Thursday, December 6, 2007

Participating as a Citizen

Today I was afforded the opportunity by my community to participate in the process that separates us from much of the rest of the world. Jury Duty; the action of actively practicing citizenship in a democracy.

This was my first occasion to participate in the process it was both fun, exciting and very revealing.

I have found how many people in our community, workplace, neighborhood, and church have never been asked, invited or more correctly summoned to be part of a jury trial. That to me was/is surprising. With all the trials on television, in the newspaper, and shows about them you would figure trial by jury took place as often as say, someone driving through McDonald’s. Well, okay, that was a stretch.

For so many people that have not been called or have not participated the amazing amount of creativity suggested to get out of serving was overwhelming. “Tell them you’re busy”, “tell them you are sick, get a doctor’s excuse”, “just don’t show up”, “suggest once you are in the jury selection room that you have been called before and they never picked you because you voted to hang the person for a minor traffic offense.” Unbelievable! The real shocker was, “tell them you read the news, follow current events, have a very strong opinion and aren’t scared to express that opinion.” My head was spinning from the suggestions.

I arrived at the appointed time and was told I was juror #42. Instantly, I didn’t like being the lowest number, something that has to do with my last name being lower in the alphabet. Also, learning that second place is nothing more than the first loser I was trying to figure out how to move up in the order. Wasn’t happening. So I settled into my chair marked with my number. (I was so hoping to get a t-shirt or a jersey with my number, didn’t happen either)

The very nice bailiff offered us all coffee and explained the process. You will be called for either a criminal case or a civil case. During civil cases you can take notes, for criminal cases you can’t take notes. (I didn’t get to ask the why, but, just know this made me ponder if this might be what makes a mess of criminal trials.) (I don’t go to the grocery store without notes; imagine how voluminous notes could get in a murder case).
We were told the first 12, once we left the jury selection room would get to sit in the nice padded seats. The rest of us would be on the hard benches. (For a split second I was back to the numbering issue)
We could take breaks, if we had questions please raise our hands, if you smoke you can go outside. (I became a quasi-smoker. I could go outside for fresh air, just to a different side of the building from the tobacco exhaust zone.) There we sat.

I met some really nice numbers. 39 and I wondered why 40 and 41 were no shows. Then as time progressed we really didn’t miss them since the room seemed to get smaller and warmer as time wore on.

Number 13 was really upset about the numbering. I think she was superstitious. However, it may have had something to do with being the first person to to just miss the padded seats.

Twenty seven, I think, I pronounced it correctly, was a rookie juror like me. He was asking lots of questions, seemed excited about being called and hoped to be selected. He was honored to be there. That was really cool. Honored. He had served in the military as a young man and this was the first time his community asked him to do something other than pick up arms.

We were there for awhile when the bailiff suggested, “that it usually didn’t take this long before you go into the courtroom.” This comment would be made a number of times. Especially as the clock seemed to slow down. It reminded me of the reverse adult version of the kids question, Are we there yet?

The people working the courthouse were most gracious, very helpful, and polite. You know they must deal with a bunch of new rookies everyday.

Number 19 asked if we could look into the courtroom. Nope, not while our potential judge and legal teams were in there with the accused. The accused? I wonder who or what they would be like? What were they alleged to have done? See I’m becoming old hat at courtroom terms.

I was interrupted from my daydreaming by a discussion. A couple of numbers a few rows over that were suggesting to one of my peers, a rookie that we were not referred to as rookie jurors. We were potential jurors. Oh! As I stuck my pinky finger up in the air as I slurped my slightly chilled bottle of water.

“They will only pick 12 of us.” Then depending on how long the trial might be there will be some alternates. “They are not jurors on “the” trial they are alternates. All of a sudden my status of rookie was looking even lower in the pecking order. Then more discussion about how the proceedings would take place.

After a while the bailiff was called to the door to the courtroom. Someone was explaining that there could be a possible plea so we would know more within the hour. So, I made phone calls, went for fresh air breaks, and sent e-mails on my TREO.

After a period of time passed our judge entered the room. She was introduced and thanked us for our service. It appeared that the power of the jury, although, not empanelled was able to speed along the proceedings in the court room. Then a very gracious invitation and a simple request. If we ever wanted to come to the courthouse to see a trial, since some of us may have never experienced one live, we were welcome. Our judge explained that she wanted some help to let our fellow citizens know that she took our time very seriously. She appreciated the commitment we had made to our community. Please let others know what you though of your experience. If you didn’t have a positive experience please let me know what I could do to make it better. The judge continued, If an idea came up later please call her or her bailiff directly. She even recognized that some of us may have been given guidance by people who had never even been in a courtroom before. Again, we were thanked for our service and told thank you. All we had to do was to put our numbers down on the table as we left. Another thank you from the judge. Then the line that made everyone laugh. We have a number of trials within the next few weeks. Remember you are still on notice until December 31, 2007.

As all of the potential jurors, now without number, left the courthouse there was polite discussion and chatter about the day, lunch, the weather. Then I believe it was the former number 27 that said. “That wasn’t all that bad. I can’t wait to tell my grandson what I did for my community today.”

(The numbers in this story except for mine, #42, and Number 13 have been changed to protect the identity of the real numbers.)

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