Thursday, November 11, 2010

Jury Duty

On Wednesday, when I was up walking around to limber up after reading in a chair for a few hours, I came across the bulletin board in the jury pool waiting room. The board had several local newspaper op-ed pieces on jury service that may as well have been written by a chatbot, randomly generating from a dictionary of truisms and catch-phrases. "Ten Reasons I'm Glad I Served. 1: To see the inner-workings of the law. 2: To meet new friends..." Hence this post, a gritty look at my experience being on jury duty. The management summary: my experience was interesting, but the process is flawed. Like Randy Pees used to say, "Our legal system is terrible. The only one worse than ours is everyone else's."

About two weeks prior to my reading of the platitude-laden corkboard, I received a summons in the mail to report for jury duty. I tried to get out of it by replying with a letter claiming a child-care burden, as I pick up Scout from school on Tuesdays and Thursdays so that Liberty can attend later classes on those days. I got a phone call the next day telling me basically to suck it up and make other arrangements. Conveniently, this did not prove to be an actual problem: On Tuesday we were released before 5pm, and the courthouse was closed today for Veteran's Day.

On Monday, the summons instructed me to report at 8am, an hour before any trial could conceivably start. I spent most of that hour in a hot and crowded room waiting in line with a two page questionnaire asking me, among other things, whether I knew any police officers, if I had ever seen the inside of a courtroom before, or was involved in a lawsuit or related to anyone who had. My answers -- which were yes, yes, and yes -- would be handed directly to the lawyers of any case I would be assigned to later.

The rest of the hour was spent in an auditorium watching a film showing people dressed in Middle Ages period garb performing a trial by ordeal (tossing someone in the water to test their guilt -- float = guilty, drown = innocent), to show us how far we have come in these enlightened days, followed by a question and answer session by a septuagenarian judge whose cheerfulness and flamboyant mannerisms would have put Leo Buscaglia to shame. Oddly, the judge claimed that the process of trial by jury began with the Magna Carta, ignoring the Athenian's use of jurors some 1800 years earlier. Perhaps the 500 jurors of Socrates rings a bell, judge? No?

A more credible fact brought up in the lecture was that of the 400 people summoned for this week's service, less than 200 showed up, which is about average. I've come up with two explanations for this, neither of which bode well for my country. First, companies are not required to pay you while you're on jury duty, and the courts only pay you a nominal wage ($20/day) meant to cover parking and lunch. Second, people consider themselves consumers and not citizens, and have no sense of civic duty.

"But wait," you may be saying, "didn't you yourself try to get out of jury duty? Isn't it hypocritical to claim other people aren't civic-minded?" To answer, here is the text of the letter I sent to the jury commission:

Request for Curtis Autery being excused from jury duty for child care reasons

Dear sirs,

My wife, Liberty, has late classes at OSU on Tuesdays and Thursdays. These classes run until 5:18pm. On these days, I pick up my daughter, Scout, from school around 4pm so that she can have dinner and get started on her homework.

If I were to serve jury duty, Scout would be required to stay in after-school care on these days, which is only available until 6pm. The time it would take Liberty to get to her car and then fight rush-hour traffic to get to Scout’s school would typically have her arriving after 6pm. This would place a financial burden on us in paying fines each day this happened (which would be most Tuesdays and Thursdays), and the disruption of Scout’s well-being as she would have a late dinner and not get started on her homework until she was tired in the evening.

I respectfully request to be excused from this jury duty assignment. With that said, I welcome the opportunity to serve, and each semester at OSU brings my wife a different schedule, so this disruption may not apply should I get summoned again in the future.

Thank you very much.

Curtis Autery
[address, phone]

The letter mentions that I would like another chance to serve if they excused me this time, and when told to quit whining and show up like a man, that's exactly what I did.

The $20/day and employers not being required to pay is more interesting, though. If you have a working class job that doesn't pay for jury service, you're probably living paycheck to paycheck already, and can't afford the time off, and hence can't serve. Many criminal cases involve defendants with working class jobs. How then, can they get a jury of their peers?

Or let's take the racial angle: If you live in an area with rich white people and poor black people, and a black man is on trial, what are the jurors likely to be? White, because they can either afford the time off, or their employers pay their normal salary during jury service. Are they likely to be sympathetic to the black man on trial? No. Biased against? Yes.

I don't consider myself to be especially political or an activist, but the way jury service is run is a clear disservice to my fellow man, perhaps explaining why there are so many black men in prison, many of which are later found not to be guilty of their accused crimes through the help of The Innocence Project.

On with the story.

Day 1 continued with waiting for a trial to start, which happened roughly 30 minutes later, and I was one of the 24 people called up to be potential jurors. The case was Zimara Ball v. Jessica Stark, involving (from the pretrial statement) "an automobile/pedestrian accident which occurred on June 3, 2006, when then­10-year­old Zimara Ball darted onto Brown Road ... As Zimara Ball did so, she ran into the passenger side front quarter panel of a vehicle being driven by Defendant Jessica Stark."

Per directions from the court, I refrained from looking up anything about the case until I was discharged from jury service. Oddly, and despite being a seasoned data miner, I can find no mention of this incident in the news when it happened, or coverage of the current trial. Jessica's employer at the time, Maronda homes, has painstakingly expunged any reference to her from its website. News site searches for both parties reveals nothing other than Zimara making the 8th grade honor roll this year -- congratulations! The only information I could find about the case was on the court website itself, which is kind enough to supply scanned copies of all the motions and filings.

The courtroom had a handful of people in it before I and my fellow potential jurors came in. The plaintiff's mom (effectively the real plaintiff) and her legal staff, Jessica and her legal staff, a lawyer representing Maronda Homes, the judge, the court reporter, and a couple random people with no apparent function to serve were all standing and waiting for us to come in and find our seats. After we were sworn in, the judge began to explain voir dire, the process of weeding out bad jurors.

This was a civil trial, meaning there are 8 jurors and two alternates, and only a 3/4 majority is needed to decide guilt. The judge, and then the lawyers, would use our questionnaires, and direct and indirect questioning to determine if anyone shouldn't be on the jury. The reasons one wouldn't be appropriate to be on the jury would be having a bias against "the system", personally knowing any of the parties, having passable knowledge of anything expert witnesses would testify about (I have mixed feelings about this one), or having a similar personal experience to what was being tried.

So around the room the judge went, and around the room the lawyers went, and in about an hour we found that two men had children that had been murdered, a mom had severe anxiety about child safety, a narcissistic woman habitually receives traffic tickets and distrusts any police testimony, I myself have been hit by a car while bicycling, and just about everyone had been in court for some reason before. The parents of the murdered children, crying-towel mom, and the spazzy driver were all let go, but for whatever reason they kept me on until the second day.

Here is where some distasteful things happen. Here is where lawyer jokes come from. In fact, here's one now: Q) How do you save a lawyer from drowning? A) Take your foot off his head.

The judge painstakingly explains why not discussing the case or drawing any conclusions early is important. One of the reasons he gives is the following example of two jurors, let's call them George and Bob, talking about the case over lunch...

"Gee, Bob, I really didn't find that last witness convincing. I think he's lying." George has just committed to a point of view out loud, and for some people it's difficult to go against an opinion you've stated openly. If George now hears more evidence that supports the witness he thought was lying, he will be more hesitant to change his mind than if he had said nothing. Apparently saying "I may have been wrong before" is difficult for people. Or possibly nobody reads Emerson1 any more.

On top of the admonition not to talk about the case, it was made clear that we weren't trying the case, or hearing any evidence in it yet. We were instead in a vague, nebulous discussion about issues that may come up during the trial and whether our personal biases would put objectivity in peril before any real evidence was heard.

The judge was specifically avoiding giving out information about the case with his questions, and avoiding questions leading us to profess a belief. The lawyers, however, had no such qualms. Objections flew, and the judge stopped the questioning on his own multiple times, as the lawyers jockeyed for position.

The plaintiff's lawyer asked us all to commit, under oath, to the belief that everyone should always, under all circumstances, slow down when a child is anywhere near a road. This tells me two things: The defendant didn't slow down, and there is a reason that she didn't think she needed to. And the lawyer wanted me to say "oh yes, there can never be a reason not to instantaneously slow down when a kid is present." Having delivered pizza for two years, and being a father, I understand that kids have no peripheral vision, no understanding of physics or consequences, follow bouncing balls into the street like a moth to a flame, and can generally be assumed to be at least unpredictable, if not batshit crazy. None of that implies, though, that braking should be automatic whenever there are any kids anywhere. The question implied that there is some ambiguity about whether slowing was appropriate, and some of us already began to commit to a point of view we might want to reconsider later, exactly the type of thing the judge warned us not to do.

He next asked us if we had ever hit anything in our car that we didn't see, and all who answered in the affirmative were later excused from the case. So the defendant probably claims to have not seen the girl darting into the road, and later the plaintiff's lawyer will claim this not to be possible.

The defendant's lawyer had her turn then, and went on a rant about today's children looking older than they are, trying to get everyone to admit that they were bad judges of kids' ages, just like her client. And then the question of how old a kid should be before she should be considered competent to cross a street unassisted came up. We had already heard at this point that the accident happened when the girl was 10, a nice round number, and at least half of the remaining jurors put 10 as the age at which kids shouldn't be darting out into traffic any more. So the defendant may have seen the kid or may not, and if she did, then she thought the kid was older, but either way, believes that once you're 10 you shouldn't be doing anything stupid like that anyway. So there are lots of possible defenses in play, and the lawyer was getting a read on which one would work best.

So that pretty much laid the whole trial out, right there in the voir dire proceeding, with at least two thirds of us committing to some solid point of view that the lawyers will be trying to leverage throughout the trial. This was all the exact opposite of what was supposed to be happening, and all the court officials played this theater of pretending nothing mistrial-worthy had just happened.

I was sickened, and once the day's proceedings were over, was very glad to go home.

Day 2 involved a lot of waiting, and none of the preceding day's ethical problems. I parked my car at my work's garage, hoofed it to the courthouse, put on my juror's badge to make me an un-person -- to warn off lawyers and case parties from engaging in conversation with me (strangers don't tend to seek out my conversation, so I wasn't very concerned about this) -- signed in at the jury pool waiting room, and headed up to the sixth floor where our courtroom was. We assembled at 9:30, entered the courtroom, and were asked a single question from the judge: "Did you hear the news story last night about the traffic accident?" We were then told to leave and re-assemble at 10. At 10:15, they finally called us back in, where they announced that the jury had been selected. Ten of our names were read. My name wasn't one of them.

I spent the rest of my time in the insanely hot jury pool waiting room, reading "The Terror" by Dan Simmons. By day 3 I had finished the first 100 pages, and couldn't sit in the uncomfortable chairs any longer, so got up and meandered over to find the newspaper editorials, yellowed with age, espousing the awesomeness of jury duty, being a citizen, and America itself. I like America just fine, and the benefits of being a citizen, and I don't shirk the duties that come with that, but the duties aren't as rose-colored as puff-piece articles would lead one to believe.

1 - From Ralph Waldo Emerson's "Self-Reliance": Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day.


  1. Interesting diatribe, Curtis. I served on a jury many, many years ago and have regretted that I did not talk myself out of it ever since. It was a murder trial where a young man and his bud murdered an elderly woman after robbing and terrorizing her. It was a difficult few days and I would never want to go through it again. We did not have to decide if he was guilty or not, only had to decide on the punishment. Ultimately, he received life, not death, and it was blatantly obvious that the ones voting "death" were all men and the ones voting "life" were, men were pitted against women jurors. I myself had told the attorneys right up front that I could advise the death penalty if I believed it was warranted but when all evidence was provided, and the young man was proven to be an accomplice and not the actual murderer, I just could not do it. But there are a lot of times I look back at this and regret my decision. After all, he (our perp) may have been able to stop the crime but did not even attempt to do so.
    In any case, it is apparently an easy task to get out of jury duty...all you have to do is say you have read about the crime (I had not) or that you believe in the death penalty (which I do depending on the case), in other words, one can lie. Next time I probably will. I do not want to go through this again.
    why did you have to stay for the third day if you were not chosen to serve? And do you regret not being a member of the jury? It is an interesting process and we were served free lunches...if you want to call McDonald's and Arby's real food...but all in all, the experience was not one I savored.

  2. In Franklin county, you are called to serve in a pool for a week. If any of the 17 judges have a case that starts during that time, random people from the pool are picked to be potential jurors for the trial. Those excused during voir dire have to go back to the pool to be available for other trials. If you are selected as a final juror on a trial, though, that's your only duty; if they settle, you're done serving.

    I don't think I could serve on a murder trial, and I don't see how any lay juror could possibly be objective on one. I agree that your situation does suck, but don't beat yourself up about having not sentenced someone to death: You took the high road.

  3. Was the option to sentence Jessica Stark to death presented?

    Quick way out of jury duty:

    "I think we should send Jessica Stark to the chair! She's a baby killer!" Then turn to Jessica and scream, "You're gonna die! You're gonna die!" Maybe while gently rubbing your knees in anticipation.

    Acting crazy = no jury duty.

  4. It was a civil trial, so no. Civil trials where the death penalty was an option would be interesting, though.