Jury Duty

June 22nd, 2017 Posted by Susan's Musings 35 comments

I am not sure that I was entirely truthful earlier this week. I’m not sure that anyone else with me in the room was either.

We were together in a courtroom, having been chosen as the pool from which a jury would be selected. The presiding judge asked a series of questions. For each question, if our answer was a yes, we were told to stand up and then he went around the room asking for our juror number, which he jotted down.

Some of the questions were straightforward. Was anyone not a citizen of the United States or not a resident of the city?  Then, after being asked to listen to a long list of police officers’ and detectives’ names, we were asked if we knew any of the aforementioned  people.  But some of the questions were trickier.

We were asked if we would give more or less credence to the testimony of a member of law enforcement than we would to anyone else. That was one of the ones that perplexed me. I was raised to respect the police and still do, but at the same time I also am aware of corruption on the force, including tampering with evidence. Depending on the impression made by an officer, I might give either more or less weight to his or her words than to someone else’s. As far as I was concerned, there really wasn’t enough time to think through the complexity of the question.

Then, the accused violent offender was asked to stand. We were asked if anything about her appearance might prejudice us. I’m pretty sure that most of us weren’t truthful about this question; only two people rose to say yes. The fact is that we humans are incredibly susceptible to people’s looks. I didn’t rise to my feet, not because I didn’t feel myself getting a first impression (and those do have a lasting impact) but because I didn’t want to offend some of the people around me who would make their own guesses and judgments about why I was answering yes, and possibly be hurt by what their guess of my reasoning was.

And so on and so forth. The experience was both uplifting and depressing. It was heartening to see so many people assemble and take their civic duty seriously. It was depressing to feel how overburdened and sluggish the legal system is. It was uplifting to see an extremely diverse group of hundreds of potentials jurors treating each other with respect and courtesy.  It was distressing to think how badly national, statewide and local politicians and educational elites run things, helping to ensure a steady stream of young, violent offenders.

I was not chosen for the trial, for which I am grateful. While I appreciate the concept of being tried by a jury of your peers, I’m not sure that is what actually takes place or that justice is best being served.

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35 comments

James says:

Ms. Susan, I applaud your conscience. There is and always has been such a thing as police corruption. You should perhaps count your blessings indeed at not being selected. Well I recall my Mother’s selection for a jury trial of some consequence some years ago. She returned home more than once with an aura of absolute shock and dismay. The trial was a weighty one and for a very grave sentence. She encouraged logical and conscientious evaluation of every single detail by the ‘jury of her peers.’ Thereby she had incurred the hostility of a number of dismissive jury members. One openly expressed rancor at her, saying: ‘Let’s just declare this guy guilty so we can all go home to dinner!’ To which she replied with conscience: ‘This man’s life hangs in the balance and all you care about is one evening’s dinner?’

My own experience was no better. Lawyers (whether prosecutor or defense I cannot say) excluded my participation because (a) I had specialized higher education, (b) I was employed in medical industry, (c) I had prior knowledge of pharmacology, i.e., the effects of drugs. I am not ashamed to say that I would have actually welcomed the chance to serve conscientiously on this jury, yet I was not chosen. Did some lawyer fear that I might be a ‘bomb-thrower’ to derail the jury with alternate (educated?) opinions. I departed with an uneasy heart, as good as convinced that a certain counsel (most likely the prosecution?) wanted to ‘dumb down’ the jury to accelerate the conviction of this alleged malefactor. So it goes. The ultimate irony was: we jury candidates had to sit through a pep talk by the magistrate, how ‘Our judicial system WORKS.’ There were many factors in the case I could not know, but to this day I cannot testify how well our system works.

Susan Lapin says:

James, I was dismissed before the lawyers started their own questioning but when I served on a jury at an earlier time, I went through that questioning. There is an extremely difficult balance going on here. The lawyers job is not actually to get to the truth, but to either prosecute or defend (as I understand it – maybe I’m wrong.) In that case, they are looking for jurors that they think will either believe them or by sympathetic or not depending on which side of the case they are on.

Mark Lampe says:

“I’m not sure that is what actually takes place or that justice is best being served.”
I may be jaded by both age and experience but I think you are probably right! I am always honest during the jury selection and it’s probably why I have never been picked to serve on a jury once they ferret out the fact that I am a believer and a political conservative with definite views, and see the world through the lens of either right and wrong, good and evil.

Susan Lapin says:

Mark, I have no suggestions to fix the system, but I think it was designed for truly honorable people and we often don’t live up to that standard – and that has been true in earlier periods and places as well.

Carmine says:

A few years ago there was a nanny on trial for murdering an infant she was caring for. The media presented some of the evidence and that little information didn’t give me an idea of her guilt. If I were on that jury I would have heard all of the evidence. I still would have prayed a lot for guidance in deciding my verdict.

Susan Lapin says:

Carmine, one thing that disqualifies you from a jury is if you have followed the case in the news. Of course, if I was picked I would have attempted to be as objective as possible and prayed for guidance. I was questioning my answer to whether someone’s looks would have an effect, and the looks I was particularly referring to was facial expression. A jury is trying to assess truthfulness and ability to commit the crime as part of the evidence. Sometimes our faces lie, but often they reflect character.

Bruce says:

I’ve been a criminal lawyer for over 25 years, and it is very common in my jurisdiction for prospective jurors to state that they would indeed give greater credibility to a police officer than another witness, and that they believe that police are trained to be honest. This of course is impossible. You cannot train an adult to be honest; he has to do it on his own. Yet, they firmly believe that police officers lie less often than any other human being, all of whom lie from time to time. Moreover, police are trained to lie – they lie to the drug dealer or prostitute when asked directly if they are police, and they have to be very good at it- and that kind of lie is approved by the courts. The officer is expected to be able to turn his lying on when talking to a suspect but turn it off when talking to a jury or judge. But no human being works that way. Once a human learns that he benefits from telling lies, he is likely to lie whenever he perceives a benefit from doing so, at least a benefit that outweighs the risk of lying. Police officers are also trained how to testify persuasively – do you begin to see the problem here? How can you judge the demeanor of a witness who has been trained how to testify persuasively? In my opinion, the legal system needs to reform, such that lies are not tolerated from police or anyone else. Lying is dishonesty, and dishonesty comes directly and solely from the father of lies. Lying for an approved purpose is just plain lying. No human being benefits from lying, ever, even if it seems so in the short term. Lying corrupts the judicial system. Police and other government agents who get away with lying teach the rest of us that lying is sometimes OK! It’s OK when government-approved! But, how does anyone tell which officer is telling the truth? That is the problem, and it’s a very, very big one, and I submit that this also explains why police almost always get acquitted when charged with some kind of serious action like killing a suspect – they are trained how to lie, they are trained how to testify persuasively and for those in small jurisdictions, they learn how to testify by practice through repetition – and they are trained how to lie persuasively. There is no way any jury can see through this when they start with the belief that police are more worthy of belief than another witness.

Kevin says:

OK I think we get it: for a bunch of reasons you overstated, you don’t trust Police. So, do you trust lawyers? The issue is we trust people based on the feelings that we get from them and other measures of credibility. I hesitate to say that all police are deceitful as you pretty much stated, although I think you got wound up and unintentionally overstated your case.

Susan Lapin says:

I don’t think I stated that, Kevin. I certainly didn’t intend to. I am a big fan of the police and think most officers deserve great respect. However, I do know of corruption on some forces and I don’t think it is helpful to pretend it doesn’t exist. If the police on the trial come from a force that is known to have problems, it does make one hesitate. According to the judge’s introduction, he was looking for jurors who would not assume the police are any more honest or dishonest than any other witness, but have a healthy skepticism towards every witness. I wish that wasn’t necessary and all police could be trusted to be honorable and above board. I’m sure that most police officers wish the same.

Susan Lapin says:

Wow, I appreciate your chiming in. I’m not sure I agree with you – I think being trained to lie and getting good at it is a problem, but sometimes spies or police save many lives by doing their jobs and that means lying and being deceptive. But your point is well taken that it is hard not to be affected by learning to do so.

Joyce Redos says:

Dear Susan, I am a retired attorney and I always wanted to serve on a jury because I take civic responsibilities very seriously. Two of the three times my name was selected, the cases settled before trial. The third time, I actually made it to jury selection but was peremptorily eliminated, probably because I was an attorney. That was almost 20 years ago. I have not been called for jury duty since.

This points up the weird conundrum inherent in serving on a jury. The juror’s job is to test the credibility of the testimony and the believability of all the evidence, physical and testimonial taken together. But before an individual gets to serve as a juror they have to parade their own credentials before both the prosecution and the defense. Are they persons of good moral character? Do they know any people involved in the case? Do they have any prejudices that might affect their ability to render a fair judgment? Are they open minded before the trial starts so that either side has a fair opportunity to persuade the juror of the truth of their position and so forth. Equally, are they strong-minded enough that if they have a reasonable doubt regarding guilt, that they can stand firm and will not just go along with the majority for the sake of a verdict.

Ultimately, the jurors are the strongest bulwark for justice in our legal system. Bless you for taking it so seriously.

Susan Lapin says:

Joyce, thanks for stating the conundrum. I was impressed by the judge and also by how seriously the people around me were taking the questions. I was glad I was dismissed mostly because we have two major family events and once this was a murder trial the suggestion was that it would take the whole week, at a minimum. When the judge heard of the graduation I would miss, he not only dismissed me but wished me congratulations which I appreciated. But I do appreciate the idea of jury duty.

Lyna says:

I have been a registered voter for over 40 years, but I have been called and served as a juror only once. There were several things I wish were handled differently. The main one I still don’t understand was that we were not allowed during deliberation to reread/rehear a certain bit of testimony (timeline). “You must rely on your memory,” we were told. Yikes!

Susan Lapin says:

Lyna, I wonder if that is a local or trial specific ruling. It doesn’t seem to make much sense.

Rachel Mae says:

Dear Susan,
I have just come home from serving on a jury to see your email on Jury Duty. What timing.
In the initial faze I was surprised to observe the ridiculous reasons potential jurors would give to “get out” of jury duty. Very disappointing.
It has been an honor to serve as a juror. I have a high regard for our judicial system. As well as respect for those who were selected and took their jury duty seriously. This has been a humbling experience for me knowing that my decisions were going to effect others for the rest of their lives. I have put my own life on hold for a week which is a minimal amount of time in comparison. My personal issues now seem minute. This experience has changed my life for the better.
Thank you Susan for providing this opportunity to share. Many blessings to you and your family.
Humbly,
Rachel

Susan Lapin says:

Rachel Mae, I’m so glad that the experience was a growth catalyst for you. Sounds like your attitude towards jury duty is an example of what each juror should feel and how we should all approach it.

CK says:

I had a jury summons a few weeks back. Went to the courthouse. Sat. Heard their usual spiel; watched the video (been through this many a time before). We were told it might take a while. All officials left the room. 45 minutes later, we were told we could move around. About two hours in I was tired of counting ceiling tiles, ceiling lights; ceiling lights that were burnt out (5 large, 8 small). Translated the Latin of the state’s motto, stuff, ,, so I wandered up to the platform where the Judge sits, with court reporter, witness box, etc. The judge’s chair was nice, and my fellow jurors (likewise bored) started chanting: ‘sit in it! sit in it!’ Well, I was definitely considering, but started with a book on Evidentiary Laws. Told my audience it was: ‘a real page turner’. About then the side door opened and the court officials came in. My fellow jurors laughed, startling the officials, giving me time to toss the book back to a table. I smiled nicely at them. Got an interesting look back at me.
Funny thing: I was not chosen as a juror, BUT, I can honestly brag that I had a court room laughing.

Susan Lapin says:

As I’ve been talking to people it is clear that each courthouse runs differently. I was actually impressed with the speed of how things ran for me. I’m glad you were not found in contempt of court.

Patricia Marcus says:

Dear Susan, as a retired attorney I am very familiar with the weaknesses in our judicial system. Since it is made up of human beings, corruption, deception, lying, laziness, etc. are inherent problems. However, courage, sacrifice, seeking truth, honor, and etc. are inherent strengths. Our system isn’t perfect, but it is still the best system in the world!

Susan Lapin says:

Patricia, I can’t say I’m familiar with all judicial systems, but I do agree that America’s is a wonderful one. I do wish we still taught and revered citizenship so that more people fell on the side of honorable behavior.

Richard Mann says:

Mrs. Lapin, I agree with your statement that the system was designed for honorable people.

Years ago, I had the privilege of being the jury foreman in a trial where the defendant was a minority man accused of selling drugs. Police had set up a sting operation and video of the drug transaction was recorded and played during the trial. When it came time to deliberate, I went around the room so that everyone could express what facts about the case most stood out to them. A trend became clear with minority members of the jury. The police had entrapped the accused. Trust in the police and their methods was very low. Then I came to an elderly minority woman who lived in the neighborhood in which the accused was arrested. She spoke about the problem with drugs there and her concern for her kids and grand-kids. If this man had been caught selling drugs, she wanted him off the streets. Her view was pivotal and the jury returned a unanimous verdict of guilty. I was so grateful. We later heard from the judge that the accused had two prior convictions of selling drugs. . . and we all knew that we’d made the right decision. In that instance, the system worked and I was proud to have served. Without the views of this elderly woman, the outcome would have been much different.

Susan Lapin says:

Great story, Richard. I hear over and over how one wise personality can sway an entire jury. Sadly, sometimes it is a person of poor character who moves things in the other direction. But we each have the obligation to make sure that we are standing up for right.

Norman Gordon says:

You were right to question the propriety of the question whether anything about the appearance of the defendant would prejudice you. That was a terrible question. It would be wrong to judge based on race, dress, health, body piercings, tattoos, and other such visible features. But demeanor might be a valid basis for judgement – especially as to credibility. You didn’t articulate how much leeway was given for prospective jurors to answer. The issue was not subject to a yes or no answer, but was that required of you? Poor questions like that remind me of a quote from Gracie Allen (from ‘The Burns and Allan Show’ for those old enough to remember) – “Just think – with enough education and brains the average man would make a good lawyer — and so would the average lawyer.”

Susan Lapin says:

Norman, we were expected to give a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer to the question. Out of a group of about 100 potential jurors only two stood up to answer yes, they would be prejudiced by the alleged offender’s appearance. I don’t even think it’s a question of right or wrong to be influenced by what we see – it’s just human reality. We are. We are obliged, whether we are teachers, customers, bosses or jurors to try to look beyond, but there is no question that we make initial judgments even if they can be changed down the road. And I think when people dress in a certain way or get certain tattoos etc., it is disingenuous for them to think that it will not have an effect for positive or negative.

Paul R says:

I am with you on that observation of the current state of affairs concerning the judicial system. Some of the same questions asked of potential jurors in the three times I’ve been called to jury duty were asked. I answered to the best of my ability but found the questions disturbing. I was not satisfied with some of my answers or was disturbed by the questions. My understanding of the U.S. Constitution seems to be a defendant is guaranteed a trial before a jury of one’s peers. Many questions asked jurors these days have nothing to do with selecting a jury from one’s peers. The questions seem to be aimed at selecting a preconceived outcome by one side or the other. That is the thing that most concerns me about my dealings with the jurisprudence system that has been created in a country I too often no longer recognize.

Susan Lapin says:

I understand your frustration, Paul. On the other hand, all systems have problems including the American one. It is still probably one of the best there is.

H- says:

I can not for the life of me understand this part of the American ‘justice’ system. It looks like something ‘intellectual’ high school students in the drama club came up with during a potsmoking session.

Just so strange to me. I agree with you lady Lapin.

Susan Lapin says:

Well, that’s a little harsh in my opinion, as well as unfair to many high school students.

Michael McGauhey says:

I believe we have a Legal System which can be toyed with by lawyers, judges, and legislators; we do not have a Justice System that has as its primary goal to seek Justice.
Thanks for your “Musings”…

Susan Lapin says:

Michael, I agree. The question is what is the better system. I believe it comes back to changing the culture in our country. In a nation populated mostly by upright people, the system can work.

LJ says:

I was dismissed twice in 2016 from having to serve on a jury panel. However, I served one full day this year before being dismissed. Interestingly, the Judge gathered the selection of all 44 together at 4:30 PM and said (I’m paraphrasing him here), “This does not happen too often, but the parties decided that you’re all too opinionated to serve on this case.” It was a rear end accident in the 4th largest city in America involving two women who were both about the same age. The case was slightly sketchy sounding (apparently to everyone), and money sought for damages by the plaintiff was to be either 1 to 3 or 3 to 5 million dollars depending upon certain facts uncovered during the trial by jury.

I was biased against both parties from having learned to drive in a state where if you rear end someone then you’re “at fault” because you’re following too closely. Also, my husband, brother, a great-uncle and others I’ve known were hit by cars. My husband was 15 or so, and his jaw was broken with both front teeth lost. My brother was about 6 or 8, and his skull was cracked. Both cases were settled through the insurance companies $20K payout (husband’s case) and $10K payout (brother’s case), plus all medical care was paid out. But we have spent so much more than $20K by now just on work for my husband’s missing teeth! And my brother told us he’d spent a lot on chronic headaches since the accident as a child. I was hit also, only barely while on a bicycle, and the car tweaked my bike; I was 17 and she apologized so I said don’t worry about it.

Anyway, during that day, we also heard from a guy who’d said he has a friend who can’t even celebrate the 4th July without hiding from having been in serious combat crossfire! He added that he wasn’t being cared for well enough and it would be difficult to figure how the plaintiff was worse off than his friend. And a Christian woman who’d thought that suing one another wasn’t something she wanted to see anyone doing, and that the parties ought to keep it out of court and work it out on their own. It was very interesting to hear our biases played out one by one all day, openly sharing our thoughts that way. We’d been encouraged by the bailiff to tell the parties why, if we thought we might be opposed to hearing the case, we should be excused from serving. They really do need more impartiality to listen in on a case involving accidents that don’t look or sound right to people. There were a few people who’d said that they were fit to serve and to analyze details, and then to judge based upon the facts. But from our combined and biased points of view, I think that I speak for most of us, the case sounded somewhat frivolous on the surface.

LJ says:

PS I would like to add that I thought the county’s process for getting to the jury selection was run very poorly. So many of our government’s processes are inefficient (the Dept of Motor Vehicles or Licensing, many low-level Courts etc., and other publicly funded ‘services’).

Susan Lapin says:

That is fascinating, LJ. In my process, after taking down our juror numbers in response to the questions, we were called up one at a time with a white noise machine on to explain our answers.

Lora says:

My jury experience (since it appears many are sharing theirs) was mostly pleasant and interesting. The other jurors were reasoning and mature. When we had to make our decision, I was the one holdout- and the moment they realized it, they all started telling me how they respected it and they would just go over it again. Everyone was so civil. Then when I had questioned them about the way they were phrasing the decision we had to make, they rephrased it into something that made sense. We were able to come to an agreement fairly quickly at that point. My only irritation was with the lawyers, who seemed to consider the jury as creatures of emotion that they could sway with loaded phrases that did little for either side.
All my other jury experiences involved getting out of jury duty due to recent childbirth, or, this year, because I had become a caregiver to an elderly parent. Fortunately, my mother in law’s health issues eventually resolved for the most part as she recovered from an accident. That caregiver role has diminished to long distance phone calls now that she is back in her own home. And I am pleased that jury duty never had a negative impact on my young children years ago, or on the stressful situation we experienced this year. It was an act of legal compassion, you might say. I feel I have been pretty fortunate in my jury experiences, and I wouldn’t mind serving again, though I would really appreciate avoiding those cases that involve horrific detail and endless sequester.

Susan Lapin says:

Sounds like you served in a city where the system works as it should. What you say about appealing to the emotions drives me crazy in political campaigns as well.

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