Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Time again for Jury Duty

In most areas of modern life, individuals are expected not to judge one another. But when it comes to jury duty, it’s all about judgment—of the jury and the accused.

The official summons arrived some weeks ago; it was time once again for this citizen to report for Jury Duty. The last time I only made it as far as the jury box, but never into the trial; when I said something about being raised to question authority, the district attorney trying the case dismissed me almost immediately afterward. The details of the assault case faded fast, and left little lasting impression.
Not so this time.
On a recent mid-week morning, a few dozen citizens had been summoned, and assembled as potential jurists for a specific trial. We watched a video about the awesome responsibility of serving on a jury, and then marched to a courtroom where the defendant and his attorney, the prosecuting attorney, the judge and his staff were waiting.
The case awaiting a jury trial involved a 21-year-old who had provided alcohol to a 20-year-old. There were obviously extenuating circumstances, but in the early phases of jury selection this was about all the information revealed to potential jurors.
By luck of the draw, I was among the first eighteen selected: one of a dozen seated in the jury box, and six more alternates seated in front. We potential jurors were asked to respond to several personal questions to give the judge and attorneys individual background information to help them determine any life experiences or personal beliefs that might interfere with the defendant’s right to a fair trial.
It became obvious immediately that it was clearly a tough proposition to seat a jury to hear this case, with this group of high school and college graduates, engineers and entrepreneurs, students and shopkeepers, office workers and retired folks, among others. A complex combination of factors required evaluation, including profession, education, previous jury service, and my favorite question, “Have you ever been in a police car?”
Some individuals mentioned they had been raised in families with European-style, matter-of-fact attitudes about alcohol consumption by minors; a few said they had long-ago dabbled in drugs, partied in school, allowed their own children to drink alcohol at home, or had struggled with their own sobriety. A former member of the military suggested anyone old enough to die for the country ought to be able to drink a beer legally.
And we potential jurors struggled to come to terms with how to pre-judge the sketchy facts of the case without applying personal prejudice. A couple of individuals stated up-front they simply couldn’t find the defendant guilty under any circumstances; they were dismissed early on. Some of us thought we could be fair and unbiased in applying the law, particularly if information entered into evidence proved a crime had been committed related to the 20-year-old’s alcohol consumption.
As the attorneys’ questioning continued in the process called voir dire, fair-minded citizens displayed great openness and thoughtfulness, even in the face of revealing potentially embarrassing facts about themselves. It wasn’t surprising when the employee of Zona Seca and the person who had been a member of Alcoholics Anonymous for 35 years were dismissed. And when I mentioned my 16-year-old daughter and the challenges of dealing with high-school partying these days, I, too, was asked to leave.
For me, it was civics lesson interrupted, a class taken without hearing the guest lecturer or taking the final exam.
The experience raised some questions that linger today: How do citizens balance their personal beliefs with the realities of the law? Where do open-mindedness and tolerance end and law enforcement begin? What are the criteria for the application of punishment of a single individual for the commission of a crime that many of the jurors themselves may have committed? Should the law be changed?
When it comes to underage drinking, the answers aren’t so simple. But the Court’s grappling with the essential questions of how to assemble a fair and unbiased jury to protect the rights of the accused, was an inspirational example of our democracy in action, and a reminder of the fundamental principles on which our government is founded. And that’s a judgment that every citizen can live with.

Cheri Rae’s column appears every Thursday in the Daily Sound. E-mail her at

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