants to have fresh in the minds of his jury.
Then it got worse. A true crime show, about a cold case involving a rape/murder and one police department’s efforts to get a surreptitious DNA sample from a suspect. (Hint: it involved the police sending a fake letter from a fake law firm inviting the suspect to participate in a class action lawsuit against the city for parking tickets.) It concluded with a DNA expert talking about the “one in four quadrillion” odds that the sample donor could be anyone else but the suspect.
I hope no one watching that was about to go into a trial involving DNA evidence… because they’ve just been tainted by outside information.
Then, more lawyer ads.
Out of one hundred, fourteen.
When all was said and done, I was never even empaneled, let alone picked. There were only two trials, needing only 7 jurors each (six plus an alternate) and about a hundred of us had shown up. So most of us were dismissed.
Even though I was never called, I found my brief experience with jury duty to be educational. The biggest concern of most jurors is first the inconvenience of being called, then the boredom they suffer while waiting to be picked or released. The court staff makes it as pleasant as possible – after all, the clerk is an elected official and wants to leave these potential voters with a good impression – but there are limits to what they can do.
Any lawyer facing a jury should recognize these two concerns that juries have, and keep in mind that you never know what’s being shown on the TV screen in the jury room. I know that, for my next jury panel, I want to make sure that I’m not the one boring them anymore, that I acknowledge the sacrifices they have made to serve, and perhaps most important of all, I’m going to ask what they were watching in the jury pool room.