Miss Woodhouse's Musings

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When the Jury’s Actually Out – Episode Two

Welcome back to When the Jury’s Actually Out. Last time, our unlikely heroine discovered that she’d been selected to serve on a criminal court case. Let’s get back to the story.

Lunch over, we returned to the courtroom via our highly stylish method of escalator travel. I tried to find some measure of comfort in the slight familiarity of the journey, and in the ever-present figure in the white polo. We walked into the courtroom, now crowded with spectators, and let me tell you that is no walk in the park for someone with social anxiety issues. Every head turned, every conversation stopped. Countless pairs of  eyes raked us up and down, silently assessing what they thought our ability to judge the case was. I kept reminding myself to breathe as the lovely bailiffs pushed themselves between us and the audience and ensconced us in the relative safety of the deliberation room. There, we seated ourselves around a large table and made awkward small talk. We got to know each other a bit – retirees, teachers, business people, and a few young hourly workers. Most of us were readers, and I found myself breaking the ice with others by asking them about the books they held. Married, single, divorced, all represented. Parents and not. Overly educated, and just barely educated. It truly was a great cross-section of humanity. We all developed an easy, joke-cracking camaraderie that would draw criticism in the days to come, but was our only saving grace during the case. One lovely older woman took an interest in me (along with the knitting she carried with her) and made sure that I didn’t fade into the background. At some point the bailiff came in to ask if any of us wanted to take notes, and I was one of four to accept. Whether I needed the help was yet to be seen, but better safe than sorry and it gave me something to do with my hands.

The beginning of the case was fairly dull, even given the subject matter. The judge even had to wake one of the older gentlemen up, which would have been funnier if I hadn’t been on the verge of dozing off myself. Once we were in the jury box, the courtroom didn’t explode with questionings and accusations like you see on TV. Also, I began to notice the extreme deference with which we were being treated. In many courtroom dramas, the jury is window-dressing to the more sensational world of cross-examination and witness breakdowns. In this court, the jury was treated reverentially. It wasn’t until I saw how deferentially the judge treated us that the full enormity of the situation hit me. We were the axis. We would decide the fate of this man on trial, forever. The lawyers, witnesses, and judge could only present so much and go so far. We had the final say. Let me tell you, that is an intensely sobering realization. Here I was, 24, barely able to keep my own life running somewhat smoothly, and I was to help decide the course of another human being’s life? Wow. Just…wow.

We didn’t do too much that day – opening statements and a witness or two. The judge adjourned us for the day, with another reminder to not talk about the case, etc, read the news, look online, try to visit the site of the alleged incident, so on and so forth. We then made the trip back down to the waiting room, signed out, got our passes for the next day, and left the courthouse. I met up with my parents for a coffee and told them what I could: I’d been selected, it would be a few days, and I can’t say anymore. Already, the few details I knew were weighing heavily on my mind, and I just sat quietly most of the evening while everyone else talked about their day, finally checking out in front of the television to watch a movie. Normally I’m a huge internet junkie, but I didn’t want to run the risk of seeing something I shouldn’t regarding the case. I turned in, and tried to sleep, facts and adrenaline flooding my system and fighting off oblivion.

I arrived at the jury room the next morning, and was soon joined by my thirteen new best friends. Again we took our journey through the building, again we braved the stares and whispers. I can’t even begin to explain how horrible this day was. We heard things, heartbreaking things that you don’t even want to see on the most brutal of crime dramas. We were showed pictures, given explanations, facts as best the could be described, sent out of the room any time either side overstepped their bounds of presenting and wandered into interpretation. That was our job, to interpret. Not theirs. We heard from police, detectives, eyewitnesses, expert witnesses…and a child. Let me tell you, that was the most difficult thing of all. Sometimes they show children testifying on TV shows, but I can assure you that there’s nothing in life more devastating than listening to a child testify about things they shouldn’t know about for many more years to come, and seeing the blank emptiness behind their eyes. All I wanted to do was run and throw my arms around the child, tell them everything was going to be okay – not because I was yet set to make a ruling, but because I really, truly wanted to believe that they could be okay again. Whether I voted guilty or innocent for the defendant made no difference. The damage was done either way, and all I wanted was to see it repaired. But, through it all, I couldn’t react. I couldn’t let a flicker of emotion show.

That’s another thing you don’t fully realize about jury duty from the TV. You are under constant scrutiny the entire time you’re in the courtroom. Both sides want to get a bead on how the jury is leaning, and they are trained to catch shifts in body language and flickers of expression. The last thing I wanted to do was allow either side to think that I was swaying towards a favourable verdict to them, because when I walked into that jury room the next day to start making deliberations, I truly did not know what I was going to say. I really, really hated the prosecution. I can’t tell you how much I didn’t like the lawyers, their “facts”, their witnesses, their whole case. It was flimsy at best; not their fault given the circumstances but they still came across as untrustworthy. More unfortunately, the defense’s legal counsel seemed inept. There were so many questions they left unasked, so many things I yearned to know to help me make an informed recommendation. Perhaps there was a good reason to leave those questions unasked, I truly hope that is the case. Otherwise…I just don’t know.

Due to the nature of the case, we were being presented with two separate (yet related) charges, and also due to the nature of the case, some of the evidence was not allowed to be publicly shown in the courtroom. Later, during deliberations, we would have the chance to view that evidence, but more on that later. The main thing that day was the fact that above all else, we somehow had to compartmentalize our brains and divorce our feelings and emotions from the greater picture, for now. During our times in the deliberation room, we’d talk about banalities and crack jokes. As humans, we process information by thinking, talking, sharing. We weren’t supposed to be thinking about the case yet, we weren’t allowed to talk about it, and of course that meant no sharing. At one point the bailiff came in to chide us for them being able to hear laughter on the other side of the imitation poster-board wall. One of the jurors, an older man with weight behind his words, turned to stare blankly at the bailiff and replied “Well, they can’t accuse us of being in here talking about the case. There’s nothing funny about all this.” The bailiff shrugged and left. Secretly, I think that he understood better than his position would allow him to let on. I felt badly for him – we had each other to distract us from the grim case at hand while he was left standing there alone with his own thoughts. It must be so, so lonely.

That’s all I have the emotional energy for in this second installment of When the Jury’s Actually Out. In the next sections I’ll go over deliberations, verdicts, and security. Until then…be well.

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When the Jury’s Actually Out – Episode One

I’m convinced that there’s nothing quite as character-shaping and life-defining as serving on a jury. It should come as no surprise that I’m a huge fan of people stepping up and doing their civic duty. Chalk it up to my mum’s early exposure of me to Perry Mason and Matlock, but I love anything related to law or courtrooms. In fact, my next NaNoWriMo book is based on a court room drama…but that’s a posting for another time.

What I’m grappling with currently is as far from crime fiction as you can get. It is the effect of cold, hard reality. You see, I believe in my civic duty, and a few years back I reported for jury duty. I’d almost made it through my assigned month of Tuesday “on call”…and then that fateful Monday night the words “required to report” listed my name amongst the others. Now, let’s be honest here. I was excited! I’d get to go to the courthouse, see some of the cool things that go on in a courtroom, and eventually be dismissed from serving because who would want a 24 year old teacher/barista sitting on a case? Or, maybe it would be a low-key civil case and I would get selected and could see what cross-examination looks like up close and personal! Either way, I was excited to spend a day away from my students and customers and expand my horizons.

For most of the morning, it was all very awesome. I showed up on time, parked in the assigned lot, put my little pass up in the window, locked my cell phone in the car as per city laws, and made my way through security. Once in, the staff was very nice in helping me find the jury quarters, buried a bit in the back of the building and well into the basement. There were about 60 other people in the waiting room with me, all from the various age groups, ethnicity, and walks of life which makes our justice system so awesome. After an awkward, let’s-check-each-other-out-but-avoid-eye-contact hour with my “peers,” we were herded into another room to watch a screening of the courthouse blockbuster of the year, “How to be A Juror and Thank You for Giving Up Your Soap Operas to Come Do Your Civic Duty Since We Won’t Accept Anymore of Your Reasons to Be Excused…Again.” I managed to get through the film without falling asleep by imagining that it was actually created to be a torture device for captured insurgents – 10 minutes of the rampant patriotism and bad acting would have me spilling secrets almost as effectively as waterboarding if I had any secrets to spill. After the movie (which definitely needed some soda and popcorn), we retired to our now familiar waiting room and resumed counting the ceiling tiles silently to ourselves. At some point, either in the room or before the movie, we were informed that there was one court case that day, and it was a criminal case. All I really remember is a collectively uncomfortable shifting in our seats. It’s one thing to be on a jury…but a criminal case? I could see the gears beginning to turn in the minds of my fellow potential jurors; “what do I have to say to get dismissed from the case?” Still feeling confident, I returned to counting ceiling tiles while holding a folder of papers that I should have been grading. Who can focus on British Literature when there’s Law School happening right in front of you?

About an hour before lunch, new and official-looking people entered the waiting room, and you could feel the energy change even though they said nothing. As one, all the potential jurors packed away whatever they’d been holding in their hands to occupy them, and gathered their belongings closely. Sure enough, within 5 minutes we were ushered on the beginning of a journey through the court house that would become all too familiar over the next days. Outside of an airport or shopping mall, I’d never seen so many escalators and stairs and elevators and open balconies and fake plants and large windows. I’d also never seen so many lawyers since freshman orientation at my university (it was a very well-respected Law School as well so they were EVERYWHERE). Feeling very civilian and undereducated, I allowed myself to be ushered along from escalator to landing to escalator and so forth. During the movie we’d been warned not to interact with anyone in the environment, not even each other. Until voir dire was complete, we were our own little islands. Take that, John Donne. My nerves grew as people stopped talking and turned to stare at us. I couldn’t discern what stares were merely idle curiosity, and which ones held hostility. I observed as much as I could peripherally, and noticed almost immediately a man in a white polo watching our every move. I couldn’t make out the logo on his shirt, but it looked official. As we took the escalators, he watched us from a distance, taking elevators to keep abreast of our floor-to-floor progress. I knew I should feel safe and secure and assume that this very muscular and unsmiling man was there to protect us, but honestly it just made my heart beat faster with uncertainty. We didn’t stop until we reached the top floor. With no where else to go, we made our way down a hallway.

We filed into a court room, and it was everything my little law geek heart could ask for. Darkly carved wooden chairs, tables, benches, a beautiful judge and witness stand, rich green carpets, creamy walls, and brass lighting fixtures on the walls and hanging from the ceiling. Double wood doors lead into the courtroom, and a door stood on either side of the back. The one on the right was for the judge, the defendant, and bailiffs, and the one on the left lead to the jury room. The first 14 of us filled the jury box, and the rest of us were seated in the spectator seats. All told, we filled up half the room, all shifting uncomfortably in our seats. The first few questions were generic, broad, and had already been answered when we sent in our jury screening surveys. But repetition, form, and clarity are at the heart of law. I feel like defining “law” as “check…then double check…then triple check…then check at least once more but probably twice at the minimum.” Again, all the respect in the world for our legal system. We answered with stand-up, sit-down and it crossed my mind more than once that this must be what going to a traditional school must be like. After weeding out a few people who apparently didn’t read the questionnaire carefully, we got into more specific questions. I don’t remember them all, but I do remember the one that made my blood start to chill: “Can you devote more than one day to serving on a jury to this case?” I wanted so, so badly to say I couldn’t, that I needed to work my shift at Starbucks the next day. But I knew that wasn’t true; I’d been in contact with my manager about jury duty and we had contingency plans in place. Question after question rolled out, and pool became smaller and smaller. I stifled the urge to roll my eyes at some of the responses – they were blatantly and artlessly answered in a way to get them dismissed. I swear there were moments where the judge had to suppress an eyeroll himself, and I began to feel a sense of camaraderie with him.

The questions grew more specific. Being reminded constantly that we were under oath and expected to keep confidentiality, they began to reveal what the case was. To my horror, I realized that I genuinely didn’t have a clue as to the case at hand. The alleged incidents occurred during my last semester at university, and I’d been far too busy to keep up with local news. As the questions continued, the case continued to unfurl…race issues…minor’s involved…sex crime. That’s all I will say about the case, but I think it is enough to give you a rough idea; and rough it was. My blood was well and truly frozen over by this point, and I worked very hard to keep my voice steady when addressed for questions. As the pool shrank, the bailiffs kept moving us up closer and closer to the front, not allowing any empty chairs between any of us. By the final questions, I was sitting in the jury box, enjoying being able to see the whole court room from that vantage point. I figured this was my only chance to enjoy it, so I soaked up every detail I could. Even now, I can picture that courtroom clearly with my eyes wide open. It is indelibly etched on my mind.  Finally, voir dire came down to something that felt like the lightening round in a game show, or worse yet team selection for dodge-ball in PE. Each side ranked the jurors with a check or an x. The jurors refused by both sides were automatically dismissed. The ones that were split came down to an each by each basis. Either side could absolutely veto a juror, but they only had a small number of vetoes (I think three or five). If both sides could say they didn’t absolutely hate you, you stayed in. I could catch glimpses of the sheets they held, and I remember thinking “Oh, this is juror bingo.” It is an odd feeling, to say the least. Finally, the scores were tallied and as Ryan Seacrest used to say, the results were in. The group collectively held their breath as each juror was named, letting it out a little in relief every time their name wasn’t called. Twelve names were called, then they called two more so we would have a jury of fourteen (two alternates in case of illness or corruption). Name thirteen was mine.

I was stunned, sitting there in shock. During the process we had individual interviews, and I knew based on what I told the court that the defense didn’t want me. I saw the look on the lawyer’s face as the names were being called for final consideration, and I saw him decisively mark an x over my name. But, apparently there were three other people he liked less than me. I was in. The prosecution had succeeded in getting me in. The judge congratulated us all, reviewed some rules with us (mainly that “don’t talk to anyone about anything” stuff), then dismissed everyone to reconvene after lunch. The fourteen of us were taken back down the endless escalators, back to the waiting room. Too much in shock to consider leaving for lunch, I sat and ate the snacks I’d brought “just in case” and stared at a wall. I was a juror, on a criminal case.

Cut to commercial break…more story on the next episode of When the Jury’s Actually Out.

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