My Jury Duty Experience – Day 1
In January I was summoned for February jury duty…but I couldn’t attend so I called and asked to be excused. It was that easy and I was really grateful because the timing was truly awful. The lady I spoke to (a Jamaican, I recognized the accent 5 seconds into the conversation…we’re every where!) asked why I couldn’t make it and said OK, we’ll reschedule you. Like clockwork in mid-February I received another summons for jury duty in late March. The summons instructed me to call in (or check a website) after 5 PM on the business day before my service date. I called in on the Friday before and yep, my number was up: all jurors with numbers from 1 – 356 were required to show up on Monday morning. (Those with number 357 and greater were excused from jury service for the next 3 years. ) So on March 28, I showed up at the county courthouse, went through security (they require you to take off your belt *sigh*) and headed up to the Jury Lounge. I whipped out my notebook and started scribbling down observations…got some odd looks, which I either ignored or smiled good morning….
8:10 AM – Arrive at the Jury Lounge. At security I was asked if I had knives or forks in my lunch bag! In the Jury Lounge, I joined the check-in line where I handed in my summons to be scanned into the system. The line is long but I get the front and am soon making my way to a seat in a large, airy room…all in under 3 minutes. The line is manned by the Jury Commissioner and someone from her office; both are cheerful and efficient. Usually being so cheerful in the morning annoys me but they’re not sickly sweet or anything, just being professional. In return for turning in my summons, I receive an “Information for Jurors” sheet that explained a lot about what to expect: Montgomery County has a One Trial/One Day policy; regardless of the length of that trial – and apparently they can be just for one day – one’s jury service will be done. There’s a $15 per day stipend for the first 5 days and $50 per day from the 6th day onward; an additional $5 is given if services are needed after 6 PM.
8:20 AM – Finished reading the info sheet and realize I’ve lost my damned scarf. Damnit I bought that in Brugge!
8:25 AM – After a quick look around and return to the lobby and security desk I realize my scarf is indeed gone. *sigh* I must have dropped it in the elevator on the way up and I can’t stalk it because I’m supposed to be parked in the Jury Lounge from 8:30 AM onwards. I’ll have to stalk the elevator and find the lost & found at lunch time. Gosh, why am I such a scatterbrain sometimes.
8:30 AM – Observing other members of the jury pool. According to Friday’s telephone message I expected to see about 300 people in the room and though the room was full, there weren’t that many. There were mostly white men and women in the room but also a fair number of Black< Hispanic, and Asian people. Ages ranged from the late 20s and early 30s to the middle aged; hardly any elderly people there.
8:35 AM – Everyone looks to be here, why aren’t we beginning? This is the first hitch in the process but the room seems calm. Folks are occupied reading the paper, having breakfast (we’re allowed to bring food in: I have a yogurt for breakfast and NatureValley bars, a sandwich, and fruit for snacks and lunch +a bottle of water), scrolling on smartphones, or tapping away on laptops. There is wireless access. We are allowed to have laptops and other electronics on and in use at this stage of the process. There is a special room at the rear of the room with courthouse-provided desktops as well as stations for sitting with and plugging in your own laptop. My juror sticker badge keeps falling off. Wonder what the voir dire process will be like.
8:50 AM – An announcement is made that things are running late (the summons was for reporting at 8:30 AM). Folks are still trickling in but most seem to be here. We’re told that we’re “only” missing about 100 jurors. The number summoned is based on the cases up for decision but a calculation is made for folks who forget, will run late, get sick, or have work or other personal emergencies. I‘m thinking that each of us will be assigned to a courtroom and case.
9 AM – Orientation begins. The Jury Commissioner is leading it. She emphasizes the important civic duty that this is. Explains the scenarios leading to fulfillment of the duty under the one trial/one day policy: one day even with no assignment to a courtroom or trial, or assignment to a courtroom but do not make it to petit jury, or making it through the voir dire process and onto a petit jury. She double-checks that everyone in the room is both a Montgomery County resident and U.S. citizen. In the courtroom no electronic deices are allowed to be on. Those assigned to a courtroom will go through voir dire (pronounced “vwaa deer”). Voir dire is when prospective jurors are questioned by the judge and lawyers; this enables the lawyers to choose persons who they think will be fit for service on that trial. There are civil and criminal cases on court dockets today; civil cases require 6 jurors while criminal cases require 12. She cautions us that if we’re not selected to be on a jury after voir dire that we’re to return to the Jury Lounge and wait for the next announcement. If selected to be on the panel then that courtroom is our reporting station for the remainder of the trial. The stipend we receive is not income so we don’t have to report it on our taxes. There’s a “Generous Juror Program” (donate stipiend to fund for underprivileged children and children who are in foster care in Montgomery County and that donation is tax deductible; donating only requires filling out a form). We’re told that there 5 or 6 trials going forward today including a 10-day trial. Pause. TEN days…I begin praying that I won’t be on that trial. Whew! She says that those with pre-scheduled doctor’s appointments, vacations or other situations should let her know that they’d prefer not to be considered for that 10-day monster. I did just that as soon as orientation ended. (I’ve just started my job and didn’t think they’d appreciate me being gone for 2 weeks already!)
9:40 AM – After Orientation Ran to the bathroom since they’ve already called one batch of jurors and we’re required to say “here” or “present.” Hahaha that reminds me of being in high school in Jamaica. Of course as soon as I enter the bathroom they decide to call the second batch of jurors. But I need not have worried since there’s a PA system in the bathroom that’s linked to the Jury Lounge. My number is not called.
9:45 AM – I decide to walk around the jury room. The computer area at the back is really convenient and not just a slapped together space. The workstations are clean and well spaced. There’s even a library of sorts with books from the County library system. Prospective jurors can borrow books without signing them out and simply return them to any County library; there are no fines or fees. Jury duty isn’t seeming so bad after all! Certainly not the horror or weirdness I’d seen on TV (like that Sex & the City episode where Carrie has jury duty, is treated to rude court staff, and one of the other persons called carries around random fruits in his briefcase).
10:23 AM – My number is called! Along with my other prospective jurors I make my way to the elevator to get to the designated floor and jury room. The judge’s law clerk was waiting for us outside the courtroom and directed us to wait together for a few minutes.
10:30 AM – We’re into the courtroom. I immediately recognize that this is a criminal trial – one lawyer is at a desk by herself and at another desk 3 persons are seated together. The latter group undoubtedly includes lawyers and at least one defendant. All but the judge was standing as we entered the courtroom. The parties seated at the tables (i.e. lawyers and defendant) were of course looking our group over and already thinking about who they may want on the jury. At least that’s what I learned in Civil Procedure class. We’re required to raise our right hands and take an oath that the answers we will give to the voir dire questions will be truthful. We sit. I surreptitiously take out my notebook to continue scribbling — this is allowed but I don’t want to disturb anyone. The judge gives instructions on answering roll call – again – and the voir dire questions; he emphasizes that if anyone of us feels uncomfortable giving an answer out loud, they’re allowed to approach the bench to speak to him and the attorneys.
10:35 AM – Voir dire begins. We’re asked again if we’re U.S. citizens and county residents, ability to understand English (i.e. if English is not your first language does that impact your ability to understand the proceedings). An elderly man stands to say that he think he’ll have difficulty; he speaks with a heavy accent and I see a hearing aid. The voir dire questions begin. I won’t list them here but there were some notable ones. Like, whether any of us knew the attorneys (who now stand to be identified…I see who the defendant is now) and whether that association will affect ability to serve; one person stands and explains. The same is asked about the defendant. Then, a list of names of people who will mentioned in the trial or who may be witnesses is mentioned. No one answers this (by the way, whenever there is no response from the jury, the judge says out loud, “For the record, no affirmative response”). There’s a question about how political, philosophical, or religious beliefs regarding the justice system and whether anyone of us or family members have been involved in criminal proceedings. Both are about how this would affect our ability to serve. No answer to the former but many answers to the latter, and some people choose to approach the bench to answer. There’s the question about legal training or experience/exposure – including being a legal secretary – and this is the only question I have to answer yes to. I stand, give my juror number and explain that I’m recent law school graduate awaiting bar licensing; the lawyer in the jury pool whispers good luck about the bar. The judge then instructs us about burdens of proof – the prosecutor must prove her case beyond a reasonable doubt NOT beyond all doubt. At this point the judge also gives general instructions and information about the trial. The trial is expected to last a day and half. Yes! I did indeed dodge the 10-day monster…I hope.
11 AM – I along with 12 other people are called to sit in the jury box (it’s not really a box like on Law & Order, more like a section off the side). Once we’re all there, each of us stands and the judge asks the lawyers if we should be seated (i.e. is the juror one you’d like on the jury) or excused (i.e. out of the box and back to the Jury lounge). My number is called, I stand, and both attorneys say I should be seated. Before and after me several jurors are excused. Attorneys don’t have to give a reason for why they prefer a juror to be excused and the judge does not ask. The juror can’t ask either. There’s some shuffling around after all those excused return to their seats in the gallery and more jurors are called up to make 12. There’s also a 13th person picked – the alternate just in case one of the 12 falls ill or has to be removed from the jury. The persons not chosen are excused and thanked. We 13 are empaneled (i.e sworn in as the jury for this trial to decide on the charges against this defendant). So I made it onto the trial or petit jury. During the trial we are forbidden from discussing any aspects of the trial with others – including family but especially the attorneys, defendant, or judge – and cannot discuss the trial amongst ourselves (that’s what deliberations are for and that’s at the end of the presentation of the case). (Note: I can write this now because once the jury delivered its verdict the judge released us from this prohibition; we were free to talk to either of the attorneys, the law clerk, each other, the press, etc…I won’t blog about details of the case but will only give general impressions. That’s just a personal choice.)
11:25 AM – Break. We’re required to remain on the floor (i.e. cannot go down or upstairs…can’t go look for my scarf). Must return to the courtroom on time. I email my boss to say I won’t be back in office until tomorrow.
“My Jury Duty Experience – Day 2” will be posted on Tuesday, April 5, 2011. I’ll pick up with my reflections on opening statements, the presentation of witness, jury deliberations.