The time I was on a jury

13 Jan

One thing I like to do here on TPY is tell stories about myself. I was on a jury once. I thought that would make an interesting story, but I didn’t want to write it as a narrative like I’ve done in the past. I think that could be interesting reading, but  don’t really want to write (or think, for that matter) about the case or the details of the trial. The case material was not exactly fun times. That being said, there’s a lot of interesting stuff about jury duty. I think I’ll do it bullet point style. This might be digressive or disjointed. I don’t know. We’ll see where it takes us.

My jury summons covered a two week period. When you report to the jury holding pen on the first day there’s a little introduction/briefing and then they tell you to hang out wait until they call your name for a case. When you get called on a case, you don’t have to go to the jury holding pen until the case is over. I got called on the first case of the week. I think in hindsight that was ideal. Sitting in a room waiting for your name to be called seems terrible and kind of stressful. I’d always be nervous about going to the bathroom and missing my name. Plus I’d always be on alert for new cases. I don’t think it would be easy to concentrate on reading or whatever in that situation.

Being on a case is less time-consuming than being in the jury holding pen. A lot of being on a jury involves not being in the courtroom. On the first day we had to fill out a questionnaire and then they sent us home. There were 40 of us in the jury pool and they gave us times to come back in groups of twelve for jury questioning (you lawyers in the audience know this as voir dire). Then we all came back on Friday and the jury members were announced. The next week the trial and deliberations went until after lunch on Wednesday. So all told maybe eight hours the first week and two and a half days the second. Not too bad.

There were not one but two women in the jury pool who knew my mom from work. The odds on that must be in the stratosphere.

The jury questionnaire was full of all kinds of not-obviously-related-to-the-case stuff. Of course we didn’t know what the case was at that point. What was the last book you read, are you morally opposed to pornography, etc. The whole jury selection process is kind of demeaning. Lawyers asking you personal questions and then passing judgment on you. I did not like it. I was also trying hard to answer questions in ways that would get me bounced from the jury without lying. I had the feeling that I did not want to be involved in this case. I was almost successful but there was some legal maneuvering from the prosecution and I wasn’t struck. Weak.

One guy’s most recently read book was by Glenn Beck. The defendant’s lawyers asked him about it during voir dire. He was very pro-Glenn Beck. That guy seemed like a douche.

During the trial we had an hour and a half for lunch. What other profession takes 90 minutes for lunch every day? Judges sure are lazy. I like having free time as much as anyone, but it was a bit excessive. 90 minutes is too long to enjoyably kill time aimlessly but not long enough to do anything worthwhile. I spent a lot of time walking around the Minneapolis skyway system. I went to the library once or twice. I met my dad for lunch once or twice. I went to an event where the Twins unveiled the next season’s schedule.

As jurors we were paid $10 a day. We did not get any fringe benefits. No free meals in the government center dining room, no free parking, not even free bus fare. That was weak. Round-trip bus fare was $4.50 a day. And it’s not possible to buy lunch in downtown Minneapolis for less than $5.50. The people who drove were even more screwed. Parking at the courthouse was like $17 a day. I don’t think you can park all day anywhere downtown for less than $12 or so. At least Minneapolis parking isn’t as expensive as downtown parking in, say, Chicago or San Francisco. I should note that I don’t feel sorry for people who had to drive. If you want to live on an acre and a half in Minnetonka or wherever that’s just part of the price you pay. There was much complaining from those people. Fuck them. I, on the other hand, had a legitimate complaint. Those of us riding the bus were doing our civic duty to lower pollution and decrease traffic congestion and prevent downtown from being taken over by parking ramps. The bus and the district court are both paid for by local government agencies. Can’t they work together to get free bus fare for jurors? That seems like common sense.

The trial itself took the better part of two days. It was surprising how much of the trial takes place without the jury in the courtroom. Whenever the lawyers brought up some point that might bias us or give us too much information or something we were shuffled out into the hall to wait. That’s right, the hall. Not a room with chairs or anything. The hall, where there were a few benches. We spent hours sitting out there waiting. The information gap that occurs from missing half of the trial while sitting in the hall made us turn into detectives of a sort. I was always trying to figure out what they were talking about while we were gone. There was a lot of speculating in the jury room while we were deliberating.

The way information is presented to jurors was pretty frustrating. I know there are good reasons for doing things the way they do, but I just wanted to see all the information and go through it myself. One key piece of information was that the defendant was already in federal prison after pleading guilty to a related federal charge. If the defense had its way, we would never have found this out. The prosecutor couldn’t just tell us. The way we got that info was roundabout and weird. The prosecutor had a police officer who had testified at the federal trial read portions of the transcript of that trial to us while he was on the witness stand. (Not portions of his own testimony, portions of the defendant’s confession.) This was over the defense’s strenuous objection. It was obvious that this had been argued over at length while we were in the hall, and it was not explained to us why it was presented like that.

During the trial there were twelve jurors and three alternate jurors. At the end, the three alternates were unceremoniously dismissed. On one hand, I think I would have been relieved to be relieved* of the responsibility of reaching a verdict, but to sit through the whole thing and then not be involved in deliberations or even find out how it ended would be a bit disappointing. I would feel left out.
*Ha. Wordplay!

During the trial jurors aren’t allowed to discuss any aspect of the case with anyone, even the other jurors. This gave hallway time a weird dynamic. There was some small talk, but not much more than that. Everyone was pretty subdued and afraid of accidentally discussing the case.
-How long do you think we’ll be out here?
-I don’t know, the defense seemed pretty insistent about that last thing.
-Oh no, we just discussed the case!

A brief case summary is probably unavoidable, so here it is: Defendant was charged with the rape of his friend’s underage daughter. Verdict: guilty.

As you might imagine, most of the details of the case were unpleasant. I wonder how much this affected the experience. I’ve forgotten a lot of the details. I certainly haven’t tried to remember any of it. At this point the only name I can recall from the whole process is the defendant’s. How much of this is normal and how much is due to me not wanting to remember things? That’s fine with me, but would my recollection be better if the case had been some innocuous civil matter?

Deliberating on a case like this is an intense experience. You form a pretty tight bond with the other eleven jurors. They all seemed like nice people. I think we got along well, and even when there were disagreements things were cordial. At the same time, when it was over we went our separate ways. We were all in the lobby of the government center and no one really knew how to end it. Pretty quickly there were handshakes etc. and we all walked off. From the verdict to the goodbye was sort of emotional. Tears from some of the ladies and such. I don’t think I’d want to stay in contact with any of the other jurors. I think it would be difficult to overcome the circumstances that started things. “Hey, remember that time we talked about child rape for several hours?” Yuck.

I was both surprised and pleased with how seriously all the jurors took things. When we went into the jury room, all of us thought the defendant was guilty. It took us maybe eight hours to return a verdict. There’s a surprisingly wide gap between “yeah I think he probably did it” and “beyond a reasonable doubt”.

I was also surprised at how little information and instruction we were given in deliberation. We had the jury instructions and the evidence entered in the trial. These were both essentially inconsequential. What I wanted to have were transcripts/recordings of testimony. Nope. We had to rely on our memories. That was less than ideal sometimes. Also no one paid any heed to the various lawyering that went on in the trial. Opening/closing statements and such. I think most people are too smart for that.

I think everyone has an image of courtrooms formed from movies and TV. High ceilings, oak wainscoting, a large gallery full of people. The Verdict, more or less. This is not true in Hennepin County. The trial took place on the 11th floor of the Hennepin County Government Center in a small room with modest and modern accoutrements and only three or four rows of seating. Other than the people being called as witnesses, there was usually no one in the gallery. Occasionally one or two people were there. They never stayed long. I got the impression that they were law students doing some kind of homework.

The bailiff was an interesting character. He’s the one court figure we got to actually interact with. We asked him a lot of questions about jury sequestering. We were not sequestered. But sometimes juries are. He told us about one jury that was told they’d be sequestered but the members of the jury thought they’d reach a verdict before the end of the day. They didn’t. No one brought anything with them because they thought they were going home. So the bailiff had to take them to Target to buy toothbrushes and underwear and stuff. This was difficult for the bailiff because the jurors have to be supervised at all times. So he had another guy come with him and split the jury into boys and girls and they had to go around Target buying essentials in groups. Also, sometimes jurors aren’t allowed any outside contact during deliberations. This includes calls to family members. So the bailiff said that in those cases, jurors could write notes to their loved ones. The bailiff would then call said loved ones and read the notes. “I love you honey” and so on. He seemed to think that was pretty funny.

Once we started deliberating the bailiff was pretty serious about keeping us together. We all had to eat lunch together in the cafeteria. We all had to go down to the cafeteria in one elevator. We all had to go stand by the door if someone wanted to go outside to smoke. It was one of those situations where reasonable rules in concept create a ridiculous situation in practice.

The cafeteria was terrible. It was one of those a la carte places with buffet items and sandwiches and stuff. Gross. And it was like $8. You can’t eat downtown for less than $5.50 but there are a lot of good options for less than $8. I only ate there when we had to because we were deliberating. When I walked past it at lunchtime there were always a lot of people eating there. I think it was mostly suburban jurors who were intimidated by Minneapolis’s skyway system and never left the building for fear of getting lost.

After everything was over the judge told us that the prosecutor or defendant might contact us after the trial to ask us about things. Apparently this is standard practice for lawyers. Like football players studying game film. I’m glad no one contacted me. Also of note: all of our full names were readily available to everyone involved, including the defendant. I didn’t feel great about that.

I thought jury duty was pretty serious business. I thought court in general was serious business. I dressed accordingly. On the first day. I wore khaki pants, oxford shirt, necktie, sweater, and loafers. The last thing I thought was that I was overdressed. There were probably 200 people called for jury duty that week, so let’s say 100 men. I was the only one wearing a tie. That stunned me. Wearing a tie to court seemed like common sense to me. I wonder if that reflects our society’s larger trend toward casual dress or an erosion of respect for our judicial institutions. I would guess the former. I think people probably just wore their everyday clothes to jury duty. I remember when I was young my dad wore a suit and tie to work every day. Now, when he does to work at the same place, in a more senior position, sometimes he wears jeans and a polo shirt. He’s not the only one. None of his co-workers wears a suit or a tie. Twenty years ago they all did. That’s an amazing cultural shift. Someone smart should explain why that happened.

There was one Vietnamese guy on the jury. His English wasn’t great. I think he followed everything OK, but he didn’t say much in the jury room. I didn’t talk to him so I don’t know his story, but obviously if he’s on a jury he’s a citizen and a registered voter. Of course he should be both entitled and expected to participate in the judicial process, but I don’t know if having a jury member who may not grasp every nuance is the best-case scenario. I’m sure there’s a lot of dumb writing about this kind of thing on the internet. I’m not going to try and find it. Would this kind of juror generally favor the defense or prosecution? Interesting question.

We weren’t involved with the sentencing at all. We were told it would take place a month hence. As I mentioned, the defendant was already serving a related federal sentence. I didn’t check on the details after the fact. I’m glad sentencing wasn’t involved in our job as jurors. There’s a lot more involved in deciding a “fair” sentence than in deciding innocence or guilt. Probably best left to professionals. Although I know there are sometimes problems with judges and sentences. The judicial system is hard.

Court reporter seems like a cushy gig. We all picture a harried secretary type banging out shorthand on a typewriter. Nope. It was an old guy monitoring a tape recorder. Occasionally he’d ask someone to repeat or spell a name but a lot of the time he looked asleep.

The clerk was sneaky hot. My understanding is that, at least at elite levels, clerks are all law students/recent graduates. I wonder if that’s true of district court clerks and if their duties are similar. I also wonder if a juror has ever picked up a clerk during or after a trial. Seems like a high degree of difficulty.

So that’s jury duty. Maybe I’ll be on a jury again some day. Right before I moved I received a notice in the mail informing me that I had been put on the Federal Grand Jury watch list or something for the next two years. I was disappointed when I had to tell them that I moved and couldn’t serve. Being on a grand jury sounds cool. I would like to do that.

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