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Jury Duty - Take 2

(A continuation of previous articles)

Friday morning I was back at the courthouse for my rescheduled jury duty. I arrived at the same time as on Wednesday (perhaps a couple minutes earlier) but the difference in the crowd was substantial. There were only about 30 people already in line, compared to roughly 70 on Wednesday. Further evidence that Wednesday was unusual was the fact that by the time I reached the courthouse doors, there were fewer than 10 people behind me in line, compared to about 30 on Wednesday. I now believe that the jury coordinator was telling the truth when she claimed on Wednesday that they hadn't ever had such trouble getting jurors through security before.

During the jury orientation I learned that the court tries to schedule shorter cases on Fridays, the kind that will usually finish in a single day. The jury orientation and trial occur on the same day. This makes Friday the least intrusive day to serve on a jury, if you get the choice.

It wasn't until 9:30 that jurors were collected to go to the courtroom. There was an approximately 20 minute break between the end of the informational video and the collection of jurors — some indication that delaying the start of jury orientation on Wednesday wouldn't have caused much schedule impact. Sigh.

Happily, I was chosen to be in the jury pool for a trial and taken along with a large group to a courtroom. Well, actually, they stuck us in the jury room to wait for a while, and it wasn't until 10 that we were given seating assignments, and finally at 10:15 we entered the courtroom proper. I was mindful to check the time frequently, and every step in the process appeared to be on a schedule.

I was seated in the jury box immediately, so I would be on the trial unless dismissed.

It was a criminal trial, the charge was two counts of 1st degree theft involving laptops (allegedly) stolen from a business by an employee in 2002. I understand that the court system is slow, deliberately in some cases, but why does it take over a year to bring a seemingly simple case to trial?

I took a notebook with me into the courtroom, the only person who did so. I didn't ask anyone's permission, but nobody complained. (And I tried not to draw attention to it…) I wanted to record the questions asked by the attorneys.

The defense attorney started by asking which of us had served on a jury before, how long ago, whether it was a civil or criminal case, etc. Most of the early questions weren't very interesting to me. I didn't realize that nearly all the questions would be addressed to the entire group in general, with people raising hands to volunteer answers. I assumed the questioning would be more directed, so the attorneys could be sure to get responses from everybody. It seemed like it would be very easy to never respond to any questions. I was trying to maximize the experience, so I spoke up frequently.

When the defense attorney was asking jurors about three different evidentiary standards (preponderance of evidence, clear and convincing evidence, beyond a reasonable doubt) I interrupted and asked her to define "clear and convincing evidence." She answered that question by saying she was "not qualified to answer" (!) which I took as a coded form of "the judge would be upset with me if I answered that question." That didn't bother me too much because the standard for this trial would be "beyond a reasonable doubt" anyway. She later asked if the high standard of "beyond a reasonable doubt" was reasonable for this kind of case, and I answered that it's proper to have a high standard when a person's liberty or property are at stake. I wasn't the first juror to answer that question but I'm the only one who answered it while sounding sure of himself.

The prosecuting attorney's first interesting question was to ask us to explain the difference between circumstantial and direct evidence. Nobody seemed brave enough to answer that one (even the people who had served on juries before!) so after a few awkward moments of silence I chimed in. I forget my exact words — I couldn't well write and speak at the same time, sorry :) — but I said something along the lines of circumstantial evidence possibly being coincidental but direct evidence showing a causal connection. The attorney didn't know quite what to make of it and said it sounded "scientific" and then tried to erase the confusion I must have created by giving some examples from a legal context.

Incidentally, it bothers me when people try to define things only by giving examples — as if they expect me to make the correct generalization from a very small sample. I don't think the complex realm of legal evidence is amenable to ostensive definitions. I strongly prefer to have first a verbal definition and second a few examples. But I do want that verbal definition!

Only four jurors were dismissed "with cause" during the questioning process. One claimed to be hard of hearing, and the court didn't have any hearing devices handy. The other said that he would be biased because he had often been the victim of theft many times and that thieves really bothered him, and that he put the last guy who stole from him in the hospital. My impression was that both of them were just saying things they thought would get them dismissed. The other two were dismissed because they weren't going to be available on Tuesday. (This case was unusual for a Friday because the court thought it probable that it would be a little longer than one day and they'd have to finish next Tuesday. They don't do jury trials on Mondays.)

The attorneys then submitted their requests to excuse jurors. The process was slow. Each attorney wrote down a name and the court clerk showed it to the other attorney, then took the papers to the judge who (randomly?) picked one of those names to be dismissed.

I was excused, but not quickly. I think I was roughly the 10th juror to go. But unlike most of them, I know exactly who excused me and why. The prosecutor's last question, which he asked almost as if it were an afterthought, was whether any of the jurors had any kind of "anti-state feelings". Anti-state feelings? Moi? And how! At first I didn't know what he meant by that, but he started giving examples. His first few examples were about law enforcement so I thought I'd be able to keep quiet. (Remember, I actually wanted to be a juror.) But he kept talking, and included the generalities of government being "too large" or "too intrusive" — at which point I expected at least half the room to raise their hands. But only two of us did. One person almost immediately, and then me, reluctantly, after he made the "too intrusive" comment. I'm sorry, but I was under oath. :)

He briefly thanked us for our honesty before sitting down and kicking people like me off the jury. He must have thought that my "anti-state feelings" would prejudice me against the government. His loss! I think he was trying to find anarchists or people who dislike the government in general, but I wouldn't have been conflicted at all by being a juror on a theft case.

Tiny Island