Sunday, December 4, 2016
"So help me God": My week on a federal jury
You know that kind of sinking feeling you get when you open up that official envelope and you see "Summons for Jury Service"? Yeah, well I had that same reaction recently. Except this time, it wasn't for "regular" jury duty. This was FEDERAL jury duty, and the accompanying letter said, "You are on-call for the month of November."
THE MONTH OF NOVEMBER???
UGH. There goes my week, I thought. What am I going to do about work? My kid? My appointments? All the errands I had to run? I DON'T WANT TO DO THIS.
I begrudgingly entered the federal building on Tuesday morning, shoved everything I had through the metal detector, locked my phone up in a little post office box (no computers or cell phones allowed - just SHOOT ME!) and went into this room where about 40 or 50 people sat looking about as enthused as I was.
Soon after, we were given instructions and shuffled into the courtroom and all sat down where the onlookers usually sit. Now I was getting nervous. Before me were two tables of three very serious- looking people; lawyers, I assumed, and one very scary looking judge.
We each passed around a microphone and had to stand up and answer a series of questions about ourselves for the judge - mostly to find out if anyone had any "great hardship" they were experiencing by being there. After we all were finished speaking, he let three of them go. RATS. We were then told that 12 of us at a time would randomly be ushered into the jury box and asked another series of questions. When my name was called in the first 12, I didn't think much of it because I figured there were still 30 or so more eligible jurors.
Again we passed the mike, said our names and answered more questions. The judge then huddled with the attorneys, who had since introduced themselves very formally, along with the plaintiff, the defendant, and a clerk. Three from our jury box were let go and three more from the remaining were called. This occurred probably four more times, until the judge said, "Well, it looks like we have our jury." WHAT???? What about the rest of them???? "The rest of you are discharged," the judge said.
Well this sucks. I felt a pit in my stomach as I realized my whole week had just gone down the drain. How was I going to manage this? No computer and no phone? What if my kid got sick? How was I going to deal with these 11 strangers for four days??? And why can't everyone just follow the rules so none of this has to happen????
We took our oath and went into the jury room and it was evident we all felt pretty much the same way. After some idle chit chat, another clerk came in - who would pretty much become our best friend over the course of the next four days - and gave us the lowdown on how things would go. Charges would be read again (the judge had read them first thing, but I don't think any of us were listening, really), then there'd be opening statements, witnesses for the prosecution, witnesses for the defense, closing arguments and then jury deliberation/verdict. Ugh. This sounded interminable.
We filed back in to the courtroom - everyone was standing. We thought we had to stand, too - for the judge - but it turns out they were standing for us. Wow. OK. We were seated and looked at the judge - very menacing and tall sitting up so high in his black robe. When he spoke, I was surprised. His words were kind, gentle but firm, with a dry humor - all done in a way that made you have immediate respect for him. He seemed genuinely sincere in his appreciation that we were there, and it was only then that I began to realize the gravity of our responsibility as a group.
As the opening statements progressed, we got our first real understanding of what the case was about. Unfortunately, though necessary, the first day also included more than 40 documents being entered into evidence, which took FOR-E-VER. Like - all day forever. Even though we got an hour lunch, I was completely exhausted when he let us go for the day. The funny thing was, during breaks and over lunch, my fellow jurors and I started to get to know each other. We couldn't have been more diverse - it was genuinely a random sampling. But everyone seemed nice, and since we weren't allowed to talk about the case, we slowly began to find out about each other.
The second day we returned - all with the thought that if this day was anything like the previous, we were going to need a hell of a lot more coffee. We filed into the jury room again and heard the prosecution call his witnesses, who all seemed like very reliable, intelligent individuals even though it was pretty obvious they'd been coached as to how to answer certain questions - not as far as the answers themselves, but things like, "I don't recall", versus "I don't know". And there was no talking over one another or the court reporter would jump in (I wouldn't in a million years want her job).
Then things got cray. The defense attorney had his shot at the prosecution's witnesses and it was GAME ON. This guy looked like some lawyer from the Old West - all he needed was one of those bolo ties, a pair of boots and a big cowboy hat. He was big, loud, and exactly the stereotype when it comes to lawyers. He cross-examined and said things like, "DID YOU NOT..." and "SO WHAT YOU'RE SAYING IS..." - in fact, I was just waiting for one of the witnesses to break down and yell, "YOU CAN'T HANDLE THE TRUTH!" But surprisingly, they all remained extremely calm. Evidently their lawyer had prepared them well for this guy. I, on the other hand, was ready to climb over the jury box and smack him. I kept wondering, "Does he know that I can see through how he's talking in that condescending way - trying to make the witness second-guess and twist his words around? Because I totally can." I'm not saying he didn't make good points - he did - and that's his job - but WOW. I wouldn't have been able to handle that had I been on the witness stand.
The next two days were spent on witnesses, cross-examinations, breaks so the counsel could discuss with the judge, objections, approaching the bench - just like in the freaking movies. There we were - 12 strangers - lined up in this box, seeing the justice system played out before our very eyes in front of what appeared to be the calmest most impartial judge I've ever met (and I've met like maybe two, so that's not saying much.) But I had MAD respect for him, and I started to see that not only did he have an incredibly important job day in and day out, but I did too, if just for a week.
And during this week, my 11 new friends and I had formed this weird bond. We knew each other's names, joked about likes and dislikes, and had all these little inside jokes that only jurors who had been together in a tiny little room for three days could have. As I looked around the room I thought, "I like each and every one of these people."
Thursday morning, I arrived in the jury room exhausted and still upset from a personal issue the night before. All of them expressed concern and were so very kind. They were the first ones to tell me that if I felt I couldn't continue, there were two alternates and I should just talk to the clerk. But ironically, I wanted to stay. I wanted to play this out - to hear how it ended - to be a part of the process. In fact, it turned out to be a welcome distraction and I was able to focus on the trial for the rest of the afternoon. Towards the end of the day, I wasn't sure if my family emergency was quite finished so I talked to the clerk and told him my concerns. As we entered the courtroom after our last break, I was called up to the stand, where the judge said quietly, "Ms. Kennard, if you do not feel you can continue, it's OK. Do you feel you can continue?" I said yes, I did. At the end of the day, the clerk handed me two phone numbers - his and the judge's cell phone number - in case I was unable to report the next day.
I WAS able to report, and woke up feeling both anticipation and dread. Today was the day we were going to decide a man's fate. What an awesome responsibility. I was humbled - as were the other 11 - and we were all well aware of the task that awaited us that day. None of us had slept well the night before.
The last day was by far the worst day. During the defense's closing arguments where he talked about the character witnesses who had testified to the trustworthiness and loyalty of this man, the defendant suddenly broke down and sobbed. Big, heaving sobs that you could tell he was trying to control but just couldn't. His wife, we assumed, who was the only person who had been in the audience each day, sobbed as well. At that point, the judge ordered a break and my fellow jurors and I walked back into the jury room. You could have heard a pin drop.
When we returned, the defense continued with closing statements, the prosecution rebutted, they went back and forth for a bit, and it was all over - for them. Our work had just begun.
After the judge gave us explicit instructions, we were ushered into a larger deliberation room. Security personnel with earpieces stood outside - we were not allowed to speak to them nor them to us. If we had a question for the judge, we had to write it down and have the foreperson sign it. We were not to leave the room until a verdict was reached. We elected a foreperson and tried to figure out how to begin.
At first we were all talking at once - we hadn't been allowed to talk to each other about the case at ALL, and we all had opinions and tons of questions. Most of us had taken pages and pages of notes. We finally decided to go through each count one by one and figure out what we DID agree on, then deliberate on what we DIDN'T.
Of course we agreed on most of the obvious things. But after taking an early poll, we weren't unanimous. It was then that our work really begun. What we had to do was explicity look at the charge, and the definition of the verbiage in the charge, as provided by the court. And let me tell you, what you THINK something says isn't always what it REALLY says. For instance, there is a HUGE difference between "knowingly" and "intended to". Words like this were what we deliberated about for the next two hours. Incredibly, there were no fights. Everyone was respectful. For the most part, we took turns and everyone was heard.
But there was one thing we had in common. We all felt badly for the defendant. We all agreed that this would hang heavy on our hearts for a very long time. He WAS a good man, we determined. A good man who had broken the law. Finally, we reached a unanimous verdict: guilty on all counts.
We each signed each count, and the foreperson alerted the security guard that we had a verdict. The clerk came in and retrieved it and told us a bell would ring when it was time to go back into the courtroom. As I looked around the room, everyone looked like they were about to get sick. And when that bell rang, I felt like I was going to lose it, too.
We filed into the courtroom and I couldn't even make eye contact with the defense. The judge stood up and read each charge, and after each one said, "Guilty". The defendant had no emotion but you could see the disgust on the defense attorney's face. I would have been disappointed not to see it. After the verdict, the judge asked the defense if he wanted the jury "polled", which meant he wanted to hear from each of us - I'm assuming just in case any of us were on the fence and wanted to change our minds. Each of our names was called, and each of us had to say the word, "Guilty." I felt that word catch in my throat.
And that was it - or so I thought. We went back to the jury room to retrieve our things; noticeably subdued. At that point, the judge walked in and asked if we had any questions - like, said we could ask anything. So we did. And he was forthright, kind, and very, very human in his responses. One juror told him, "If I ever had to be locked up with 11 people for a week, I couldn't ask for better people than this." And that was true.
I left the federal jury experience very differently than I had gone into it. I almost felt embarrassed for being so disgusted that I had been called. Yes, I missed a week of work, had to juggle appointments and reschedule meetings. However, it was a drop in the bucket compared to the magnanimous duty I was able to carry out. It was a learning experience, and it made me realize that everyone is entitled to a fair trial, and to be presumed innocent up until the very end. I hope the defendant knows that he did get a fair trial. We were an impartial jury. We did deliberate and take everything into consideration. And our verdict was unanimous, not by talking anyone into it, but by figuring out the facts through discussion and the language of the law.
So next time you get that piece of paper in the mail, try to feel a little proud - especially if it's federal jury duty. It is our responsibility, and it is not only a privilege of living in the United States of America, it is truly an honor to serve.