My Jury Duty Experience
Most of our experiences with the United States’ jury and court operations are from the TV shows like Perry Mason, LA Law, Boston Legal, etc. Few of us also have the opportunity to serve in the jury panel and go through the legal process and the environment in person. It is a valuable experience to understand how the courtroom system works and the efforts required to ensure a fair trial. The system is by no mean perfect as the OJ Simpson and the Trayvon Martin jury trials demonstrated. Having good and expensive lawyers on your side makes a difference, sometimes. But, the basic structure is solid, the concept is sound, and it has been serving our needs for over 200 years. This is my brief journey of this complex machinery created by men to resolve men’s inhumanity against one another in a peaceful and civilized way.
The Assembly Room
My first call to jury duty was in 1994 in the form of a summon in the mail. Due to conflict in schedule with my work, I made a postponement and did not report to the county courts till 1995. At the time, the potential juror had to report to the assigned courts’ assembly room for 10 consecutive working days if he/she had not been selected to a panel of a case. The first day started at 8 am with a 1 hour orientation to acquaint the citizens from all walks of the society to the duty required of the juror and the locations of all the courtrooms. The potential juror would be paid $5 a day and 15 cents a mile one way. On that day, there were around 200 people, young and old, in the assembly room waiting to be called to the courtroom. If there were not enough court cases for the day, some of the potential jurors would be sent home and asked to call in for service needed for the coming days.
When the courtroom needed juror service, a first group of 20 people would be called randomly and sent to the specified courtroom. A normal court case would require 14 jurors in the panel. Those failed to be selected would return to the assembly room waiting for the next court case. I was called an average of 4 times a day and was never selected to serve on a jury panel this first time around.
As the 20 jurors entered the assigned courtroom, they were directed to sit in the audience area. The presiding judge then explained whether it was a civil or a criminal case and how long it was going to last approximately (majority of the cases lasted less than 10 days). The judge then introduced the lawyers and the defendant and maybe the plaintiff. Any potential jurors who knew any of them personally were excused immediately. After that, an office of the court called out 12 potential jurors in random to be seated in the jury panel box numbering 1 to 12. The judge then asked juror #1 to answer a list of questions posted on the wall, namely; age, marital status, education, occupation, etc. After that, the judge would ask juror #1 if he/she would have hardship serving on the case for the duration and would be able to render an objective verdict based solely on the evidences presented by the lawyers and the instructions given by the judge. The whole questionings then were repeated to the jurors #2 to #12. The judge would dismiss any unqualified juror and another juror waiting in the audience area would be called up to go through the same process again. More jurors would be called up from the assembly room if necessary.
After 12 prospective jurors had been seated in the panel box to the judge’s satisfaction, it was the lawyers' turn to cast their votes of confidence. However, they would only ask specific questions related to the case and to the jurors whom they had doubt as to the helpfulness to their case. The lawyers from either side could excuse the particular juror after the questioning on the spot but would rather do that in the peremptory challenge when no reason was needed. During the preemptory challenge, the lawyers from each side took turn to excuse one juror at a time for strategic consideration. The dismissed jurors needed to be replaced and the whole selection process would be repeated.
After the 12 prospective jurors passed the lawyers’ inquires, the judge would call up 2 more jurors to the panel box as alternate who would be asked the same questions again by all parties to test his/her qualification. For a simple case, a qualified jury panel could be seated in 3 to 4 hours while a complicated one could take several days. It was common knowledge that professionals – doctor, scientist, engineer, accountant, etc. – had a hard time to get on the panel. Being a professional myself, I was called to the jury panel box in both the civil and criminal cases many times and rejected each time with only one exception as an alternate juror in a simple fender-bender traffic case.
As an alternate juror, my jury duty was the same as the 12 regular jurors in the panel box except that I could only participate in the deliberation when one of the regular jurors was excused during the trial for whatever reason. During the trial, the lawyers from each side called the witness and presented the case just like how it was played out in those TV shows mentioned above. The trial session normally started around 9:30 am, broke for lunch around 11:30 am, and finished for the day around 4:30 pm. My case was completed in 3 days and reached a verdict after 2 hours in deliberation. Another alternate juror and I were asked to wait outside the courtroom while the 12 jurors tried to reach a verdict. At the conclusion of the case, the 14 jurors returned to the assembly room to get the paper work that would certify the completion of the jury duty.
Since my first participation in the legal system in 1995, I was summoned every 2 years. In the beginning, the experience was an adventure and eye opener. But, after the second time around, I started to dread it having to appear in several courtrooms in a single day to answer questions about my private life, as if I was the one on trial. So, it was a great relief when the 10-day jury service was changed to just 1 day.