Why jury duty matters—a personal account

—Pete Hahn

Granted, everyone hates the idea of jury duty.

I’ve been summoned for jury duty three times in the thirty-three years that I’ve been eligible, the first time twenty years ago, and most recently, this past year.  What I discovered is that my attitude is very different now than it used to be.  What do I mean by that?  Well, when I was younger, I bought into the idea that the only people who ended up serving on juries were those who were too stupid to figure out how to get out of it.  So the first time I was called, I answered every question during the voir dire process with statements intended to make me look as biased as possible.  Had I ever been accused of a crime?  Yes! (Officially?  By police? In this country?  Well, that wasn’t the question, was it?)  Did I have any relatives that were lawyers? Yes! (My sister passed the bar exam, practiced contract law for about two years, then left to start a family… but they didn’t ask whether there were any practicing attorneys in the family….)  Anything I could say to get out of serving, I said.  And it worked.  The lawyers dismissed me, and I went home, smirking about how well I had gotten over on the courts.

This year, I was called again, and things were different.  First of all, the commissioner of jurors and the welcoming judge both made speeches that acknowledged that everyone in the room just wanted to get out of it … but also explained why it was so important.  What stuck with me was not the concept of “civic duty,” but the idea of jury service as public service.  This country really does not ask much of its citizens:  you do not have to vote, you do not have to worship, you do not have to serve in the military… all that is really asked of us is that we obey the law, pay our taxes, and, when summoned, appear for jury duty.  Not much to ask for all of the freedoms we enjoy.

Secondly, the process of jury selection this time gave me more time to think about what was happening.  I’ll explain.  I was part of a group of fifty prospective jurors sent to a courtroom, from which fourteen would be chosen to serve (twelve jurors and two alternates).  The first day, eighteen people were questioned, out of whom five were selected as jurors.  The rest of us went home and came back the following day, and eighteen more of us were questioned in the morning, from whom another six were selected.  Of the remaining prospective jurors, I was literally the last one called into the jury box – thus, the last person to answer any of the judge’s and lawyers’ questions – and I had heard all of the answers that the other forty-nine people had given.  What struck me – what shocked me, actually – was the way that so many of my fellow prospective jurors exaggerated, obfuscated, and out-and-out lied to the judge to get out of being selected.  There were quite a few legitimate reasons for people to be dismissed – this was for a criminal assault case that looked like it would come down to the word of the suspect against the two officers who arrested him, so it made sense for police officers, trial attorneys, relatives of convicted criminals and assault victims to be excused.  What got to me was the large number of people who claimed that because their family’s apartment had been burglarized when they were four years old, or that Grandma’s purse had been snatched when she was seventeen, that they were not capable of being fair and impartial.

After listening to my forty-nine companions, I decided that I would simply answer the questions from the judge and attorneys, and if they wanted me on the jury, so be it.  So I told them about my sister, the non-practicing attorney, and about my two corrections officer cousins, and my minor scrapes from thirty-plus years ago – but I also told them that none of those things would get in the way of my being capable of listening and forming opinions based solely on the facts presented in this trial.  Even so, I thought that since they only needed three more people from our group of fourteen, that I, the last one called, would not be selected – which I can only describe as bittersweet.  I was wrong, though – they wanted me.  Sort of.  I was named the first alternate.  But then, on the first day of the trial, one of the twelve “real” jurors was excused due to a family emergency, so I officially became Juror Number Eight.

The wheels of justice move slowly.  Really slowly.  And this may be why jury duty gets such a bad rap.  There is a lot of sitting around, waiting to get started, being sent back to the jury room while the lawyers confer with the judge, mandatory ninety minute lunch recesses, ending for the day at 4:30 – basically, you get about four hours of actual court time in an eight-hour day.  And the testimony can be mind-numbingly repetitive and dull.  But all of this is on purpose.  You need to go slowly to establish the facts.  You need to go slowly to give everyone a chance to testify, even if it seems like they are telling the same story as the previous witness. You need to go slowly to avoid reaching hasty conclusions.  Few people today operate at such a deliberate pace, and the process can feel like a throwback to a different era, and at times you want to scream out loud, “Can we please just move this along!”

And then it happens.  The defense rests.  The judge explains the law.  And you have to decide.  Twelve people go into a room, having heard the same testimony, seen the same exhibits, listened to the same instructions from the judge – and have reached different conclusions.  And the beauty of this process begins to unfold.  You realize that everyone’s perspective is unique, everyone’s life experiences act as a filter through which they view the case, and no one knows the truth.  So you start to talk, some of you tentative, some passionate, some reasoned, some questioning, but all knowing that you need to come to a unanimous decision.  And you keep talking, and you keep listening, and you ask for clarifications of law and re-readings of testimony, trying to make sure that you are judging the case based on the law, and based on that high standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt,” and eventually the last holdout on the last count agrees with the rest of the group, and you send the note to the judge, saying “The jury has reached a verdict.”

Regardless of what that verdict is, when you, the Jury, file back into the courtroom to read the verdict to the defendant, judge, and attorneys, it is impossible not to feel the weight of the situation, impossible not to wonder whether you “got it right.”   What you realize at that moment is that this is how the system is supposed to work.  The judge doesn’t get to decide.  The D.A. doesn’t decide.  The jury decides whether the prosecution proved their case.  The defendant is presumed innocent until and unless the prosecution meets that burden of proof.  And twelve ordinary citizens got to make that decision.  And the awesome responsibility of being part of that decision, watching justice in action, being part of a system that works – I realize that serving on a jury is a privilege, not a duty.  If people only knew about this part of the process, we would have a line of citizens trying to get chosen, instead of trying to get excused.  I’m just sorry that I have to wait six more years for my next summons.

Pete Hahn lives in Westchester Country and has been summoned for jury duty three times in the last twenty years.

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