Welcome back. 2020 did not come to play with us. Americans have been really flexing on the right to assembly and I commend everyone for fulfilling their patriotic duty to fight for justice. I have always been a proponent of voting which is huge. I’m an advocate of protests. Now I come to you to talk about an often-overlooked area of influence: Jury duty.
I think jury duty is portrayed in one of two ways.
An inconvenient burden that people try to get out of
2. A plot device for movies and television to move the narrative along.
I grew up on crime dramas everything from Law & Order to Psyche. There isn’t nearly as much emphasis put on the jury as is the police officers, attorneys, and judges. Which looking back, I find crazy because ultimately the verdict is given by the jurors. Now, based on the premise of the TV shows, I can understand why. The jurors wouldn’t be recurring characters so let’s just get these nameless faceless people to use as devices to move the story along.
The only other portrayals I saw of jury duty was the beloved character I watched weekly complaining that he had jury duty and subsequently had a misadventure or tried to get out of it. Or when the guilty defendant uses threats and bribery to sway the jurors.
Needless to say, I didn’t have an enthusiastic reaction to jury duty when I was a teenager being summoned. I had an awesome Comprehensive Law teacher in high school, so in theory, I knew the importance of jury duty. However, as a new adult, I wasn’t quite ready to participate in the system, just yet.
I feel like from the moment I turned 18 I started to receive jury summons every few months from my hometown. At the time I was away at college more than 50 miles from home, so I didn’t answer the summons. Disclaimer: This is not legal advice. You should definitely research the rules of your local courts. Avoiding Jury duty is most definitely punishable by law. I don’t know if it’s because I wasn’t showing up that they put me back to the top of the list or if my hometown just had so many criminal court cases that they ran through the list just that quickly. I am from Florida, so it’s a 50/50 chance on either of those things.
First time I showed up for Jury Duty
One time when I was 20 years old, I was called for jury duty. This time I was home for the summer. I wish I could say that I showed up ready to be a juror. Nope, I was a 20-year-old college student who was hoping that I didn’t get chosen because the per diem that they give you for being selected on a jury was less than I made at my summer job as a camp counselor and I was working to pay for college and couldn’t afford to be stuck indefinitely on a court case.
I knew how big of a responsibility it was, so I showed not knowing how this would go. The courthouse was packed with potential jurors. I ended up seeing someone I knew from high school. He and I never hung out but we had mutual friends. He and I were jury wait room companions until he was called. A while later I was called to line up for my potential case.
We lined up with our identification numbers and sat in the court chairs. As someone who grew up watching court dramas, walking into the courtroom carried a sense of déjà vu. It was surreal and the tone was somber.
The judge was at the front of the room facing us in his black robs. The bailiffs and court reporter were in their anticipated spots too. The attorneys sat at opposing tables. Beside one of the attorneys was a young black man in a button-up shirt and handcuffs. The gravity of it all weighed heavily. The judge then listed the charges. I don’t remember explicitly which charges they were, but I know that the defendant was accused of murdering another young man the year before. The story sounded familiar to me at the time, something that may have been covered briefly in the news then forgotten by the next news cycle. I remember being surprised that the court case had taken so long to be tried.
It’s not how it’s portrayed on TV where it seems like the police find the guy immediately and the ‘quick and speedy trial’ is followed almost immediately after. I know that my law professors had mentioned that court cases take much longer than is depicted on television. The reality of how long a court case takes hit me in that moment. Looking back at it now, I’m saddened. I understand that the defendant can waive that right in order to give his attorneys more time to prepare, but in this young man’s case he had been in a county jail for a year already and his guilt had yet to be determined. The family of the victim who was waiting for justice had been left in limbo for a year awaiting court. I can’t imagine. I would never wish either of those plights on anyone.
At this point, the weight of the situation really set in. I started to second guess whether or not I could handle the severity of the situation. I was scared to be chosen for the jury. The judge started down the line asking if there were any reasons that, we, the potential jurors would be biased. I was hoping my youth would be a good reason to excuse me. A few people ahead of me was a woman who answered the judge that she was ‘only 18’ (two years younger than me). The judge responded that she is an adult now, “welcome to adulthood”. When it was my turn my answer was along the lines of “Maybe. I’ve known people on both sides of gun violence.”
I don’t know if they didn’t like my answer, or if they saw the panic in my eyes— but ultimately, I wasn’t chosen for jury duty. I felt conflicted as I left. I was relieved that I didn’t have to make the tough decision, but I always felt guilty for not being brave enough to want to be a juror.
I think it is a very important part of every American's civil duties to do jury duty.
I can’t imagine. I would never wish either of those plights on anyone.
Okay, let's try this again: My next summons
A few years later I moved to Arizona. I swear within the first year of me being there, I was selected for jury duty. At this point, I was 25. I graduated college; I had my own apartment… I had little life experience under me, I felt like an adult. There had also been some high-profile cases that didn’t have the desired outcomes. I remember being so disappointed in the verdict, thinking I wouldn’t have made that decision. Even vilifying the jurors, but they showed up. How can I be mad at a process that I was hoping to avoid? We don’t get to choose which cases to care about. Each case is important to the parties involved.
Because I was so indignant about the problem of perceived injustice, I tasked myself to be a part of the solution. This time, when I was summoned, I went in with every intention to fulfill my civic duty of being on a jury. I arrived at the courthouse and was sent to a waiting room. The seats were comfortable, the room was well lit, they had movies playing while we waited. It was a completely different experience from my first time.
Eventually, they called my name to go with some other jurors. We went into this hallway and were further split into different groups to head to different courtrooms. We were put into single file lines and given numbers to identify ourselves. We were told not to speak when we got in the courtroom, and how to file the pews in the court.
I entered this courtroom and it was similar to the Florida experience. The judge, attorneys, and defendant were in their usual spots.
The defendant was on trial for driving under the influence and destruction of property. The brief facts of the case were while allegedly on drugs he crashed a car into a building. No fatalities or injuries. ‘Okay, cool’ I thought. This was a nice and easy case to ease into. You know, not a murder case. The judge gave a speech about the importance of why we were all called here. She told us how jury duty a major responsibility and an important part of the judicial system is. I was right there with her; she was preaching to the choir. I was ‘SpongeBob ready’ to perform my patriotic duty.
The judge began performing so perfunctory checks. There were a few dozen potential jurors. We had filed in and every ‘seventh’ or so juror would start a new pew. We were asked to give the closest major intersection near our homes and also list our occupation.
‘Closest’ and ‘Major’ are relative terms so I didn’t say the first intersection, but I did tell them the next closest intersection which was one of the biggest in my area. I mean, it was still in my zip code. Now, at this point, I was living alone in Arizona and my closest family and friends were in Florida. Some 2,300 miles (3,700 km) away. I don’t make it a habit of telling a room full of strangers where I live, no need to start then.
We were being identified by our numbers to protect our anonymity. After going through everyone’s location and occupation, the judge said that she was going to check with the first person and the last person on each row. This was done to ensure that everyone was sitting in the same order as reflected in her records. Don’t you know, I was the first person on the second row? Okay. Not as anonymous as I had hoped but we are just verifying our order number and last name. Phoenix is a large metro area… no worries.
She gets to me and says “Oh, that's such a beautiful first name, how do you say that?” then she proceeds to say my full name. First and last with perfect pronunciation. Now, my name is not easy to read or say. I have had to instruct everyone I’ve ever met in my entire life on the correct way to say it. But don’t you know that this judge pronounces it perfectly on the first try? What are the odds?
I felt so exposed. The entire courtroom knew my first and last name, occupation, employer, and relative home location. I think the judge realized her gaff right away.
The rest of the jury process was uneventful. Ultimately, I wasn’t chosen as a juror. This time, I didn’t have that residual guilt of not being a juror. I went in earnest, and I was ready to serve had I been chosen. That was the last summons I received. Shortly after I left Phoenix, I started living abroad.
Why jury duty matters
The recent events and protests in America brought my jury summons experiences to the forefront of my memory. I wanted to share my experience so that those who are hesitant or reluctant to perform jury duty. I know that it isn’t talked about as much as voting in regard to shaping society, but I think it is just as important.
Juries provide community standards and expectations in accordance with the law. The outcome of court cases shouldn’t solely rely on judges and lawyers. Officers of the court are not representative of the everyday people of the United States. They exist is a microcosm of legality that may skew their views on the court cases. A jury consisting of community members provides the perspective of the average citizen in regard to interaction with the law.
A juror should be a reflection of the community in which they serve. They answer the question: What would anyone else do in that circumstance? Everyone on the jury will not share identical backgrounds, beliefs, or experiences but between them, they will create a consensus as to how the law applies to this situation.
Jury duty also makes the community aware of the judicial process around them. Every innocent or guilty verdict reinforces societal norms. Once a court decision is made, the case can now be used as precedent in future court cases.
A famous landmark case includes Miranda v Arizona. You know in legal dramas when an officer makes an arrest and they say “You have the right to remain silent. You have the right to an attorney…” The police didn’t start saying that from the kindness of their hearts. There was a Supreme Court decision that ruled that police must inform suspects of their right to remain silent (as guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment). It was decided that the average person when in the custody of the police may not know the allowances and confines of the law. Though Miranda v. Arizona (1966) was ultimately a Supreme Court decision, it has been used as precedent in deciding subsequent court cases. This court decision ultimately changed the way that the entire country’s police departments operate.
Every case isn’t going to end in the Supreme Court, but before it can go through the appeals process. And before it can go to the appeals process it has to first be tried in the lower courts. Even if the court case doesn’t escalate to the Supreme Court, it matters. Someone’s liberty and life are on the line with every court decision. Jury duty is yet another opportunity for voices to be heard and justice to be served. So, while I tried to find the levity in my experiences with Jury summons, I don’t want to downplay how crucial it is.
We are on the precipice of change; I hope that we can all reach the summit together.
Until Next Time,