Monday, August 15, 2011

Excuse Me, Puhleeze

In the wake of Casey Anthony’s acquittal of the charge of murdering her daughter, the jury came in for blasts of criticism from all sorts of commentators. Whether they deserved accolades or brickbats, the jurors should be applauded for one thing. They served.

Trying to wiggle out of jury duty is an American tradition that ranks right up there with a little cheating on the old income tax return. Maybe it ranks higher. There are reasons. Some jurors are injured financially by being taken off their jobs with no compensation. Others suffer when forced to spend what can be many hours away from family obligations. A few people are terrified by the prospects of retaliation should their verdicts wound friends of bad guys too deeply.

My jury experience involved service in the Second District Court in Ogden, Utah. The process there was to summon about 40 citizens for duty, and select the panel for each case from that group. The selections were made based on questions from the opposing attorneys and the judge. I was selected four times.

The first time I made a pitifully weak run at pleading to be excused. I said I was a federal government worker and had a backlog of really important matters to attend to. The judge, who it turned out had a good sense of humor, pointed out that my office was right across the street from the courthouse. He said if my absence from work was threatening to cause a national or international disaster, I probably could slip into the federal building after the day’s jury duty ended and attend to the emergency.

Several prospective jurors had been passed over before my turn came. Only two were excused at their request. It appeared that very good reasons were needed to escape the civic duty.

A young man wearing a dirty t-shirt, ragged jeans, and scuffed work boots sat next to me during the selections. After I was picked, he whispered, “I’ll show you how to get out of this. Just watch me.”

He made the first selection cut, failing to score with a lame work excuse somewhat like mine. During that part of the questioning, my new acquaintance informed the court that he worked in a gravel pit. When the judge asked what his specific job was, he replied, “Digging.”

The judge enjoyed a good laugh, but then posed a meatier question: “Have you formed any opinion about the guilt or innocence of the accused?”

“You bet,” the digger said. “The cops arrested him, didn’t they? So he must be guilty as hell.”

That response did not tickle the judicial funny bone. The judge bellowed, “Out, out,” and pointed dramatically to the door of the chamber.

As the gravel pit worker rose to depart, he winked at me and said, “See.”

Incidentally, I was proud of my fellow jurors. They listened carefully to evidence, debated every conceivable question like ladies and gentlemen, and reached what I thought were solid verdicts. The cases we heard ranged from a relatively minor hit-and-run traffic charge to attempted murder. Serving as a juror turned out to be a rewarding experience, and caused me to gain respect for others who serve.

If called again, I will cheerfully do my duty as a citizen. But then, I pay all of my income taxes, too.


Kay Dennison said...

I've been called several times but never served. Once I was called in a high-profile capital murder case and the accused copped a plea before the jury had been empaneled so we all were excused by letter. I probably wouldn't have served anyway because a) I knew the judge personally; b) I had already decided that the defendant was guilty.

That said, I would serve as I believe that it's my duty as a citizen.

Big John said...

In the UK Crown Court prospective jurors are not questioned. They just stand up and are either accepted or rejected simply on appearance. The easiest way to be rejected is to wear a jacket and tie. What a bloody ridiculous system, but then the lawyers (barristers) still wear wigs.

schmidleysscribblins, said...

Thanks for this post. I was really angry the public thought they knew more than the jury in the CA case. I have never been called for a jury, but my daughter was on a jury that heard a murder charge. They convicted the guy, no small thing here in VA with a death penalty. She described the turmoil in the jury room (after the fact). The folks involved were torn on what to do. You can't convict someone on flimsy evidence. Thank you for your sservice on a jury, and for paying your taxes.

JHawk23 said...

There have been occasional high-profile cases in which the jury's verdict has demonstrated beyond doubt that the jury system still works -- the prosecution must PROVE its case. The Casey Anthony case was one of those; and I still recall, so many years ago, the Angela Davis trial. So far, so good.

I do question, though, the practice of querying prospective jurors because it leads to "stacking" a jury.

Though I've lived in the same house for 15 years now, I've never been summoned for jury duty. (My wife, only once). I think it would be interesting.

joared said...

Am amazed at all the people writing here who say they've never been called for jury duty. Serves to buttress my belief that once they have your name they keep after you whether or not you've served, contrary to what we've been told, here in Calif., that they rotate names.

My husband was constantly called, and usually ended up serving. I served in the midwest when I was single, living in a small town. Kinda awkward 'cause I knew or knew of everybody -- other jurors, accused, both attorneys and judge. I was called here, in So Cal, but we were ultimately dismissed before trial. I continued to be called regularly for years until just recently, but due to a variety of reasons I had to always have a deferment.