About three weeks ago, I opened my mailbox and was greeted with a Jury Duty Summons. I don’t know about you, but receiving yet another invitation to spend a day on jury duty will never be very high on the list of things that I most look forward to.
I wish I that I was able to pick winning lottery numbers with anywhere close to the same frequency with which my name pops up on the jury duty list. This most recent summons (request, invitation, demand) to report for jury duty is the third that I’ve received in the past five years.
Since moving here sixteen years ago, I’ve been called for jury duty at least six times. In that same time period, my wife has been called only once. I know of many friends, acquaintances, and co-workers who have never been called to serve. What’s the statistical probability of that occurring? And why am I on the receiving end of this proposition?
I guess everybody’s got to be good at something. In my case, it’s being called for jury duty.
Years ago in my junior high school Civics class, I learned that one of our most cherished rights as citizens in a democracy is that of a trial by a jury of our peers. I have no doubt that this is absolutely true in principle. In practice however, it might well be one of the most frightening things that any defendant ever has to face.
Yesterday morning, I headed down to the county court house to fulfill my obligation Having little else to do while waiting in the Jury Assembly room, I couldn’t help but observe my fellow potential jurors. With absolutely no disrespect intended, it was abundantly clear that the group represented a true cross-section of the population. Every strata of society was present from the raw underbelly to the creme’ de la creme’, and everything in between.
Imagining myself as a defendant facing trial, I had a difficult time locating twelve individuals who I could recognize as being my peers. For a variety of different reasons, I’m not sure that I would have wanted to be tried by any of those in yesterday’s pool of potential jurors.
Apparently this was also true of some of the actual defendants whose trials were on yesterday’s docket.
As the day began, there were close to 400 of us in the Jury Assembly room. One of the unfortunate realities of big city life is a never-ending need for large numbers of jurors to assist our judicial system in sorting things out.
Around 10:00 a.m. two jury pools, each consisting of 60 individuals, were selected and sent to their respective court rooms. If the truth be known, the rest of us breathed a silent sigh of relief, kept our heads down, and continued to wait.
Just before noon, one of the clerks informed us that they were awaiting word from several judges as to whether or not they would need to select juries for cases to be heard later in the day. Since it was close to lunch, we were released, but instructed to return at 1:00 p.m.
Shortly after we returned, one of the Superior Court judges came into the room. He informed us that at the beginning of the day, there were four cases involving armed robbery and assault on his docket. The defendants in each case had initially pled innocent to the charges. But having used up every delay and extension available to them and faced with the reality of having to stand before a jury of their peers, all four defendants had changed their pleas to guilty thus making their trials unnecessary.
Now I don’t believe that a truly innocent person would plead guilty in order to avoid a jury trial. As the judge pointed out to us as he was thanking us for our service, the knowledge that there were citizens waiting in the next room to serve as jurors became a powerful motivation to each of the four defendants charged with armed robbery and assault to admit their guilt and expedite the legal process.
Being a fan of the various “Law and Order” television series’, it was not difficult for me to envision the defendants and their lawyers sitting across the table from an assistant District Attorney who was saying, “Well fine. If that’s how it’s going to be, let’s go let the jury decide.” Apparently those words can be just as effective in real life as they are on TV.
While our judicial system may not be perfect, it seems to be in good working order.
And begrudgingly, I have to admit to experiencing some satisfaction in doing my small part to keep it so.
Photos from gpb.org and economist.com