Trial by Jury...The Process, Your Duty

The sixth amendment of the US Constitution states that “…the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state…”.  Last week I had the great opportunity to witness and experience firsthand what it meant to be one of twelve “fair and impartial” jurors in a civil case.

The Summons – That Dreaded Piece of Mail

The mail arrives and as you shuffle through the bills and junk mail, you see it - a letter addressed to you from the County Courthouse. You quickly run through a list of one hundred excuses in your head that you could use in order to get out of serving. Secretly, you hope that you either do not get called to serve at all or you are not one of the ones from the panel of jurors to be selected during the impaneling process.

I have to admit that my first thought was “How am I going to get out of this?”. Of course, the more thought I gave it, the more excited I became about getting to go through such an experience. Travis County has instituted the I-Jury system whereby you could submit your answers to the summons online as opposed to having to drive to the courthouse to answer your summons. After having submitted answers to the questions posed on the summons, including availability for the first week of March, I waited for the scheduled day to appear in order to place the phone call that morning at 10h to see if I indeed was needed as a juror. I’ve been summoned a couple times before, but I had never made it to the impaneling step.

Voir Dire – A Job Interview

Also known as “impaneling”, the voir dire process is akin to a job interview. It is a process whereby the lawyers get to see (“voir”) the panel of potential jurors and to speak (“dire”) to them in order to determine who the best fit for their case is.

54 people were called on this specific foggy and rainy Tuesday morning, with four that did not show up for various reasons. The process started out with us being sworn in and asked various questions regarding reasons why we might not be able to serve. I discovered that there was a higher likelihood of one being chosen as a juror the lower your number was. Since I was juror #2, the possibility of my being chosen was high. When asked who on the panel of jurors actually wanted to be there, I was one of two or three to raise my hand. My reason was that I wanted to experience the process firsthand and see how it differs from what I’ve enjoyed reading in John Grisham’s books.

The lawyers were not able to disclose the specifics of the case, but it was mentioned that it was a civil case. From the questions they were asking us, I was able to determine that it had to do with a driver hitting a large object on the road.

The Jury – Dispelling the Myth

According to Wikipedia: “A jury is a sworn body of people convened to render an impartial verdict (a finding of fact on a question) officially submitted to them by a court, or to set a penalty or judgment”. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jury). There are some people who believe that the jury consists of mostly retired people and those who are unemployed, seeing that the people who do have jobs do everything they can in order to get out of serving their duty. In this case, at least, that could not be further from the truth.

The jury I served on was comprised of 8 women and 4 men: an entrepreneur, a recent college graduate preparing for law school, an accounts receivable clerk, a nursing home attendant, a graphic artist, an attorney, a teacher, a landscaper, a physicist, a hospital operations director, an office manager in a law office, and me – a stay-at-home mom to three young children. We all seemed to work very well together when it came time for deliberations, but before that time we would visit with each other and exchange our views on topics other than the case.

The Lawyers – Oil and Water

From the very beginning, I could see that the two lawyers had personalities as different as night and day. One was outspoken and exuded confidence, while the other was very soft spoken and seemed unsure at times. It was interesting to watch the two in these proceedings and to be able to observe the moments of tension and, at times, comedic sidebar comments that ensued. After the trial, when we were able to speak to the lawyers, I asked the “outspoken one” whether the tension was something he regularly encountered. He told me that usually he and the opposing council are able to get together afterwards in a civil manner, but that in this case they were as “oil and water” from the very beginning.

The Judge – Fair and Patient

The judge was both fair and patient as she listened to the oftentimes superfluous outbursts from the plaintiff’s attorney. The “sidebar comments”, as she called them (one of them being “Well, you can’t have your cake and eat it too!”), was something she simply did not wish to have in her courtroom. One thing I believe made a difference in my experience was being able to be an active juror as opposed to a passive one. After both the attorneys were finished questioning the witnesses, we were allowed to submit our very own questions which the judge then read directly to the witness. How rewarding it was to hear a question I wrote down being read by the judge. It’s great that she allowed that practice in her courtroom.

The Court Reporter – An Accurate Account

My seat was directly behind the court reporter. I was fascinated at the speed with which her fingers moved so deftly over the keys to record all that was said during the trial. On Friday, after the trial, I asked her how the machine worked. She told me that special software programs the keystrokes so that each letter becomes a phrase. I will most likely visit Wikipedia for a more detailed explanation. I was lucky to have had such a great view.

The Prosecution – Burden of Proof

The prosecution has the burden of proving his case to the jury. He must provide sufficient evidence, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that what he claims is true. If he does not provide the evidence that the jury needs, the jury cannot justify their decision in the plaintiff’s favor. As juror #3 in the Casey Anthony case stated, "I did not say she was innocent,”… "I just said there was not enough evidence. If you cannot prove what the crime was, you cannot determine what the punishment should be." In the end, this proved to be our dilemma as well.

The Defense – Just Sit Back

Since the burden of proof lies on the prosecution, the defense can, in effect, simply sit back and watch the trial without so much as lifting a finger. Just because the defense does not need to do anything doesn’t mean that they actually do nothing. The “old school” defense attorney was interesting to observe as his style was in sharp contrast to that of the prosecutor. He was firm in his objections and provided legal reasons as to why he was objecting.

The Deliberation – Convince Me

After the closing arguments, the case was handed over to us at around 11h on Friday morning. We had three questions to answer, but we could not proceed to the second question until the same 10 jurors agreed to both parts of the first question. We spent hours analyzing three legal definitions to see if what was being asked was what we thought was being asked.

Six hours later a decision was finally reached after five jurors, who initially decided against the others, asked to be convinced, or rather challenged, of their decisions. In the end, only one juror was not convinced enough to want to change his answer, but we had the same 10 jurors agreeing for both parts of the first question.

The Verdict – Someone Will Lose

The only time I was even remotely nervous during the entire trial was when we, the jury, walked back into the courtroom and sat down to hear the judge ask for our verdict. As she asked the eleven jurors if this was in fact their verdict, for a second I somehow believed that the plaintiff’s lawyer might throw daggers of guilt our way for not “siding” for his client. The case, as presented, simply did not justify the claims being made.

Summary – It’s Your Duty

For four days, I was a part of something that most would view as an inconvenience, a burden, a most dreaded ordeal. For those four days I awoke each morning at 5,30h in order to get ready to leave an hour later, just so that I could drive 20 miles downtown on a crowded freeway in order to find a parking spot close to the courthouse. I didn’t get to drive my girls to school as I do every morning. I didn’t get to stay home with my little boy as I do every day while his sisters are in school. I didn’t get to spend the day planning what I was to make for dinner that evening. I didn’t arrive home until late every evening. What I did get to do was to fulfill my duty as a citizen of this country by being one of twelve impartial jurors listening to facts of a case presented by a plaintiff and defended by the opposing council; and, in doing so, rendering my “fair and impartial” verdict based on facts.

So, when you shuffle through your mail next time and notice that dreaded piece of mail, embrace the opportunity instead of looking for one hundred reasons as to why you cannot serve. It’s your duty.