On Law & Order or better still, Perry Mason (black and white version), jurors always look attentive and engaged – some even taking notes. Do you think that they had to be dragged kicking and screaming, moaning and groaning into those courtrooms the way that thousands of other people are every day?
And, while the US is experiencing a period of low crime rates (as is the case in NYC) there are still thousands and thousands of trials for crimes big and small that must be held year round to conduct the business of law and order and justice. These very same trials need dedicated and engaged jurors and from my perspective that’s getting harder to accomplish.
Why is it such a shock when we get that jury notification in the mail? For most, it’s something akin to the draft (if it still existed) or an IRS audit.
Why do we all (mostly) dread jury duty so much? Certainly there’s the inconvenience (and it is inconvenient), the sitting around waiting for something to happen, the often inefficiency of the process and the disruption in the routine of our lives. Is there more to it than that?
I’ve been called for jury duty six times in the 30 years that I’ve lived in New Yorkand I’ve sat on four juries – one civil and three criminal. Last week I was called again for what would have been my fifth trial. While I wasn’t selected, the whole process got me thinking (again) about the challenge the courts have in getting people to serve as jurors.
In this room of approximately 150 people there were several veterans, but mostly newbies. We all seemed to have the same concerns: what kind of case and how long will it take?
Most judges tell perspective jurors a little about the case before the voir dire jury selection process starts. This almost always triggers the first inkling of concern about sitting in judgement of someone else and making decisions based on “reasonable doubt”, “circumstantial evidence” and credibility of witnesses. It’s not a normal day at work and no one went to jury school to learn how to do this job.
Almost everyone who appears for jury duty comes with some scheme to get out of it. Remarkably, the system is very fair to people who have legitimate reasons that they can’t serve. I’m pained, however, when I hear people making stupid remarks or lying (stupidly) to get excused, which might get them out of a particular case but doesn’t get them off jury duty. I’m especially appalled when people presume defendants are guilty because they wouldn’t be in the court room in the first place if they “hadn’t done it.”
And yet, to be judged by our peers in a court of law is our best and only system for determining guilt or innocence. How many times have you heard: “let the court decide”?
As we were leaving the court house yesterday, one man who has sat on three trials said that he found these experiences interesting in that in each instance he had learned something about the law or human nature, that he was impressed with the seriousness of everyone involved in the trial no matter how small or minor the crime, that he was treated with respect by the judges and the lawyers and that the defendants, even if they were convicted, were well served.
I don’t think that we can expect more than that from any system that has to serve the needs of millions of people on a daily basis. To be judged by our peers means that we have to show up, put our prejudices aside, pay attention to the law and use some brain cells that we might not usually employ.
So, suck it up and serve as a juror. It’s often flawed and sometimes wrong but it mostly separates the bad guys from the good guys and that’s good enough for me.
-Virginia Sheridan, President