Friday, September 17, 2010

Jury Duty

I was called but did not serve.

That about sums it up. About two weeks ago, I got a jury duty summons in the mail. In the 'olden days' when one received such a noticed, it meant a trip to the courthouse, even if you couldn't or didn't want to serve. Nowadays, reporting for jury duty means a trip to the internet, to fill out a form.

So, that's what I did. This web form consisted of a series of what would be considered to be typical questions, about whether or not I could serve fairly plus some questions about my race and income. I answered honestly and in about ten minutes, I was 'impaneled'. I got an email about five minutes later with all the information about where and when to show up.

That day was Wednesday September 15. Municipal Courtroom 2B. I arrived about 1:15 and signed in and took a badge that said "Juror". There were twenty five of us in the room by 1:30, when the clerk came to bring us into the courtroom.

I was juror #1, so I sat on the end of the first row. In front of me were the prosecuting attorney and the Defendant, who was clearly acting as his own counsel. The Prosecutor was a young man of about twenty-five to thirty. He was a little overweight and wore an ill-fitting dark suit. He had close cropped black hair, dark eyes and a ready smile, which he flashed after thanking every juror 'for their honesty' when concluding his questions.

The Defendant was a large man of about thirty to thirty-five. He was obviously a blue-collar worker, for he was not wearing a suit but a day-glo yellow work-shirt with silver reflective tape around the shoulders and across the front. He was wearing work jeans and heavy dusty boots. He also had close-cropped black hair and sported a small gold loop earring in one ear.

The Judge welcomed us, introduced the prosecuting attorney and the Defendant. She told us a bit about the case. It was a criminal case, but not a felony, just a misdemeanor traffic case. Specifically, the defendant was charged with running a red light.

After introductions, the prosecuting attorney was given the first go. He asked us, in turn, whether or not we had had a traffic citation in the past five years and if so, what the disposition had been.

Since I was Juror #1, he started with me. In fact, I have had a citation in the past five years, but at first I couldn't be sure. I stammered a bit until I recalled that I had gotten that speeding ticket back in February of 2008. I told him that I'd taken it to trial and that it had been dismissed, to which he said, "Congratulations" and moved on.

By the time he got to Juror #25, there had already been a shorthand established: "Got a speeding ticket. Paid the fine and took Defensive Driving," or "No tickets," were the two standard replies that moved the whole thing along pretty quickly. There were a couple of people who had gotten tickets for running a red light, one of whom said it was an accident (she just rolled out into the intersection) and that she'd called the police on herself!

This revelation afforded the prosecutor the chance to tell us that since it was a traffic case, there was no room for considering motive. In other words, it didn't matter whether or not the Defendant intended to run the red light, just whether or not he had done it. In theft, the prosecution explained, the State must at least address intent, as it is integral to the crime. But, in a traffic case, intent is just not a factor.

In other words, I realized, the Defendant was probably guilty and there was probably nothing we could do about it. Nothing, that is, unless we had an agenda, which, quite candidly, is what the Prosecutor admitted he was trying to uncover in his line of questioning.

When he was finished with all twenty five of us, the Prosecutor turned over the floor to the Defendant, who stood up to face us. He began by telling us that he was a heavy equipment driver. He said that it was not always possible for him to stop as quickly as he would like and that he would ask us to consider that. Now, although my knowledge of courtroom procedure is limited to my many hours of watching Law & Order and Perry Mason, this seemed even to my amateur ear to be a bit too much information about the case given much too early in the process. Indeed, the prosecutor quickly objected.

The Judge called the Prosecutor and the Defendant over to the bench. After a couple of minutes of muffled voices, they turned back around to face us. When asked by the Judge if he had any questions for the jury pool, this time, the Defendant said no. He knew, it seems to me, that his was already a losing effort. His attempt to explain the circumstances so early in the process reflected his honest motive, which was to say that even if he had done it, he didn't mean to.

The presence of the police officer--dressed in his full Blues--in the back of the room seemed to already be enough evidence to set the process inevitably in favor of the prosecution. Obviously, to the Defendant, the Judge's admonition was merely the necessary proof of this inevitability.

Well, whether or not I was perceived to have had an agenda, I was not chosen for the jury. Since either the prosecution or the defense can effectively dismiss a potential juror for any number of reasons, I have no way of knowing which side dismissed me or even if they gave me that much consideration at all. Since four of the six jurors who were actually picked came from the first ten on the list, it's pretty likely that I was summarily dismissed by one or the other side, but it's also likely that neither of them wanted me to serve and that I was simply passed over.

So, called I was, but serve I did not. By two-thirty, just a little more than an hour after I'd checked in, I was back out in the heat, on my way home.

Just as well, too, since it would have been the rest of the afternoon and the verdict was already a foregone conclusion.

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