Braunholtz: Jury duty is serious
Vail CO, Colorado
Jury duty is a weird mix of waiting around, bursts of entertainment and conflicting emotions of curiosity, doing the right thing versus getting on with your life.
The annoyance of a 50-mile early morning drive (what do people without access to a car do?) is eased by the discovery of a workmate’s anti-law-and-order, hip-hop CD mix stored in the window shade. I guess my enjoyment of this CD answers the question of whom to blame for this disruption to my schedule ” the accused for having the temerity to not admit his guilt or the police for bringing the case in the first place? I start to realize why jury selection is important.
The state doesn’t do itself any favors by threatening to tow anyone who mistakenly parks in “their” parking lot either. Anyway the mob of confused people milling around is comforting in some strange way. We’re all a little out of our element and the novelty breaks down our personal barriers a touch.
Regardless of how cool you think you are, the symbolism and design of a courtroom imposes its gravity upon you. Everyone speaks in whispers, stands when the judge enters and re-enters and re-enters (this happens a lot with many consultations in chambers, each rising chipping away at your egalitarian principles) and waits for him to explain and tell us what to do.
Some potential jurors are dismissed straight away and leave with waves and smiles at those less fortunate, happy at winning their routine back for the next three days. This is in contrast to the defendant who sits in serious contemplation about significant portions of his future life.
The questions for jury selection reveal a lot about the case. Reasonable doubt and presumption of innocence are brought up again and again by prosecution and defense. When attitudes to physical versus circumstantial evidence come up followed by discussion of character of the character witness’s character witness it becomes clear that this isn’t going to be an easy case. But then cases that are clear-cut probably don’t make it to trial that often.
With little physical evidence who do you believe? What preconceptions do we all have?
The lawyers know it, too. The prosecution quickly boots anyone with an unpleasant law enforcement experience. That arrogant traffic cop in L.A. five years ago may be your ticket home. This seems to be easier for the prosecution than the defense. Kicking off people who may not see eye-to-eye with the law doesn’t lose you any points with us, the audience. Now, removing someone because they are related to law enforcement does look bad.
It’s quite flattering for those in the hot seat because for a few minutes some very bright, important people are really listening to everything you say. The good lawyers develop a repartee with you and even laugh at your jokes.
It’s kind of suspenseful to watch all this and wait. You get some decent personal insights into 13 or more strangers with the game of guessing who’ll be excused and the thrill of waiting to hear if your name will be called next.
The most interesting question comes from the judge, “will you follow the law even if you disagree with it?” This is a huge responsibility for the judge because he’s defining the law to the jurors. Constitutionally the courts system is under common law so a jury is allowed to express its disagreement with a law. It’s called jury nullification and I’d guess it drives judges and lawyers nuts. Admitting any sympathy for this is probably a sure-fire way to be thrown (literally, with the help of the prosecutor) out of the court room, though you’d better hope you don’t commit some offense for the next year or two.
As time moves on the questioning gets more and more repetitive as the lawyers keep fishing for potential insights, but the would-be jurors all look fine.
If anyone does have strong, strange or idiotic views they’re not willing to announce themselves.
And then it’s over, we’re released. It’s a joyful exodus and like school children who have been let out for recess we zoom off for a late lunch. Relieved of the inconvenience we’ve avoided but perhaps more at the responsibility we dodged that the 13 left behind now face.
Jury duty, for all its theater, looks to be a very serious job.
Alan Braunholtz of Vail writes a biweekly column for the Daily. Send comments or questions to email@example.com.