Everything I know about legal proceedings, I learned on TV. Whether it was reruns of Perry Mason during my childhood or watching Jack Nicholson let us know that we can’t handle the truth, my understanding of what happened in the courtroom was carefully crafted by Hollywood directors.
I’ve heard horror stories from friends-of-friends about getting selected for week-long trials and have been informed many times over on the ins and outs of how to avoid getting selected. From what I gather, leaning as far as you can one way or another on your beliefs seems to be your most plausible way of getting the axe.
I have to wonder though, why is it we pride ourselves as a nation of the just – willing to spout off our views on the rights to a fair trial for everyone – when we wholeheartedly make every effort possible to avoid helping when our name is called? Don’t get me wrong, the thought of spending days (or worse) losing billable hours is not high on my list; but in an hour’s time in the jury room today, I came to a small realization that it is my civic duty and a responsibility I shouldn’t take light-hearted or desire to avoid. I decided that the most responsible thing I could do for my government was to answer wholeheartedly and honestly as possible. Much less, I owed it to the person on trial my best effort to give them a fair shake and could only hope that if [heaven-forbid] I were in a similar situation I would get the same.
The following is my account of my first ever jury summons and appearance. And if you’d prefer the abridged version, yes, I was selected.
I’ve been pretty lucky that with thirteen eligible years behind me, it took this long for me to be summoned for jury duty. My notice arrived in mid-December and like most, elation wasn’t my initial reaction. In fact, I spent the better part of the next month pushing my political views to the extreme in preparation for the selection process and fretting over the notion that I’d be doing some serious all-nighters to keep clients happy if the trial happened to draw out over any amount of time.
Having never sat through a trial before, I had no idea what to expect. I had a decent idea that it was going to be something smaller since I was reporting to our local city court and not the county courthouse in downtown Ft Worth. Honestly, I had to even ask my wife what I should wear before going so as not to look too out of place. For those who care, I went with jeans and a green oxford shirt. And I matched my black leathers.
I equipped myself with a full Instapaper reading list and a Moleskine just in case inspiration struck. 22 of us were shoehorned into an undersized room that would have accommodated 20 decently if it were set up right. It wasn’t. We waited patiently – silently – for just under an hour before we were greeted or given instructions by anyone about the process.
For the selection process, we were sworn in and then seated according to some order that wasn’t alphabetical or chronological to when we signed in. The state attorney (prosecution) had the first shot at us and explained that we were called in for a trial involving a speeding violation, a Class C Misdemeanor. We were also informed that the one police officer in the room was a witness and ultimately the one who wrote the ticket.
If you want to stand a chance in the courtroom, hire the better lawyer.
I didn’t know any difference at the time, but the prosecuting attorney had it together. The only basis I have to weigh her talents with was the fact that the defending attorney didn’t at all. In fact, it took very little time after he opened his mouth that I was questioning his ability to communicate much of anything in the English language, much less a profession that required persuading others with it.
During the jury selection process, one of the potential jury members raised his hand and pointed out that he had no problem giving credence to anything the police officer would say over what the defendant would say if it were a case of singular-opposing testimonies. And there’s the rub. This was the answer and as soon as everyone saw his name get marked off by the defense lawyer, the floodgates opened. If my math is correct, 12 of the 22 quickly jumped on and got their name axed as well.
Although in most situations I would agree with that statement, I didn’t pipe up with a “ditto” comment.
With 10 left and 6 spots to fill, I knew what my odds were on being chosen. The lawyers made their final decisions passed them to the judge and within minutes I was juror #4, back row, far right.
The actual court session lasted about an hour and fifteen minutes with both sides interviewing the defendant and the witness (the officer). They questioned about the radar (which I learned today isn’t actually radar anymore, it is laser device now), the calibration of the device, the training of the officer, the traffic at the time, the location of the car on the road and many other things that each lawyer felt pertained best to prove their case.
In the end our deliberation was only about five minutes reaching a unanimous guilty verdict on the first vote for driving 63 miles per hour in a posted 40 mile per hour zone. We re-entered the courtroom, gave our verdict and walked out about fifteen minutes past five with somewhat of an odd feeling about the whole situation.
Some observations I had or thoughts I will be chewing on for a while:
– I travel the exact road the defendant was ticketed on multiple times per week. As the officer was called to the stand first, it was hard for me to not solidify my verdict right then being so familiar with the area as well as knowing the posted speed limits. I had to mentally remind myself a number of times throughout the trial that I had to be fair in my judgment especially before hearing her side of the story. On the other hand, ignorance is not a plea-able case when on trial but the defendant was not a local resident so there is the issue of feeling a little bad for them as well.
– We as jurors were treated very nicely by the judge and the attorney’s but I can’t help but think it would be a less intimidating time if it was a little better stated up front what would be going on for the day. Add to the fact that the jury room accommodations could have used an upgrade and things like drinks/coffee might help take the sting off of the whole process.
– If you want to stand a chance in the courtroom, hire the better lawyer. I’ve heard Mark Cuban tell an adage that he lives by a couple of times: “When you walk into a meeting, the first thing you should do is look around the room for the idiot. If you can’t find the idiot, you’re him.” The defending attorney today was sadly overmatched. As an older gentleman, I had expected him to have experience and a better presence. He fumbled for words, he failed to make good points, his posture was somewhat poor and it made it look much worse that his opponent was better on all of the stated and then some. I have no idea of knowing if it was the best the defendant could afford or maybe a friend of the family but it didn’t work out in her favor.
– The judge would be great in sketch comedy or a game my cousin invented called “Make Me Laugh.” He had a great poker face but I can’t help but imagine he knew full well of the outcome early on.
– If you’re speeding, you’re breaking the law. Knowing this probably doesn’t change my driving habits all that much, but when the question was posed to each of us whether or not we’d contested a speeding ticket of our own before, I was quite surprised at the number of yes responses. I’ve had enough tickets in my lifetime to know better. And for every single one, I was in the wrong. An officer shouldn’t have to take time out of his work schedule (or worse, day off) to come in 9 months after the fact to prove that he caught you breaking the law.
– I’m still pondering the idea of swearing in under oath. Much less to “so help me God.” The Bible points out that we shouldn’t be taking oaths and if you do, you’d better keep them. Let your yes be yes, and your no be no. I swore in today and I kept my oath. But was I right in doing it in the first place?
And the one I’ll be pondering the most:
– It was easy for me to render a decision today. I heard the facts and believe without a reasonable doubt that the defendant broke the law. And for my decision, I straddled her with a $208 fine. How much worse do those have it that know lives and livelihoods are on the line with a very similar decision. I will sleep well tonight, but if I just sent some kid’s father away for any number of years for a lack of good judgment on the dad’s part, how many hours would I sit awake wondering if I did the right thing?
The preceding is for a series in a writing experiment that I am participating in called Project52. If you liked it, feel free to follow along and read other #p52 articles – or even better, subscribe to all of my writings by RSS or Email.