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Obligations and Justice

Posted by joeabbott on April 25, 2015

I like new things; I like experiencing something I haven’t before and I enjoy learning about how things work. So, when I got a jury summons for late-March a few months back, I actually looked forward to it. In the end, the experience was rewarding, but absolutely not enjoyable.

I’m busy

While I looked forward to it, as the date arrived, I was quite busy at work: spring break vacations were taking a number of folks out of the office, the project I’m on is demanding, and sitting around for two days didn’t sound like as much fun as it had earlier. But, I was resigned (and legally obligated) to attend. And, why not … it would just be two days.

The system

In Washington state, we have a “two days, one trial” obligation for a summoned juror. Meaning you serve either two days waiting to get on a trial, or remain for the duration of one trial (regardless how long/short) and can then return to the routine of your day-to-day life.

This doesn’t seem that bad: the Maleng Regional Justice Center (MRJC) in Kent, WA is both physically close to my house (~5 miles) and a comfortable building whose only wanting is a formal on-site cafeteria of some sort. And in that, it’s directly across the street from a modern “walking mall” which houses many restaurants. Otherwise the building has reasonable Wi-Fi, comfortable chairs and plenty of them, and windows (above padded benches) enough that you didn’t feel locked up or deprived. Vending machine offer coffee and snacks, the staff is courteous, and the restrooms are clean.

Additionally, as a juror, your day “starts” at 8:45AM and ends by 4:30PM. In between you get two breaks of 15-minutes (around 10:30AM, and 2:30PM) and an hour lunch break at noon. In situations were the judge and/or lawyers need to address matters not requiring jurors, you stand the chance of being sent home early. And, as a juror, unless you’re in deliberation, your week is only Monday thru Thursday. For someone who had accustomed himself to arising at 5:15AM, would eat lunch at his desk, and returning home for dinner at 6PM-ish, this almost sounds like a vacation!

Jury Pool

Here it comes, though. Yes, rather than the same experience of the masses, my stint as a juror lasted three weeks and was decidedly not comfortable … but that was more about the case than the appointments of the facility.

I arrived at the MRJC 3/30/2015 at 7:15AM and, as they weren’t open for jurors yet, took a long walk around the Kent Station (the “walking mall” I mentioned above) before returning and going through the metal detectors and guards. It’s just like the security setup at an airport without the need to take off your shoes. Given that I had my work laptop, my Surface, reading materials and snacks, getting through was not efficient or quick for me. Bleh.

Up to the second floor, I entered the Juror Room and was assigned a badge, given some paperwork, and asked to wait in the adjacent waiting room. It was an appropriately named location.

For all of Monday I waited. Others came and went, getting called for a jury pool and then either accepted on that jury or returned to the waiting room for a later opportunity to serve. I was never called.

Tuesday was a lot like Monday except I stopped trying to hard to get my work laptop to function. While the Wi-Fi seemed fine sometimes, it would drop or lag or spontaneously hit some other problem and it led to more frustration than if I just avoided it. And so that’s what I did … spending my time reading, people watching, or walking about the building.

But, on Tuesday mid-morning I was assigned Jury Pool Member #20 to judge Tanya Thorp’s court and I waited. And waited.

After lunch we were ushered into the courtroom as they’d now pulled together some 80+ folks and we were told the rough details of the trial and informed that there was a good chance the trial would last through most of April. Did anyone have a problem with being on a trial that long?

Of course I did! I was resigned to tell the judge that spending a month on a jury was just too long and I couldn’t afford that sort of time away. However, they had filed us into the courtroom in the opposite order of our numbers and so I got to hear some 60 or so people make their case before I could. And, what I heard stopped me from speaking up.

My employer will pay my wages for any jury duty regardless how long, at this point I have enough vacation time on backlog that I could use that if I had to, and if I needed time without any sort of pay or compensation, I could wing it living off savings. I find that I’m in a privileged position, in that.

Of the 60 or so people who spoke up before me, over half presented hardship cases: students who couldn’t miss classes, single parents or caregivers who needed to be available for young children, people whose employers didn’t pay for jury duty, and those living paycheck-to-paycheck who could not afford to be away from work. I have seldom felt more grateful for the wonderful luck, opportunities, and chances that led to my current situation; at that time I realized how truly fortunate I am.

And, when I had my chance to object, I remained silent.

Late in the day I learned that I was in an exception situation to the “two days, one trial” policy and, as I was selected for a jury pool, the duration of my obligation would continue until I was released from the pool or, if I was on that jury, when the trial ended. So, I was let go for the day but told to return the next day, Wednesday. And I did.

Wednesday was spent doing nothing but sitting all day. Or, for me that’s what I did. Behind the scenes, the same situation that I’d went through on Tuesday was going on for another group of people as they required an exceptionally large pool for the planned trial. It was expected to be “a big one” and they required a large pool. Ultimately about 150 people were part of the pool … all to find 14 folks to sit the trial: 12 of which would go on to deliberate the case (the other two would be alternates in case one of the jurors was unable to continue).

So, I was back again on Thursday but that would be the day I’d know if I was on the trial or not. I thought the pool of candidate jurors would be presented to the lawyers, who would “pick their teams” … and, later some sort of decision would be made by the judge as to who ultimately was on the jury and who wasn’t. It doesn’t work that way.

Here’s how it appears to work: of the pool, the first 14 people are in “the box”, or they are the jury unless someone from that set of people is removed from consideration by one of the lawyers (the defense or prosecutor) or the judge.

The first pass on who is in or out is the questioning about hardship. Also, people who feel they just can’t be fair (either know someone related to the case or have suffered a similar crime) are removed.

A second pass is then made by the judge who asks general questions like: have you ever been the victim of a crime? or have you or anyone in your immediate family committed a crime? Anyone who has an answer is given a chance to respond while the lawyers and judge take notes.

A final set of questions is administered by the lawyers: first the prosecutor, then the defending lawyer. Their questions are a bit more pointed but still done in a panel forum: what constitutes evidence for a crime of this nature? have you ever had a bad experience with a law enforcement officer? Anyone who wants to answer is given a chance.

In the “first pass” phase above, jurors are actually released from duty and leave the room. During the judge and lawyer questioning, notes are taken but no one leaves. However, upon completion of the questions, jury selection begins.

I noted I was Jury Pool Member #20 earlier. The way juror selection works is that people line up according to their numbers and the first 14 people sit in “the box”. The lawyers are given a chance to remove someone from the box and that person is replaced with the next person in line. So, if someone in juror spot #2 was dismissed, the next person in line (potentially #15) would take #2’s position. And on and on until either both prosecutor and defending lawyer have no objections to the jury or they run out of reasons to dismiss folks.

Earlier I’d mentioned I was #20 … if no one had been dismissed earlier (either because they had hardship or just couldn’t be fair), I would have had to have six people dismissed before I made it to the jury box: Jury Pool Members 15, 16, 17, 18. and 19. Due to earlier dismissals, however, I was in Juror #4 position… and I would be on the jury unless either of the lawyers removed me.

However, during all the questioning, I again had an opportunity to feel lucky: the burglary my family suffered in which a bag of chocolate chips was stolen (arguably by young neighborhood kids) and the fight I saw in college between some drunk folks didn’t amount to much as person after person talked of family members being raped, killed in the family home, beaten in the street for their possessions, or … in the case of one woman … her son running a methlab from their property. It was all very sad, very sobering, and just showed me what an ivory tower I live in.

The whole of the experience really cemented the fact that I’ve lived a charmed life. At one point early in the week I was frustrated and annoyed my Wi-Fi connection wasn’t letting me get work done. I got up to complain to a clerk and realized I almost let a door close on someone relatively close. I stopped and held the door, finding I had to check my rising dudgeon as the person was super slow. Upon checking myself, I realized the man was slow because he had a problem with a leg and didn’t “walk normally” and, as he thanked me on passing through the door, spoke with a lack of elocution suggesting a speech impediment. Suddenly, the cert issue on my computer keeping me from the Internet seemed a whole lot less an issue to raise indignation. I collected my belongings and sat by a window to look out on a world through opened eyes.

But, back to the jury selection …

The only question that caused me to offer a response to the lawyer was on the issue of “how would you determine guilt of a crime of the nature at hand?” I offered the basic checklist from any CSI show: physical evidence, DNA, fibers, or police and/or doctors’ reports noting information supporting the allegation. Many of my coworkers had said: if you can’t argue hardship or say something inflammatory (“of course he’s guilty … he’s here!”), then showing you can think things through will get you off … lawyers hate “smart” people.

I can only assume I’m not smart enough or the defense liked my answer: there would be no physical evidence in this trial; the crimes occurred years ago and this would be a case of testimony only. His word against hers. And in a court of law, he was innocent until the preponderance of evidence and presented in court convinced a jury otherwise.

Both defense and prosecution rested early: I was Juror #4 and the trial would begin the next Monday. I’ll share the rest of the story later.

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