Sunday, June 29, 2008

Civic Lesson

Here in the United States we are taught from an early age that we enjoy a number of civic rights.

We have the right to assemble, that is, to meet in groups without being harassed by the authorities.

We have the right to free speech, that is, to complain against the government without being harassed by the authorities.

We have the right to vote without being harassed or threatened or restricted.

And we have the right to a trial by a jury of our peers, that is, the judge of our fate is not a judge person, but, rather, people who live in our community, fellow taxpayers, our peers. A peer doesn’t mean the same socio-economic level, or same educational level, or same political leaning or even same tastes in music. It means people among whom one lives.

So, with that preamble, I was summoned to Jury Duty.

Now, how should one react to receiving a summons for jury duty? After all, it’s a random selection and you might be called once in a decade, or never in your whole life. Most people, including myself, think as their first thought upon receiving the summons, “Oh, what a pain in the ass. I’ve got to go down to the courthouse and hang around all day, probably for nothing.”

That was my thought. And I’m retired. What else do I have to do, besides my personal interests and part-time job? Still, I thought, “Why me?”

I have only been called to jury duty once in my entire life. There were about 400 of us in the pool. Two trials were coming up and they needed a total of 24, twelve for each trial. I spent long hours calculating the odds of being selected, however, odds have little to do with it. Getting selected has all to do with the attorneys for each side of the case and how they try to get the best fit to give them an advantage.

In my first experience with jury duty I was excused after two days into the selection process.

“You are excused. See the clerk on your way out for compensation.”

I earned $24 for two days hanging around the courthouse.

This time around things proceeded quickly and I found myself empaneled on a jury. It happened fast and it was moments between when I was in the gallery looking at the judge, and in the jury box looking at the judge. I suddenly had eleven new friends and a new job.

I had not been trained for this, never taken a course, never read up on the subject, and there I was on a jury for a case of aggravated assault: a guy was accused of shooting someone.

To cut to the chase, we convicted the accused and sent him to prison for a long time. The victim will live with her injuries for the rest of her life.

Although I was keen to duck my civic responsibility and be excused, I am proud that was able to work with a jury of my peers to render justice, but that is not to say that it was easy. I feel that I am a better, more informed person, to have gone through the criminal trial process than to base my opinions on what I have seen on TV or read in the papers.

And, finally, I am fortunate to live in a country where a jury process exists because it does work, not always to the liking of either the prosecutors or defense, but it does work.

Did we have all the forensic evidence we needed? No. We had what we had.

Did the defense have an air-tight story? No, it had lots of holes.

In the end we did what juries are instructed to do. We weighed the evidence, ignored what was not in evidence and thought long and hard about what to conclude.

Try taking twelve people you don’t know and having them all agree on a pizza. Let’s just get The Works. No, I’m allergic to mushrooms. OK, The Works, minus mushrooms. No, a pizza is not a pizza without mushrooms. I’ve GOT to have mushrooms.

You get the picture.

It was not a happy occasion in the end. We were united in our decision, but it was a harsh decision. We convicted the accused and sentenced him to prison time.

After it was all over we chatted with the judge and the attorneys on both sides but mostly we wanted to get out of there and resume our lives.

Did we render a just verdict? Yes, I think we did. We didn’t have all the pieces of the puzzle but we had enough to get a clear picture of what happened.

Was our punishment just? Who knows. We wanted this dude off the streets and whether he gets out early on good behavior in prison when he’s eligible for parole is up to him.

I’m satisfied that this person is off the streets for a while and won’t shoot anyone else either on purpose or by accident for many years to come.

I’m exhausted from this week. I slept 14 hours on Friday and another 12 on Saturday and Sunday. I was wiped out.

Civic duty. Nobody told us how much effort it would take. We worked for hours to be fair. It was by no means a “slam dunk” decision. We worked hard to reach a consensus and nobody was frivolous in the outcome. It was deadly serous every day and we were all wiped out when allowed to go home.

In the end I can say that justice was served. We the jurors came to a consensus of opinion and stood by that opinion in court when polled individually. As jurors we came together as a team and were able to focus on the facts at hand wiping away our clouded individual feelings. Collectively we took our charge seriously and rendered a verdict.

On the one hand I’m glad I got a chance to participate in the process, and on the other hand I’m doubly glad that I won’t be eligible for jury duty for some years to come.

You can learn civics in school, but the practice comes in life. I’ve had enough practice for the time being. But, when I read in the paper about a jury trial I’ll be able to sympathize with the work they have ahead of them and think, been there, done that.


Anonymous said...

I've been called for jury service (in the UK) twice.

The first time, my first thought was "Oh no, what a pain" but it turned out that as I was scheduled to be spending those two weeks welding bits back on the inside of a nuclear reactor, I was excused. With hindsight, the jury service may have been better for my health, but I doubt I'd have got the same glowing tan from it.

The second time, the summons arrived in the post on the same day that the US Embassy sent back our passports, with the ink on our newly acquired visas still damp. I was being called for jury service two days after we were due to move to Sugar Land. I wrote back and said that, much as I was willing to serve on a jury, I was pretty sure that they might not want to pay the 12.5p/mile travel allowance.

Anonymous said...

Well done, indeed. With golf claps.

Unknown said...

I just got my notice to serve on Jury duty today. I knew I should not have read your posting earlier this week.