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Jury Duty

I completed my superior court jury duty a little while ago, and enough time has passed so that I can write up some coherent thoughts on the experience. This is as much for myself to help me process as anything, but I do have some helpful tips if you ever find yourself serving on a jury.

Mundane details: jury selection was over Zoom, while the trial itself was conducted in person. It was a homicide case, although we had scope to consider manslaughter as well. The whole thing lasted almost exactly four weeks, including a little more than a week of deliberation. We were unable to reach a verdict; the judge and the lawyers were very clear that we shouldn’t consider that a failure on our parts. There will be a new trial.

I’m not talking about details in public for various reasons, but feel free to ask in private if we know each other.

Jury Selection

During jury selection, they asked if we had biases relating to policing. I’d been expecting that question and had a prepared answer. In short: I don’t have inherent bias about individual officers, but I do think the system is biased and that creates pressure on individual officers. I also apply the same filters to police testimony as I would to any testimony, which is to say that police can and do lie.

As it turns out, this opinion is not disqualifying. I wasn’t trying to avoid serving, but if you’re ever selected and you want to avoid it, don’t try and come up with clever opinions that will rule you out. The magic words are “I think I would be biased in this case because X.” You aren’t going to get in trouble for using them. Someone said that in my group of 25 candidates, the judge said he was free to go, and that was that.

The question that clearly did reveal disqualifying opinions was “Will you consider it evidence of guilt if the defendant doesn’t testify?” The majority of people in my group raised their hands on that one. That was also the moment at which I realized I had a good chance of being selected.

The Courtroom

I didn’t enjoy the actual courtroom experience, because the case was tragic above and beyond the loss of life. We’ll never know why the victim died, beyond that it was almost certainly mistaken identity. He was an immigrant leaving a chaotic, unsafe home, and the United States did not do well by him.

Further, while I’m grateful for a window into a world I’m not often exposed to, the testimony from the defendant’s circle of peers painted a picture of drug addiction and life on the edge. At least one prospective witness was unable to testify because of a recent overdose. Grim.

You get to take notes during the trial, although you don’t get to keep them afterwards. Another tip: start a new page for each witness. Date the pages. Flag statements that you think are particularly significant; some of them won’t turn out to matter but it’s nice to have a visual reference when you’re poring over 40 pages of notes later on. I used little asterisks in the margins.

If you’re incredibly industrious, create an exhibit list on a separate page as you go. If the case is complex, you’ll want one during deliberations. You can also just make sure you note down exhibits as they’re introduced and build the exhibit list later. Note the exhibits that were admitted into evidence; if an exhibit isn’t admitted into evidence, you won’t get to look at it during the deliberation.

The jury was split into two groups during the courtroom portion of the trial, for the sake of social distancing. In my opinion, that’s one of those decisions made in the early days of the pandemic which wasn’t really necessary, although given that we occasionally removed our masks to drink in the jury room I suppose it did reduce the number of unmasked people I was exposed to. The courtroom is an old building but had renovated ventilation since the pandemic, which was the most important thing in my eyes. We were all in the same room for deliberations, of course.

Deliberations

The mechanics were simple. We all sat in a room from 9 AM to 4 PM, with an hour for lunch and two 30 minute breaks. We got to set that schedule on our own, although I assume the judge might have said something if we’d only wanted to deliberate for an hour each day. Nobody else entered the room for that week: we cleaned our own garbage cans and so on. They gave us plenty of supplies, including whiteboards and easels and big pads of paper. Even a magnifying glass when we needed one. We also got the physical evidence that was admitted. Nobody wanted to look at the bullet shells much, but there they were.

I think having two jury rooms during the trial had a small effect on deliberations. It’s easier to be sympathetic and listen to people you’ve already gotten to know a bit; I felt a little less connected to the jurors I hadn’t met. On the other hand, after the first day or so, that faded. I certainly got to know them well enough during that week.

The polarization of the American public had a bigger effect. Our outcome didn’t hinge on whether or not we believed police testimony, but one officer testified that he lied during an interrogation in order to shake up the subject. They’re allowed to do that, and they’re trained to do that. For some of us, myself included, testifying that you were attempting to put a subject in a fragile emotional state well after midnight creates some doubt about the value of that subject’s testimony. Some people did not share that opinion. This wasn’t why we wound up unable to reach a verdict, but I don’t think it helped.

It makes me curious about the long-term effect of protests such as the 2020 protests. More hung juries? I’m sure the data is out there somewhere.

Anyway. My third helpful tip, which you already know and which is not related to being a juror: ask if you’re being detained, and if you’re not free to go, ask for a lawyer. You may be debating whether or not you should say something. Nothing bad is going to happen if you make that decision when you’re actually awake the next day. Oh, and as a separate piece of advice, don’t log into your Facebook account on a cop’s phone.

The deliberation itself was probably both the most satisfying and the most stressful part of the trial. Around the third day, I came to the conclusion that a hung jury was the most likely outcome, because we’d discovered significant facts during deliberations pointing towards both guilty and not guilty. Despite that, there wasn’t much movement of opinion. That meant, to me, that it was going to take something really major to change enough minds. It was still absolutely worthwhile to meticulously go through every scrap of evidence that had been presented, because you never know.

And that was also the satisfying part. It is very rare in my life that I get to spend more than a week focusing on one question, digging deep into the answers with a group of motivated people. Abstractly, I might have enjoyed it. The probability that we wouldn’t reach a verdict and the overall tragic nature of the trial meant that there was no way to think of it abstractly, though, even if I’d wanted to.

The jury was thoughtful and respectful. Occasionally people slipped into annoyance, myself certainly included, but people were willing to say when they were upset and we negotiated the emotional waters well enough. “Reasonable doubt” is a tricky phrase. If I believe that there’s reasonable doubt, but you don’t, does that mean I think you’re unreasonable? That has some sting to it. I spent a lot of time thinking about and honoring the reasons for our disagreements.

Tip four: be organized during deliberation. If you have someone who’s used to running meetings, beg them to be the presiding juror. Once we kept a list of evidence and facts that we wanted to review, and assigned a rotating moderator, we started moving more quickly.

Afterwards

When we agreed that we were unable to reach a verdict, we followed the procedure as explained in the jury instructions. It takes a little while to assemble the lawyers and such, so we had to wait a bit before returning to the courtroom. The judge asked our presiding juror a couple of yes or no questions, then polled the whole jury one by one with the same questions. We’d expected to be asked to spend another day deliberating, but it turned out that we’d gone on long enough so that nobody thought we were slacking. We were, thus, dismissed and headed back to our deliberation room to pick up our things.

The judge came by to give us a certificate of appreciation for our service and answered the questions she could answer, which was most of them. The lawyers showed up after her and had both questions and answers for us, although none of that was mandatory. (“So, where did I screw up the case?” No, not really.) At least one of the issues which was terribly unclear to us turned out to just be a matter of sloppy testimony, so I’m glad the lawyers can make sure that witness provides better answers for the next go-round.

As an information-oriented person, I really disliked being unable to research the trial while it was going on. Once we were released, I immediately started buying court documents. As with the things we learned during deliberations, there were pieces of information which supported a guilty verdict and pieces of information that supported a not guilty verdict. I’m at ease with my decisions, even taking into account the possibility that I’m simply wrong.

Commuting wasn’t so bad. I still prefer working from home, but sometimes that 30 minutes in a car or bus isn’t the worst thing ever. I’m going to think about ways to replicate that in a work from home environment.

I have now performed jury duty twice. Both times were relatively long trials. The first time I was selected as an alternate, and this time was of course a hung jury. If I ever get called again I’m likely to say that I’ll be unable to guarantee appropriate attention because of these two experiences, but you never know until you get there.

5 Comments

  1. Jillian Jillian

    As someone who’s never been selected for jury duty (but I’m now working in a place that’s supportive of civic duties) this is really interesting to read. Thanks for the energy you put into this, and for sharing it!

    • You’re quite welcome. I think you’d be an excellent juror if the situation allowed.

  2. Chris K Chris K

    It’s SO important that if you’re trying to get off a jury during voir dire (for whatever reason) that you get off for a reason that *disqualifies* you, rather than making one side use a peremptory. Your advice is absolutely correct; in New York the magic words are “my bias about X is so deep-seated that I will not be able to put it aside and reach a fair verdict in this case.” I was actually present for a judge telling a potential juror that those were the exact words they needed to say if they didn’t want to serve – they kept saying “Well, I have really strong feelings about it, and I don’t know if that would affect my opinion.” Much “advice” that people have for how to get out of jury duty would result in one side using a peremptory, which (in a minor way, but still inexcusable) ends up making the trial less fair.

    • That’s such an excellent point that I hadn’t even considered. Thank you.

    • You don’t always have a choice, though.

      The first time I sat for jury selection I was 19 or so, and they explained that the case was a prosecution of a defendant who, when an undercover cop asked where they could get weed (at a Beetles celebration on Strawberry Fields), pointed them in the right direction.

      I tried to give the right answers, I really did, but I’m pretty sure the prosecution didn’t want any 19 year olds on his jury.

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