Thursday, July 2, 2015

Truth, justice and the American way

Last week I had the honor of serving on Jury Duty for the Seattle superior court. As I was preparing for this and participating, I was surprised to see how little info people actually have about this, so I decided to write it up for any future jurors.

The jury duty starts with a random selection done by the county. They have a computerized list of every resident of the county, and every period, they select a group of people from it. Only 18+ American Citizens who are residents of the county can participate, but the list the county has sometimes has errors (for example, my wife was selected for Jury a few years back, before we were citizens). If someone receives a jury summons while not meeting the criteria, they can and should respond to the summons via the mail, stating the error or issue. One can also ask to be excused if they are out of the country or have other reasonable excuse (no, you can’t ask to be excused because you’re busy watching the Tonight show).

On the day you are summoned for, you are asked to show up at 8am, which is quite early (I had to get up at 6:15 to make it on time), but on later days you can show up at 8:45. I live in Sammamish and the court is in Seattle, so that was quite a way off. The court recommends using public transportation, and so do I. While using my own car would be more comfortable, it wouldn’t actually save time as driving alone would get me stuck in traffic, and parking around the courthouse is limited and expensive. The courthouse is next to Pioneer square, so virtually every major bus line goes there and there are no less than 3 lines from my town directly to the court. I took the 6:40 bus and arrived at the court at 7:40.

At the courthouse, you have to go through security screening, so it’s best to make sure ahead of time not to bring anything problematic (like pocket knives) and to wear a belt that’s easy to remove. I was able to get them to use the wand-scanner instead, but only after a bit of argument. Then, it’s off to the Jury assembly hall, which is a fairly large place, lined up with chairs (soft and comfy ones!) for about 200 people, I estimate. There were plenty of available seats.

At 8:20, a court clerk began a presentation, which took about 30 minutes and included a movie outlining various principles of the law, and how a Jury works. I’ll detail some of this further down. After this, they started calling people for trials. The way this works is that the court has one or more trials each day, and for each, they need a certain number of jurors (typically 20-30). When they summon the Jury weeks before, they don’t know how many trials will be on the specific day, so it can go either way...some days only a handful of people are picked and the rest dismissed, and other days many or most of the people are used. Sometimes they even run out of jurors and have to pick more from the next day’s batch. While waiting, we were also asked to fill a form with some personal details like my place of birth, workplace and job (this would be used by the attorneys later if I get picked for a trial).

The court computer picks up random names of people from those who showed up, and the clerk calls them out. These selected then go up to the courthouse, and the rest continue waiting in the assembly room. As the day goes on, there might be more trials, and more rounds of calling people out. Once people have been called out for all the day’s trials, the remaining people are typically dismissed. On my day, there were only 3 trials and I didn’t get picked for any of them, so by noon, they dismissed me with several dozen others.

While waiting to be called, the assembly room is fairly nice and convenient. They keep a good temperature, they have a bunch of vending machines and a kitchenette I could use to put or prepare food. There’s also a water cooler and an “office”, which is a separate room with desks and power outlets, where people can work if they choose to. There’s also unlimited free WIFI access throughout the place. All in all, a pretty nice environment, and everyone is very nice and friendly. It’s clear that they really care about the well-being of the jurors and don’t take them for granted, even though it’s a mandatory service.

Jury duty is defined as mandatory 2 days, which means the process I described above continues to the next day. If you weren’t picked up on the 1st, you are supposed to show up the next day and as they court goes through trials that are scheduled for that day, you might get picked for one. If during the 2nd day you aren’t picked either, then you’re free to go. In my case this week, there weren’t any trials scheduled for the 2nd day, so all jurors that started their service with me and didn’t get picked were told that there’s no need to show up on the 2nd day and we’re done. Lucky us! We weren’t actually old this on the day, but rather through the court’s phone hotline and website, which is updated on a daily basis.

Since I wasn’t picked for any trials, the next section is a tad more vague, as it’s based on the info we were provided (and my understanding of it) and not my personal experience.

Once a group of Jurors is picked for a trial, they are sent upstairs to the courtroom where the trial is to be held. At that point, the judge assigned to the case instructs and guides the jury members about the case and the law related to it. This includes specifics about the case and the defendant, as well as meeting the lawyers representing both sides (defense and prosecution). The judge also provides an estimate of the trials length, and then gives each juror a chance to ask to be excused due to “undue hardship”. For example, if you have a planned trip that will collide with the trial, or if you have some business or family matter that will complicate your life significantly, you can ask to be excused. Then, it’s the lawyer’s turn to interview each of the jurors. This is to allow them to get rid of jurors who might have bias, or in other ways make the trial “unfair”. Essentially, lawyers use this to eliminate jurors that decrease their chance of winning, or lead to a more severe punishment. For example, if the defendant is accused of rape, and a certain juror has been raped in the past, she is more likely to treat the defendant harshly, and so the defense lawyer would prefer her to be excused.

During the interview process, each of the sides can excuse a juror for a “good” reason…or for any reason (meaning the real reason is uncool, embarrassing or otherwise better be left unsaid). The number of jurors that could be excused for “any” reason is limited, though, so as to not encourage too much of that. The number of people that can be dismissed for a good reason is not limited, so sometimes after both defense and prosecution are done, there aren’t enough jurors left and they have to call the jury assembly downstairs and ask for more people (this actually happened during my service – they initially had 90 jurors, but that wasn’t enough and so they called in 30 more). I’m not sure how they determine how many actually jurors are needed for each trial, but the panel actually includes one or more “standby” jurors, which can be called in in case one of the jurors needs to leave mid-trial for some reason. The common opinion is that defense lawyers usually excuse highly-educated people (especially those with legal education), as well as people with extensive trial experience. They also don’t like people who are pro-death-penalty and in general, anyone who is very assertive or strongly opinionated about anything (because these

Once the jury panel is finalized, the trial can begin, and once all the evidence and witnesses has been introduced, the Jurors’ go into the deliberation room, where they need to elect a “leader”, who steers the deliberations, finds info from the judge or lawyers when needed and ultimately also reads out the verdict. The deliberations might require the verdict to be either a majority decision, or unanimous, depending on the issue. Criminal cases typically require the decision to be unanimous, while civil stuff usually only requires a majority vote. Once a decision has been reached, the court re-convenes and the jury leader reads out the verdict. At that time, the jury is dismissed to return to their families and/or workplace.

So…I got off pretty quick this time. I spend about ½ a day waiting in the assembly room, and was then dismissed for the day and told to not come back for the 2nd day. I’ve heard that Jury duty is rare in Puget Sound, so I might be scot-free for a decade. I guess time will tell!