Always the summoned but never the impaneled: My life in the jury room

I’ve spent my entire life absolutely besotted with civic duty, and it’s not because my father strove to instill any sort of civic virtues in me. I chalk it up to having the polling place in our house when I was a child, but it’s not just voting that I love with a deep fervor and intensity. It’s jury service, and much to my dismay, I’ve never actually sat on a jury. I know that most people dread jury summonses and live in fear that when they call the juror hotline the night before, the kindly voice of the clerk will tell them that yes actually they do need to come in, but I revel in that moment.

At last, I think, my time has come. 

I duly wake up at the rosy-fingered crack of dawn to make my way to Ukiah, wanting to ensure I won’t be late, and while I am not at my best early in the morning, I smile benevolently at the clerk as I fork over my summons so she can check me in. I fill out the mileage form and gaze out across the jury room, frowning at the whining and carrying on—particularly from people coming from Willits and Ukiah, who didn’t have to drive an hour and a half to get to court. The carpet may be ratty and the chairs may be uncomfortable, the heat may be unbearable in summer, but here I am, at last prepared to plunge into the depths of the justice system and do my part as a peer.

This has happened, I will confess, all of twice. The first time it happened, they summoned a huge pool of jurors for a conspiracy trial related to a murder case. They didn’t get through all of us on the first day, and we kept coming back day after day. When I finally made it into the courtroom for voir dire, I was beside myself with excitement, though I attempted to conduct myself in a manner befitting the sobriety of the occasion. We were duly asked a series of generic questions, and then the defense and prosecution got into things in depth, and I was so certain I answered everything perfectly—not, of course, that there’s a right or wrong way to answer these questions.

I was the first person struck during the round of peremptory strikes. The first one. I was struck before the attorney who’d been sitting next to me in the jury box. I slunk away in abject misery, and drove home fuming at the thought that I apparently wasn’t good enough to be considered a peer of the defendant. I know that there are all sorts of reasons why people are struck from juries and it wasn’t about me personally, but I strongly suspect that the reason I was struck was because of this exchange with the defense:

‘If you were impaneled today with this jury, and asked to return a verdict, what would it be?’

‘Not guilty.’

‘And why is that?’

‘Because the foundation of the American justice system is that people are innocent until proved guilty. The prosecution bears the burden of proof in this case and she hasn’t provided me with any evidence. Therefore, I’d be obligated to return a not guilty verdict.’

I could see the prosecutor vigorously scribbling away in her notebook, eyes gleaming. It was the moment of my doom.

Earlier this year, I received a comic series of jury summonses; first they sent me three in a row for times when I would be out of the country, despite the fact that I filled in the section with a request for a new service date and returned it. Then they sent me two more for when I would be out of state, and another for when I would be out of the county. I called the jury office in despair, certain that I was about to be the victim of a bench warrant, and they assured me that they didn’t really enforce these things all that much and I shouldn’t worry about it.

So when the seventh summons arrived, I braced myself for yet another request to show up when I would be nowhere near Mendocino County, but to my pleased surprise, I actually would be in town, and I duly got up in the wee hours to trundle over to Ukiah, where I sat through voir dire for two separate trials, and was again one of the first peremptory strikes on each (the second in the case of the first trial, and the first in the case of the second, er, sorry, that was confusing), again, even before the attorney who was also in the jury box.

It’s enough to give a person a complex, I tell you what, and I was relating my story of woe to a friend who made a very good point: He told me he’d been reading an article about the jury selection process and who tends to get struck, and noted that visibly tattooed people are rarely selected for juries. I found this extremely interesting, as about one fifth of the adult population is tattooed, so it’s reasonable to suspect that we’re likely to be the peers of the accused—especially since many people encountering the justice system are also tattooed, and in some cases issues of prejudice have arisen around defendants with substantial visible tattoos.

In other words, you’d think that if a tattooed person were on trial, you’d want a few tattooed people on the jury to balance that out, but evidently, you meaning me would be wrong. This really intrigues me, as it’s another fascinating example of how society interacts with tattooed people and tattoo culture—we are still not viewed as ‘peers,’ even as a growing percentage of the population.

Perhaps someday I’ll be chosen for a trial despite my tattoos and basic grasp of fundamentals of the justice system. I hope so. I think I’d be a pretty good juror, though I confess that I don’t relish the thought of sitting in judgement on other people—but I’d argue that’s precisely why I’d be a good juror. My yearning for jury duty isn’t about sitting on a case and judging another person, but about participating in a huge and complex and often broken system, and trying to play my small role at fixing it.

Image: Jury 1, Matt Freedman, Flickr