advice from a fake consultant

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Thursday, May 15, 2008

On Jury Duty, Or, "To Protect And Not Serve"

While it is generally the policy of your friendly fake consultant to avoid direct contact with the American legal system, contact is sometimes unavoidable, which is why we have recently spent a couple of days as a guest of the King County, Washington, Superior Court...and came about as close as a non-criminal can get to being compelled to remain longer.

That’s right, it was time for Jury Duty—and if my mind wasn’t so oddly warped I’d be going back tomorrow to hear testimony...but it is, and I’m not.

All of that explained; a few words about the similarities between this process and flying, and then finally a few kind words for a handy espresso shop and we should have a complete story for today...and a couple things to discuss tomorrow.

So let’s get to it.

“You Are Summoned...” the Notice in the mailbox ominously intoned “...For Jury Duty.”

It’s a risk we take as citizens of a democracy...we can avoid voting, or running for office, or even being informed in any way of the workings of Government if we so choose—but eventually most of us get snagged by the giant net of Jury Duty.

In King County the process begins with the random selection of those who are either registered to vote or who are holders of Driver’s Licenses or State Identification Cards. On this morning about 200 of us are gathered in downtown Seattle at the King County Courthouse in the “Jury Assembly Room”...and most of us don’t look all that exuberant about the thing.

It’s 8 AM, which I frankly find a bit of an...uncivilized...hour in which to have to do public business, but there we are. Some of the group have already begun to chat up a bit; but most of us seem to be trying to wake up or to complete errands that might have piled up, whether it be on the phone or laptop.

Eventually we are welcomed to the process by Judge Richard Eadie, who offers a few words of encouragement that are designed, as Jebidiah Springfield once famously said, to “embiggen” the experience; we then watch a movie that explains the Constitutional basis for the process and reminds us of the need to keep an open mind...and to avoid any discussion or personal investigation of the events under consideration until the trial has ended.

We also meet our “Den Mother” and the other members of the Court staff that we will interact with directly, and we are again reminded that the term of service is to be either two days or “one trial”.

What this means is that we will be selected for a jury and will hear the testimony and participate in the deliberations required for that trial (which could theoretically take months, but rarely does), or we will be dismissed after two days if we have not been selected for service on any particular jury.

Either way, the pay is $10 per day plus mileage. There are employers that will cover the difference in pay and others who do not.

In a kind of unexpected way the Jury Assembly Room is a bit like flying—there’s a security checkpoint and its accompanying lines, everyone is confined for hours to a relatively small space with relatively little to do, and there’s an hour-and-a half “layover” in the middle that allows you to escape into the world outside. The chairs are a bit like “Jerry Springer Chairs” in that they are comfortable, but too heavy to throw around easily.

(There is some good news—the room is wi-fi connected, and there are vending machines...there is not, however, access to espresso.)

What we are all waiting for is to be sent into a particular courtroom as part of a pool of prospective jurors, and that occasionally occurs as our Den Mother announces that “the following Jurors will come up and report to...” followed by the list of what seemed to be groups of either 35, 50, or 60.

We are told that random selection is responsible for our placement on these lists as well, and just after lunch on the first day my name comes up. We assemble in a line, the barcodes on our ID badges are scanned, and we are given large laminated numbers, making me Juror Number 28 or whatever.

After lunch, our Den Mother calls for the group of jurors to which I’m assigned...and announces that we are not going to be serving after all. As it turns out, the parties in our case chose to reach a settlement before jury selection, and they no longer need us.

By now the staff have determined that there are not going to be any other jury pools called up for selection today...and we’re sent home early, for which the universal sentiment appears to be relief.

So we return the next day—only we aren’t required to show up until 8:45...the theory being, I presume, that as grizzled veterans of the process we won’t need the motivational speech and video again.

Once again an announcement is made for a pool, and my name comes up. I become Juror Number 29 of 50. We are directed to report to the third floor, where we are met by the Bailiff for that Court. We are instructed exactly how and where to sit once we enter the courtroom (numerical order...), and we do file in and take our seats, 13 of us in the actual jury box, and the remainder in the seats normally reserved for the public.

The Judge enters and begins her discussion by introducing the Prosecuting Attorney, the Defense Attorney, and the Defendant, all of whom are seated in the courtroom as we enter. We are also introduced to the Court Reporter and Court Clerk. She explains that there are 13 Jurors because the 13th is an Alternate Juror who will either be dismissed at the beginning of deliberations...or that Juror will fill in if, in the words of the Miss America Pageant, one of the others were “unable to fulfill their duties...”. The Court staff and both attorneys know which chair will be the Alternate Chair, no one else does.

The Judge then continues to the role of the Jury and that we have begun the voir dire process, how that process works, and that the goal of the process is to help the attorneys present to make better judgments regarding the biases or prejudices that we might have that would affect our ability to fairly rule on the merits of the case.

We are also told that the reason we have the big laminated cards with our numbers on them is because we will need to hold them up for identification during the selection process as we answer questions.

The first question: how many will suffer hardships if we participate in a trial that lasts four or five days? 11 of the Jurors are dismissed after inquiries are made into their circumstances. Examples? One Juror had pre-paid tickets for a Monday flight, another only gets two days of pay from his employer.

Jurors are pulled in numerical order from the “pews” to fill the gaps in the jury box...and from here on, if a Juror is removed from the prospective panel in that jury box, a replacement will rise from the pews to take the spot.

Each of us are then asked to rise and answer general questions: names, city of residence, occupation, and hobbies.

The attorneys are provided a limited amount of time to question the group (20 minutes, in this case); and one of the first questions from the Prosecutor is: “Who is excited to be on a Jury?”

As it turns out, most of those who said yes were not around at the end of the process.

In response to the questions regarding our prior affiliations with crime or law enforcement we discover that one of the prospective Jurors is a retired Seattle Police Officer...and one is currently serving on staff as a prosecutor at the King County Attorney’s Office (yes, Virginia, prosecutors can also be jurors...).

The Defendant, we are told, is accused of possessing cocaine, and there are a number of questions asked of us that focus on our ability to make decisions based on circumstantial evidence.

We are questioned as to our attitude about drugs...and some of the answers are surprising.

“Can possession of drugs be a victimless crime?”

An older gentleman responds that he does not understand why the Government is in the business of protecting citizens from themselves. Others point out that there are victims: the family is offered as an example.

Another prospective Juror reports that in his experience as a substance abuse counselor he saw little evidence that incarceration by itself resolved the drug problems of those incarcerated.

At this point the Prosecutor saw me nodding my head...and asked why.

My response was that “alcohol kills 250,000 annually in the US, pizza kills 500,000, and all illegal drugs combined kill 30,000.” I went on to opine that considering the numbers, you would think we would put 8 times the effort into stopping alcohol as Those Evil Drugs. I did not mention the 100,000 killed by Hospital-Acquired Infections, and the lack of a “War on MRSA”...even though I should have...nor did I remind those assembled that the King County Bar Association (of which the Prosecutor is presumably a member) supports decriminalizing drug possession.

At this point Defense and Prosecution have questioned the prospective Jurors, and it’s time for the Challenges. Each attorney may remove an unlimited number of Jurors from the jury box either “for cause”, or a limited number (6 each, in this case) for no cause at all--the preemptive challenge .

Neither attorney chooses to seek dismissals of Jurors for cause; and now each in turn gets to preemptively challenge one Juror at a time...and as each removes a Juror, the likelihood that I’ll have to serve on the jury increases...and to be honest, despite the allure of doing my civic duty, I really don’t want to.

And then all of a sudden, there I am in the box—and the Prosecutor has only one challenge left...and he’s looking at me...and I can tell he’s really mulling this one over...and then he says the magic words: “The State dismisses Juror Number 29.”

And just like that, I’m giving my big laminated number to a Jail Guard and I am on my way back downstairs...and more or less 45 minutes later, my term as a Juror is over.

What did I learn?
How about this: life is a balancing act, and evidence of that balancing act was everywhere to be seen.

I saw that evidence first hand in the conflict between duty and convenience, I saw and did appreciate the challenges and balanced conflicts that exist in trying to make trials fair...but I was also reminded of the illogical and somewhat unbalanced nature of the War on Drugs—and finally, I was reminded that even though some may never experience the problems commonly associated with any drug use, others will suffer who never use drugs at all.