I had jury duty last week. I started writing about it last Monday, but I had to stop when I got picked for a trial.
As my group of jurors passed through the courtroom’s outer vestibule, I noticed a couple of neatly-dressed but clearly upset Hispanic people. Something about a them said family. I’ve been involved on the periphery of several civil lawsuits, and while they were very stressful, they didn’t seem like the sort of thing that would frighten family members.
Once I got inside the main courtroom, I noticed that there were two or three sheriff’s deputies wandering around. My previous jury experience was a civil trial, and that only took one deputy, so here was another clue that this was going to be a criminal case.
As I moved to my seat, I looked over at the lawyer’s tables. At the far left was a young Hispanic male wearing a dress shirt but no tie. He’s young enough to be the son of the people outside. Seated next to him, a tall young man in a very business-like suit who had to be his lawyer. At the other table, a young blonde woman and a slightly older man also dressed in suits (or whatever you call a woman’s business clothing), but not quite as expensive looking. I suppose either of them could have been a party to a civil suit, but they seem too comfortable in court. They must be the prosecution team.
We sit down, and the judge introduces himself and the courtroom staff (stenographer, clerk, and two deputies). Then he surprises me by asking the defendant to introduce himself—let’s call him Jose—followed by the lawyers.
I should add that by this time two other defense lawyers have replaced the original one. He must have been there to provide minimal representation until this crew arrived, presumably from other business in the courthouse. They’re a big Hispanic-looking guy and a young baby lawyer I’ll be calling Skippy. They gave their names and their law firm’s name, then the prosecutors introduced themselves.
The judge explained that the defendant is charged with aggravated battery. He asked us if we know any of the people in the courtroom. No one does.
Then he reads us a list of witnesses, which includes three police officers, two from the suburb of Hybernia, and one from Brixton. There are also three doctors on the list. None of us knows any of them either.
[Note: In all accounts of this trial, I’m using fake names for the people and locations.]
I’m intrigued by the witness list. Why all the doctors? When I heard the name of the first one, my first thought was victim. But with the other two, I’m now guessing that maybe some degree of injury is one of the elements of aggravated battery.
The judge has the clerk read off twelve names, and those people move up into the jury box. The judge then starts asking questions of the first potential juror. When that one’s done, he moves on to the next, and the next, until in about half an hour he’s done with all twelve. Then he lets us go for fifteen minutes while he and the lawyers make up their minds about the jurors.
That surprised me. I expected that after he was done the lawyers would have their shot at questioning the the jurors. That’s how it worked in the civil case I sat for a few years ago, and of course that’s how it works on television. The judge did keep switching back and forth between a couple of pages of questions, so I can only guess that the lawyers must have submitted a panel of questions to the judge so he could ask everything.
When we returned, the clerk called six names and those people got to leave. The judge then swore in the other six people.
Now the clerk called the second batch of jurors, and I was one of them. The judge did his questioning thing again. I’m going to try to list them all, but doubt I remember them very well, so if some of you legal types read something odd below, assume it’s me and not some strange facet of the Cook County court system.
Some of the questions were general background questions:
- What do you do?
- Are you married?
- What does your spouse do?
- Do you have children? If so, what are their ages and what do they do? (One juror started his answer by saying “Well, I have ten children…” to which the judge deadpanned “Take your time.”)
- What is your general educational background?
- Do you read magazines and newspapers? Which ones?
- Are you a member of any organizations? Which ones?
- Do you watch television? What are your favorite shows?
The judge liked to mix up the questions, asking them out of order. I guess he wanted to keep it as interesting as he could make it, so we would stay sharp…or maybe he did it just to keep his own attention on the answers.
I spent a lot of my waiting time trying to come up with the list of shows I watch: Stargate SG-1, Stargate Atlantis, Monk, Mythbusters, Seconds From Disaster, The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, The Wire, The 4400, Dead Zone, Kyle XY, CSI, CSI: New York, The Closer, Bones, House, Blade. I was eager to have my television viewing habits entered into the court record. Alas, when it was my turn, the judge skipped that question.
A lot of the questions were about more legal-ish matters:
- Are you a party to a lawsuit?
- Have you ever been a party to a lawsuit?
- Is your spouse a party to a lawsuit?
- Have you ever been the victim of a crime?
- Have your family or friends ever been a victim of a crime?
- Have you ever been a complainant, witness, or victim in a crime?
- Have you ever served on a jury before? When and where? Did you reach a verdict?
- Are any of your family or friends police officers?
This brought out some stories. One juror had a brother who was murdered, another had a brother who disappeared during a big mob investigation, another was caught up in a political scandal.
In almost every case, a positive answer was met with followup questions and then some form of the question “Will that make it hard for you be fair to the defendant? Or the state?”
A few people did answer that prior experiences would make it difficult for them to be fair.
In my previous jury experience, when jurors said stuff like that, the judge would challenge them on it. I think this is called “rehabilitating” a juror. Some jurors would agree that they could put aside their concerns and be fair. On the other hand, when one man claimed to have religious objections to imposing judgement on others, the judge got loud and confrontational and told him that other people of his religion had served on juries, and then tried to argue that the jury just decided the facts, it was the court system that passed judgement. Those were good points, but the juror stood his ground. He didn’t make it into the box, so I assume he was struck.
This judge didn’t do any of that. He just moved on to the next question. Maybe this is the new way, or the criminal court way, or just his way. I guess it makes some sense. Sure, some of the jurors may be trying to shirk their duty, but that’s not his problem. His problem is to conduct a trial, and it’s quicker to forget about troublesome jurors and get on with it.
A few of the questions were very direct:
- You will be hearing the testimony of police officers. Is there any experience you’ve had that would make it difficult to give them the same credibility you would anyone else?
- Do you have any religious or ethical objections to passing judgement on someone?
- Is there anything about the charges that you would have trouble finding someone guilty?
It was the possibility of this last question which had most concerned me leading up to jury selection.
If you’ve been reading this blog, you know that when it comes to the War on Drugs, I’m a conscientious objector. More than that, I’m a firm opponent of the War on Drugs, a critic of those who support it, and a supporting member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP).
Asking me to convict someone for a victimless crime is asking me to betray some of my strongest ethical beliefs. I couldn’t possibly promise to do that. This is exactly the kind of thinking that makes a prosecutor like Tom McKenna say he’d strike me from his jury.
So if this had been a drug case, I would definitely have had have had to answer that last question with a “Yes”. And then I was expecting the judge to try to “rehabilitate” me, which I was not looking forward to.
Instead, I’d been relieved to find out that this was not a drug case, and surprised to see that the judge didn’t confront people about their answers.
After this round of questioning, the clerk called out four names, including mine. This time, instead of dismissing the called people, the judge swore us in. Drat.
We went back in to the jury room and waited with the other six for about 45 minutes until they sent in four more jurors, bringing the total to 14, two of whom were alternates who wouldn’t participate in deliberations if the rest of us survived.
After a bit more of a wait, they fed us sandwiches from Legal Grounds, and then—the highlight of our day—they led us outside for ten minutes so the smokers could light up. It was nice to get some fresh air.
After that, we went back to the jury room and they called us out into the courtroom. And dismissed us.
Update: I’ve now posted Jury Duty, Day 2: Testimony.