I Have Been a Juror Three Times
Don’t blame the jurors when a verdict doesn’t go the way you want.
I don’t know what it is about me. My real, legal name is not exotic in my neck of the woods. I have not moved in the last 10 years. There is nothing special about my address. I am not part of the ethnic majority in my area. But for whatever reason, the jury duty gods summon my presence regularly. I didn’t think my opinion mattered that much.
I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve been summoned. I am well-acquainted with the routine. I almost always have to show up at the assigned time because rarely am I excused before jury duty day. Hundreds of us without names, only numbers, sit huddled in a non-descript room. The same bored looks grace the faces of everyone there who has better things to do than spend their mornings stuffed in a court room.
If we’re lucky/unlucky, our numbers will be called, and we’ll be shuffled into another room, still crowded but with fewer people. The real test begins when we are directed to our assigned seats. I know by now that if I’m directed to sit in the jury box, my chances of selection have increased from 1/200 to 1/12. And realistically all of us sitting in the jury box have a much higher likelihood of getting selected than the fortunate souls sitting outside the box. Not good. Or good, depending on how you look at it.
In the first case I served, the jurors selected me as the foreperson. No one else wanted the responsibility. A 20-something kid was on trial for assault, but he claimed self-defense. (We found him not guilty.) In the second case I served, we selected another juror as foreperson, a Harvard-educated attorney. A man was on trial for eluding police and leading police on a chase that ended in damaged vehicles and ran-through stop lights. (We found him guilty.)
The third time I served jury duty I served for a whole year. For one. Whole. Year. It was my first, and probably last, experience serving on the grand jury. Every other Wednesday for a whole year I sat for hours in the grand jury room hearing cases.
Shortly after I was selected to serve on the grand jury, I received yet another summons to serve on another jury. When I replied to the summons and explained that I’m already serving a 1-year sentence, I received assurance that I could disregard the notice. A week after my scheduled date, a letter arrived in my mailbox with big threatening red letters on the envelope saying “FAILURE TO APPEAR NOTICE.”
A hollow threat, of course, since the notice was sent in error. Nonetheless, I couldn’t help feeling like a jury summons magnet.
When I read about high profile cases like the Theranos case, the Kyle Rittenhouse case, the Ahmaud Arbery case, my sympathies go to the victims, absolutely. But my sympathies also go to the unfortunate jurors.
I know how difficult it is to sit through hours and hours of painstakingly detailed testimony. I know what it is like to be admonished, repeatedly, to not read any news about whatever case we are hearing. I know what it is like to follow strict instructions when determining whether or not all evidence presented supports every element of every charge brought against every defendant.
I know what it is like to miss work, get paid peanuts, and hold the fates of individuals in our hands.
In the case of Kyle Rittenhouse, I read that jurors were in day three of deliberations. The jurors asked follow-up questions and asked to review more video footage. Flashbacks of my time deliberating on jury duty came at me full force.
On the grand jury, we did not hear just one case; we heard several cases. In all the cases, multiple defendants faced multiple charges — forgery, fraud, theft, pimping (yes, pimping), prostitution, etc.
Try to imagine the excruciating tedium of hearing the same testimony of hundreds of pieces of evidence showing exactly why check 1102, check 2103, check 424, etc. were fraudulent and how this surveillance video at this time proved this defendant cashed the fraudulent checks. Even the attorney appeared bored, barely mustering stale words he probably said thousands of times, “Remember what we say is not evidence. Evidence is what you hear on the witness stand….” or something to that effect.
When the time to deliberate the cases arrived, we did what we humans do best — we disagreed. No matter how compelling the evidence appeared to some, there was always at least one person who was not so sure. Some people needed more convincing than others. I experienced the same thing the other two times I served petit jury duty.
We asked clarifying questions of the attorney when we tried to come to some consensus of exactly what “forgery” means as outlined in whatever charge, for example. We asked to review transcripts of the hours of testimony we heard. Each of us shared our point of view and our opinions on the cases.
In one of the cases on the grand jury, we deliberated an attempted murder charge against a defendant. Under this particular Colorado law, one of the elements for attempted murder involved intent, which by nature is difficult to prove. We debated whether or not the defendant intended to kill a police officer when he allegedly sped his car on the sidewalk toward the police officer. (No one died in that case, thank goodness!) Some people saw clear intent, obvious tire marks on the sidewalk, and took the officer at his word under oath. Other jurors saw the defendant boxed in his truck with nowhere to escape a threatening officer. These jurors could not ascribe intent to kill based on tire marks and the testimony of the officer alone.
We heard no counter or explanation on behalf of the defendant.
The disadvantage of being on the grand jury was we never heard from the defendants’ side. We only heard from prosecutors and had to decide on a true bill or no true bill based solely on evidence presented by prosecutors and their witnesses. We were not tasked with determining whether defendants were guilty or not guilty. We were deciding whether the prosecution had sufficient evidence to proceed with charges against the defendants.
In high profile cases, I can’t help but wince when I hear pundits speculate on jurors’ prejudices, or allude to jurors’ intelligence. Granted, the jury selection of high profile cases is apparently more involved than the low-profile cases on which I served.
But jurors are not stupid. If jurors spend hours and days deliberating, they do not make their decisions lightly. Even in high profile cases when deliberations last days, I imagine there is plenty of back and forth amongst the jurors about what the evidence told them and how they should decide within the confines of the law. Given emotionally charged cases and the tense climate in the country, jurors of high profile cases are likely well-aware of the gravity of their verdict.
Unless we are in the courtroom, we can gather very little about the complexity of nameless, faceless jurors based only on the jurors’ geographic residence at the time of the trial and their assigned labels of either “white” or “black.” (I fit neither label, so I’m not sure what mine was as a nameless juror.) But of course that does not stop people from judging the jurors based solely on the verdict.
I am not an attorney. I do not have expertise in the law. I do know enough, however, to know that the law leaves room for ambiguity.
Our culture elevates the written word as if it is sacrosanct. We tend to place more importance on written records than oral records. But if the written word were the ultimate arbiter of truth, countless denominations of Christianity would not exist. Everyone would agree on the meaning of every part of the Bible. If the law and the U.S. constitution were crystal clear, infallible scripture, there would be no need for nine supreme court justices to interpret cases. One justice would suffice.
Most cases are not as cut and dry as people outside of the jury room might believe, especially when jurors are at the mercy of the written law and information presented only during the trial. Jurors do not hear why certain pieces of evidence were not allowed in court, or why decedents cannot be called “victims” in some cases. Jurors do not hear a lot of things a TV audience hears. Because of this and because of my experience as a “career juror,” I tend to give jurors the benefit of the doubt.
Yes I form opinions on high profile cases, particularly when horrific videos of crimes surface. Yes of course jurors come to the table with their own biases, no matter how vetted they are in the voir dire process. No, of course juries do not always make the right decisions.
But unless I have spent the hours listening to the same testimony the jurors heard, reviewing the same videos, having the same discussions with the jurors, then I cannot form a judgment on the verdict if the verdict does not go how I thought it would go. I can judge the law and the process. But I cannot judge the individual jurors.