Friday, July 29, 2011
Reflections of a Reluctant Juror
Serving on a jury, as I recently did, is one of those things that prods you into thinking about larger issues of how our social, legal and governmental systems work. Having been made a part of that process, whether you wanted to be or not, you see it in a more real and tangible way.
By dint of circumstance, one element of the jury experience hit me between the eyes. Here in California your exposure is limited to a week. You call in the night before to see if you have to go in the next day, and if you haven’t been called for five days, you’re off the hook.
As chance would have it, I was called in on Monday morning, which exposed me to being seated on the jury for a six-day civil trial. Had I been called in any other day of the week, I would have been exposed to a three-month murder trial. Six days is a manageable inconvenience; three months is a business or job-destroyer. I cheerfully did the six days.
When the concept of trial by jury was first introduced a few centuries ago, they didn’t have forensic specialists, psychiatric experts or most of the other things that add greatly to the time of a trial. Practically every case was heard in a few days, and just about anyone could afford to put the plow down that long.
They also didn’t spend a lot of time picking the jury. The idea was that it was supposed to be 12 people who knew the defendant well enough to know whether he was probably lying or not. Now the idea is to come up with people who know nothing and have qualities that make them likely to be sympathetic to your side.
During our little trial we would step out into the courthouse foyer during recesses and see dozens of prospective jurors for the three-month trial filling out a questionnaire that looked to be about 10 double-sided pages long. I hate that sort of thing. Most of the time the questions aren’t very good and force you to give an oversimplified and un-nuanced answer. For a nuance guy like me, that’s painful.
The jury process itself is more than a bit humbling. A big part of that is that as a juror you have to make a decision that means a great deal to the people involved, but you have to do so based on incomplete knowledge derived from incomplete evidence presented to you. When our jury was in deliberation, I asked at one point, “Is it just me, or does anybody else feel like the evidence presented to us doesn’t adequately explain what the heck happened here?” There was a chorus of “yeas” and nodding heads.
We moved forward and decided on the basis of the evidence we had that there wasn’t enough of it to prove the case and ruled in favor of the defendant. In casting my vote, I did so realizing that if I knew what God did, I might have voted the other way.
Deliberations, in our case, brought out the best in most people. Another humbling thing about jury service is the realization that not everybody else looks at the evidence and sees it as you do. Tolerance and courtesy nonetheless prevailed for the most part, and we were eventually able to talk ourselves into agreement. For a fleeting moment I wondered how things would be if legislatures behaved like juries, but that’s not what they’re elected to do. Nice fantasy, anyway.