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Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Jury Duty

I'm 43 years old and for the first time in my life I was summoned to jury duty.  It was an interesting experience, and not quite what I expected.

For those not familiar with the US system (and I'm not sure how this works in other countries), when someone goes to trial there is a presumption that the defendant is innocent.  The prosecuting attorney is responsible for proving beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty, so the burden of proof is on the accuser.  Other than in a military tribunal or a small claims court, guilt or innocence is not determined by a judge or panel of judges.  A defendant is convicted or acquitted by a jury of his/her peers, meaning average people.  The judge is there to make sure that the attorneys try the case appropriately and according to the law, but it is the jury that has the final decision on the defendant's guilt.

About a month ago I received my summons letter.  Residents of a county are randomly chosen and then sent announcements requiring them to appear for jury duty.  Previously this was done based off voter registration, but apparently they use drivers' license records, utilities, and other things so no citizen is safe.  I was actually a little excited, as I had never served on a jury before.  I also strongly believe in a citizen's responsibility to fulfill certain civic duties, and know that our democracy and court system strongly depend on citizen volunteers and participants.  So I was ready to do my duty and serve my community.  But this is also legally required, so I could have been in trouble if I didn't show up.

I arrived at the courthouse along with around a hundred other people.  Thankfully this fell on my first of two days off, so I didn't have to rearrange my schedule.  However, my first surprise was that this was a week of jury duty, something not stated in the summons letter.  I was fine with using some of my days off in this capacity, but didn't want to have to reschedule my clients and surgeries.  So I began to worry that I would be surprised and end up on a lengthy trial.  I also have a veterinary conference starting this coming Sunday, and that registration fee is non-refundable.  Yes, I began to fret a bit.

The first day was all about telling us what was going on and splitting us up into groups.  Two of those groups were assigned to trials and the rest of us were dismissed by noon.  I had to call an information number that evening, and found out that I had to be back the following day to be interviewed for a trial.  If it wasn't for my having to work I wouldn't have had a problem with this, but I didn't want to reschedule my clients a the last minute.  I spoke to the clerk of courts before leaving yesterday and explained the situation.  She was very understanding and said that she would try to work with me.  Which is why I was a little surprised to have to go back for a trial.

Today I arrived and the jury interviews began.  It took about an hour as the prosecuting and defending attorneys asked questions to the group and certain individuals, trying to find out our positions on subjects related to the case (a driving while impaired charge).  They recessed for about 15 minutes and when we came back in the courtroom several members of the group were excused, bringing us to six jurors.  Yes, I was one of them. 

At this point I had a little hope as the defending attorney had said during the interview that he expected us to be done by the time court dismissed for the day.  That may be why the clerk of courts put our group on the trial, knowing that if I was chosen the case would be over before I had to go back to work.  So I decided to enjoy the process and learn something from the experience.

We came back from lunch and were seated to begin the trial.  As soon as we sat down the defense asked to approach the bench.  After speaking with the judge for a minute or two we were informed that they needed to discuss "legal matters" and we were escorted into the jury deliberation room to wait.  About thirty minutes later we were called back and I noticed that the defendant was no longer in the courtroom.  It didn't take long to learn that at the last minute the defendant had changed his plea to guilty, meaning that a jury was no longer needed.  We were dismissed and no longer had to report for the week.

There are a few things I learned from the experience.  First, there was a lot of "hurry up and wait".  Second, this was a bit of an inconvenience, something acknowledged by the judge and clerk.  I wish they had let us know that it was potentially a week-long service so I could have planned better.  That part of it ended up turning out fine.  Lastly, there is a great appreciation for regular citizens being part of juries.  The clerk, judge, and both attorneys mentioned several times how much they appreciated our service and working through any inconvenience to us.  The judicial system understands how much they rely on citizen juries, and how important we are to the process.  Despite the hassle and potential disruption to my life and work, I personally appreciate jurors even more.

This kind of judicial system isn't perfect, but it's pretty darn good.  I'm proud of America, even with all of our problems and failures.  And I'm glad to be a part of the process.