Thursday, September 19, 2013

Jury Duty

"Present the juror"

With those words from the Prosecution's Solicitor my sphincter tightened while the next ten seconds passed and the Public Defender conferred with his client.

"No objections. Swear the juror."

And with that, I was now a juror in a murder trial.

Cue the flashback music.........

The wife opened the mailbox almost a month ago and immediately recognized the envelope. "You gotta be effing kidding me" was all she said. It was a Jury Summons for me, the fourth in three years for me from various courts in my area, from General Session Criminal Court to Magistrate Court to Civil Court....I was beginning to wonder if I was the last registered voter of my age & gender in the county without a felony record since they seemed to enjoy picking me. The first time I went through the screening at the court but was not selected. The next two times I never even had to show up; I simply had to call in and check. Something told me that after 3 free passes I wasn't going to be so lucky this time.

Of course, work was (as always) short-handed and since I am the band-aid to all their problems, I had to be in to work at 4AM the first day. So I had to be up at 2:15AM to be there on time. After work, I hustled home to get showered and shave my head and get my "grown up clothes" on. By wearing a tie I became the best dressed man at the courthouse. Seriously, folks, the letter they send you tells you to dress properly, and I came dressed for court, or at th every least a business meeting. My clothes were crisply pressed & creased, my tie matched my shirt perfectly, my shoes were shined. Have some respect for your civic duty.

Of course, that didn't stop people from showing up in a camo t-shirt, a Swamp People t-shirt, and sleeveless blouses that showed off their tattoos.So much for showing a modicum of respect for the court, I guess.

We started with a good hundred candidates in the room. As your number was called out you had to stand, state your name, your employer & job title, whether you were married/divorced/single, and if married, your spouse's employer & job. They skipped my number, making me think I was gonna skate. At the end though they asked if anyone's number hadn't been called. Out of the hundred bodies in there I was the very last to speak.

Then they asked about people who had served jury duty within the past three years who wanted out. We lost maybe 3 or 4 people. They asked about full time parents of kids under five who had to take care of their progeny. We lost 3 or 4 more. We lost one who lived outside the county and was summoned by mistake. We lost someone who was in class all day every day. We even lost one who wasn't a US citizen.

Then they told us what the case was, a murder case from four years ago that I only barely remembered despite it having occurred a mile from my house. In my defense, it was a holiday weekend and I'd spent part of it celebrating my 40th birthday and also watching playoff hockey in Charleston. After four years you kinda figure someone had either been tried already or that it went cold & no one was ever going to be tried...

After the defendant was introduced they asked us if anyone was related to him, or to the deceased. We lost at least 10 more. Then we were asked about anyone being friends with or coworkers with anyone related to the case that might bias us one way or the other and thus create enough conflict of intereest as to keep us from making a fair and impartial judgement. Oh, boy.

We must have lost 40 more in the next ten minutes.

We had to have been down to half our starting number when they finally used some magical computer to randomly pick names from the remaining 50. The prosecution could veto ten I believe and the defense had at least five vetoes. They'd seated about seven and vetoed a good ten between them by the time I was called.

The solicitor for the prosecution was a wiry little bulldog who sounded like James Carville. The defense was a public defender who reminded me of Scott Bakula.

Next thing I knew, I was in the jury box for a murder trial. This is actually something I've thought about over the years. It was something I took very seriously. At the end of testimony, me and the people around me were responsible for the fate of the man sitting across the room and for ensuring justice was served. Twelve jurors and two alternates...and then we were shuffled out of the courtroom and into the jury room. Fourteen strangers sitting eerily quiet around a rectangular table. There's a minute or two of idle chit chat that quickly fades back into awkward silence once again. And away we go...

I won't bore you with details of the 3-day trial. However, as witnesses came forward to testify it became very obvious to me that damn near everyone associated with this case on both sides lived in a circle around me all within a mile. That made me a bit uncomfortable. It didn't shake my resolve to be fair and impartial. No one tried to threaten me or tamper with me, or even to make eye contact with me. Still, it was an uncomfortable reality in a small town of 6,000 people.

In the end, we simply did not have enough to convict. The police botched it pretty badly, with evidence missing, not tested, or if it was tested we had no results. The lead investigator was a guy who'd been fired last year after an FBI inquest. All the way around, law enforcement took a black eye from this case. But as the law was read to us, the state had the burden of proof. The defendant is presumed innocent. He didn't have to prove his innocence but the state needed to prove his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt and in our eyes they hadn't met the burden of proof.

We were all very tense and serious as we rendered the verdict. We asked the court to hold everyone in the courtroom long enough for us to get our work excuses for our employers and flee the building in case angry family members wanted to have words with us. We didn't really expect trouble but anything is possible.

And just like that, back to work at 4AM on Friday. At least I don't have to worry about it for another three years. And I got to wear grown up clothes for four whole days....

At least no one wore wigs.....

1 comment:

Brooke said...

Sounds like quite an experience!i had to sit on a grand jury for such a case. We had enough to bring it to trial, but I'm not sure where it went from there.