By Diane Ako
I recently completed a jury duty assignment, and the mention of it generated enough interest that I thought I'd write about it here.
I had always been curious what jurors go through. I covered court stories a fair amount over the course of my news career, and had wondered what the full courtroom experience was like.
What do the jurors see? What did it feel like to go from start to finish? What does the deliberation room look like? How difficult is it to come to a unanimous decision? What does it feel like to be the decider of someone's fate?
Now I know. It was an experience I was grateful for, and while it was frustrating at times, boring at others, the overall takeaway was enlightenment and education.
As you probably know, after you get your Summons in the mail, you show up at 8:15 in the morning for the orientation and selection process. This required a lot of us to get up earlier than usual to make sure we were downtown in time, because the court issues a bench warrant for your arrest if you skip.
It affected our family's daily schedule because Claus had to take Olivia to school, and when I came home from court, I was so mentally zapped I was too tired to make dinner.
First, a huge group of us were ushered into a big room and given directions by a court clerk as to what to expect, how the selection goes, how we would be reimbursed for mileage, and that we'd be paid $30 a day for our service.
After watching a 15 minute video and listening to directions from the clerk, we were then moved to another floor where we waited outside a courtroom for an hour.
The court hears all kinds of cases every day, and jury selections/ trials fit into that schedule. You just wait till they're ready for you.
At about 10 am we were taken into the courtroom and seated in the gallery. After more directions from the judge, a clerk rolled a big wheel with our names in it, and randomly picked 12. I was the 5th name called.
We were directed to a seat in the jury box. After 12 people were picked, the attorneys started to question us to see if they thought we had qualities that would make us a good juror for their trial.
They asked a bunch of seemingly random questions that I realized only tied together in the end during closing arguments. First the deputy prosecutor would go, then the public defender. When questioning the group of us, it lasted about 15 minutes each.
They were allowed to dismiss jurors a handful of times, and each time a new name was picked, they'd go over a shortened list of questions just aimed at that new person, for a couple minutes each. In all, I think they dismissed/replaced five jurors.
This whole thing took about an hour. After we had the 12 jurors, two randomly selected alternates were picked.
Then, we got an hour for lunch, and returned to start the trial. I can't talk about the trial. Before each and every recess the judge would remind us of that.
The trial lasted two days. One surprise to me was the kind of case I was hearing. In a way, I'm very familiar with court stories, but my exposure was to high-profile cases which held broader significance and public interest than the run-of-the-mill argument we heard, the likes of which remind me of Judge Judy.
I'm not going to lie. There were times when I was getting real sleepy. I did not fall asleep but I did wonder about the repetitiveness of the questions. The other jurors admitted same.
I noticed the bailiff looking over at the jury box every ten minutes. He told me it was to make sure we weren't sleeping.
After a bunch of witnesses and then closing arguments, the judge let us go for lunch again. When we returned, there was a very thick document on our seats.
The judge said it was the directions on how to deliberate this case, and then he actually read all 26 pages aloud to make sure we went through it. Legalese! Gotta love it!
He dismissed the two alternates but took their telephone number in case one of the primary jurors didn't make it through deliberations. (We all did.)
Then, we were taken into a Deliberation Room and told to act as one body. One person has to go to the bathroom, all have to take a break.
Honestly, the worst thing about jury duty was being hostage to someone else's schedule - driving in so super early, eating when they say eat, bathroom breaks when they say you can go.
The second worst thing was that in my job, nobody answers the emails if I don't get to it. So over three days, the emails just piled up.
The third worst thing about this was having to form the same opinion with 11 other people. It was very difficult to come to an agreement. We talked, talked, and talked some more.
It was very interesting to see how people's personalities come out in such a short but intense time together. One guy was very conciliatory and wanted to bridge the gap from all sides.
One guy was staunchly rooted in his position and then got impatient after many hours in which the group wouldn't move to his point of view. He would keep talking about giving up and calling it deadlocked, though most of us kept saying it was too early in the process and to let democracy work.
No matter what our feelings about the case, we all felt it important to give our full attention and consideration to the case because we realize people's lives are affected by our decision. Not something to take lightly.
The chatty ones would talk a lot. A few were quiet and hardly said a word. I was elected Jury Foreman. Nobody wanted to do it so I said I would, and then a few people admitted they were going to volunteer me if I didn't volunteer myself. Ha ha, thanks!
As the jury foreperson I had to guide the group to try to come to a conclusion. I tried many techniques. It was not easy. The people were all very nice, but it's so hard to get 12 people to see it all the same way.
If we had questions, I, acting as the spokesperson, would write it down on an official document, call for the bailiff, wait for him to be able to leave court, give him the folder with the questions, and then wait about 30 minutes for him to let the attorneys and judge answer the questions. He'd bring it back, I'd read the answer out loud.
Deliberations went into a second day, so we all brought food, because we were told we'd be trapped in the room from 8:30 a.m. - noon with only bathroom breaks. The court provided coffee and water, but no food.
I brought a vase with my beloved herbs to brighten the room. Several others brought food. We were a good group. People were really friendly with each other. They started joking a lot that we've spent so much time together we're a family now.
It was heartening to feel that every person in the room tried their hardest to give a just verdict - not just give in to the group because they want to go home sooner than later.
When we came to the end of the deliberations I had to call for the bailiff, give him the written decision concealed in a manila folder, and wait another 30 minutes for him to contact the attorneys.
When he did that, he returned and told us to get ready to return to court to provide an official answer on record. We waited another half hour until the court was freed up for this.
We all went into the courtroom. The lawyers, defendant, and judge were present. The judge asked the foreperson to stand. I stood.
He read our decision out loud and asked me to confirm it. I did. He then thanked us for our civic duty and dismissed us. We went back to the Deliberation Room for our purses and reimbursement forms.
He did say if we wanted to talk to him or the lawyers we could, so most of us waited in that room. We had a bunch of questions about the process, which he patiently answered.
Then, we went out into the hall, where the lawyers were. A smaller group of us did that, providing feedback to help new attorneys improve their questioning skills.
All in all, a really great experience that fulfilled all of my curiosity. I enjoyed it, and I was definitely ready to be done with it after three days. I will serve again without complaint, if my name's called - but would be fine if I don't have to return again ever!