The evening the summon arrived at home for me to serve as a Juror, I cringed. I was not excited about exercising this privilege. The thought of being gone from work for three weeks up to a month for jury duty evoked feelings of nervousness and annoyance, but, believe it or not, it is possible to enjoy the experience. I think you will find it to be an eye-opening, if not transformative experience.
My jury duty experience lasted over three weeks. I was part of a jury where the defendant was accused of three counts – forceable abduction, sexual touching and rape. It was a case with a defense attorney at law who had a great sense of humor and a jury group that was pleasant to be with and took the responsibility seriously. The jury team was made up seven members of society (including myself). We did not have an equal representation of men and women as it was made up of an odd number, nor did we have an equal age representation as we were randomly selected. From the start, we all seemed to bond pretty well. As a group we often found a way to laugh despite the boredom and heavy subject matter. Prayer brought us together and made us an incredibly efficient and productive jury: hearing over 25 cases.
Daily, we sat in a jury room and looked at evidences and listened to witnesses provided by a number of attorneys. My jury service was pretty much the same each day and involved the same kinds of cases, starting about 10:30 a.m. I heard case after case, which I kept track of by taking notes. We got an hour for lunch; there was nowhere to buy it so persons brought their snacks from home and ate in the sparsely furnished jury room. We were let go by 4:00 -4:10pm every day, and told to report back the next morning by 10:00, but we never went back into the court room before 10:30 am.
There is a lot of explaining when you are part of a jury – you are warned about discussing the case outside the courtroom, about discussing the case among yourselves before all the evidence has been given and the case has concluded, because you are not supposed to try and draw conclusions with only parts of the information.
I reported Monday morning, with a niggling feeling that I was going to end up on a jury. I entered the courthouse on day one with mixed emotions and a whole bunch of questions. What will it be like inside? Will I be selected as a juror? What sort of case will I be put on? Will I even be put on a case?
We were led to a courtroom where the prosecutor, defense and police officers were already waiting. After arriving in the specified courtroom, we were asked to sign the register and sit and wait. We were informed that cell phones, and other electronic devices were prohibited inside the court room. Then came the waiting. A lot of waiting. Be prepared to wait and wait and wait some more. All you can do is wait for your number to be called. There, I sat and waited. 10AM passed. 11AM passed. 11:15AM. Distractions peppered my attempts to read as I waited. We sat and waited for approximately two hours, after which the judge showed up. The court was called to order after which the Registrar of the court read the indictment and asked the defendant if he was guilty.
The Registrar randomly selected the jury panel numbers. When a panel number was called, the potential juror made their way to the jury box.
The jury selection process which lawyers call “voir dire” (pronounced: vwahr deer, the process of asking potential jurors questions) took most of the first day…the process was fascinating. The experience was both interesting and nerve racking….I was not called for the first or second panel of potential jurors, there were a few cause challenges, many persons were dismissed right away, each time I hoped my number would not get called. Eventually my name was called and I made my way to the jury box. My mind instantly escaped from the monotony of waiting, and waiting, and waiting. I started to think about what kind of trial I was being called in for? Was it drugs? Assault? Murder? Rape? I did not yet know.
The first part of seating the jury was for the attorneys in the case to ask the potential jurors questions such as your occupation, other questions related to whether we knew any of the parties or whether we were familiar with the case.
Once we had a full panel of jurors, we were asked to chose a foreman who will announce the verdict, each person selected was asked to take an oath (swear to God) or an affirmation (promise to the court) to carry out his or her task faithfully and impartially.
After the selection process we were given some instructions from the judge about what we would be doing, a brief summary of the case, the reading of the indictment, and a reminder that the defendant is currently not guilty. A preliminary instruction that nothing the lawyer says is evidence. We were further instructed to make our decision based on evidence given at the trial (for example, sworn testimony given in court). Also, we were told that we might hear conflicting things and make our own judgements about whether people testifying on the stand might be lying or truthful.
We all returned the following day for the start of the trial. We were directed to a jury room, the jury room, although spacious enough and reasonably comfortable, was pretty cold. We sat and waited for half an hour before we were called to the courtroom.
Our first day of hearing the case was a little more satisfying than our initial reporting day. Day two (2) was the beginning of the witnesses testimonies. We first had the roll call for members of the jury, which was done by the Registrar. We then heard instructions by the judge and then opening statements by both sides, the prosecutor and the defense lawyers. And then the trial began. It was a much more subdued affair than I have seen on television.
Opening statements allowed the prosecutor and the defense attorney to briefly tell their account of the events.
Following the opening statements, the prosecutor began direct examination of her first witness. The first witness was the victim.
Following the prosecutor’s examination of a witness, the defense attorney cross examined the same witness. From observations I learned that the purpose of cross examination was to create doubt as to the credibility of the witness.
After the defense attorney cross examined the witnesses, the prosecutor asked the witnesses final questions to clarify any confusing testimony for the jury.
During the examination of the witnesses, both attorneys made objections to questions and pieces of evidence to the judge. For example, a prosecutor or defense attorney may object to the wide range of the direct examination because it is beyond the knowledge of the witness, the attorney may be arguing with the witness rather than asking questions, or the witness may be talking about things irrelevant to the case.
During the trial, the prosecutor used witnesses and evidence to prove to the jury that the defendant committed the crime(s).
We had a total of four days of testimonies. We heard from all sorts of witnesses: police officers, nurse etc. During day 5 the testimonies ended. The defendant, represented by an attorney, told his side of the story. After the defense’s direct testimony the prosecutor and defense attorney presented their final arguments.
The closing argument is the time when the parties may forcefully argue their cases. The parties summarized the evidence, point out discrepancies, and extensively argue how the law applies in their favor. The closing argument is the parties final attempt to persuade the jury that the opposing party is credible or that the party itself is not credible. The closing arguments are the final opportunity for the prosecutor and the defense attorney to talk to the jury. These arguments allow both attorneys to summarize the testimony and evidence, and asked the jury to return a verdict of guilty or not guilty.
Instructions to the Jury from the Judge
The judge instructed the jury about the relevant laws that should guide its deliberations. The judge read the instructions to the jury. This is commonly referred to as the judge’s charge to the jury.
In giving the instructions, the judge stated the issues in the case and defined the terms and words that were not familiar to the jurors. She discussed the standard of proof that jurors should apply to the case – “beyond a reasonable doubt” in a criminal case, “preponderance of the evidence” in a civil case. The judge read sections of applicable laws.
The judge advised the jury that, the jury is the sole judge of the facts and of the credibility of witnesses. She noted that the jurors are to base their conclusions on the evidence as presented in the trial, and that the opening and closing arguments of the lawyers are not evidence.
The judge pointed out that the jurors are required to adhere to the laws in making their decision, regardless of what the jurors believe the law is or ought to be. In short, the jurors should determine the facts and reach a verdict, within the guidelines of the law as determined by the judge.
Jury Deliberation and Verdict
The case was closed and the time came for deliberations, which I was not excited about. After the jury instructions were read, the jurors retired to the jury room to deliberate. During deliberations, the jurors discussed the evidence, witnesses demeanor while testifying, review testimony, etc. As we deliberated, I discovered something most refreshing. This jury, made up of regular folks from diverse backgrounds, was seeking the truth. They understood the responsibility they had, and they worked – really worked to arrive at the truth (as best as it could be determined). No one other than God would ever really know what happened between those two people, but we had to make a decision based upon the evidence. After careful and considerate deliberation, we arrived at a verdict.
Once the jury reached a verdict, the foreperson (the juror designated to speak for the jury) informed the designated court personnel that the jury was ready to return its verdict.
Coming back to the jury box with our decision in hand, an overwhelming sense of tension filled the courtroom. The prosecutor stared directly at us, while the defense attorney focused his gazed straight ahead, just as he had for most of the trial. As the Registrar stepped forward, my fists clenched, my legs bounced and my heart squeezed out a litre of adrenaline with every beat. All this, and I already knew the verdict!
My God, I thought, what if we pass the wrong verdict?
I folded my hands tightly together and fixed my eyes squarely on the defendant. I had promised myself before the trial started that I would look him in the eye, no matter the verdict.
We voted not guilty on 1 count, guilty on 2 and 3. As the guilty verdict was presented, I will admit to feeling at ease after watching the accused reaction to the verdict. When he was found guilty, I did not see shock, I did not see anger, or even sadness. What I saw was acceptance; I realized in that very moment, he knew he wasn’t getting out of this one.
I sincerely believe we did the right thing in convicting him. With every fiber of my being, I wish it had not gone down the way that it did, though. It was the biggest rush I’ve ever felt. It was a hard moment, but we reminded ourselves that we reached this verdict from the evidence, not personal opinion or bias. I played my part in the system. I served justice.
After four weeks, jury duty ended. We were thanked for our services and released from the courtroom. A few persons in the group exchanged cellphone numbers and others expressed anxiety to return to their jobs. For a brief moment, though, it was quite remarkable to step outside of our own lives together to see the world through the lens of our legal system.
The nineteen days I missed at the office meant that a mile-high pile of work awaited my return. Yet jury duty was one of the best experiences of my life. Most of my time was spent waiting but there was not a single moment in that juror’s box that felt like it was a waste of time. It quickly became apparent that it is all the wasted time outside the courtroom that gives jury duty such a bad rap. Between the late starts, early dismissals, frequent delays and insufferably long breaks, we probably spent no more than four hours listening to testimony and arguments on any given day.
The intense listening, followed by long amounts of waiting in the jury room was mentally draining at times but this experience taught me how to be patient and humble. Day three I had a very interesting experience while waiting in the jury room. While waiting I was pondering a few things when I heard one of the jurors who was sitting next to me said, “Lord you must be teaching me patience in this”. Immediately I started reflecting and mediating a few scriptures. What happened next it’s almost indescribable…I felt this peace and comfort.
It is just as the bible says, “The peace that passes all understanding’’. In essence, due to the circumstances I was enduring at that particular time, the Holy Spirit’s peace transcended them. In the natural I should have been troubled and distressed but because of the Holy Ghost I was enjoying a deeply rooted peace that only he can provide. Amazing, awesome, excellent, heavenly, and tranquil are all words that can describe the feeling.
Thinking about that trial reminds me that while we have different backgrounds, we have much more in common than the things that we foolishly sometimes allow to divide us. At the forefront of those commonalities is our universal need for the grace of God through Christ. We all share guilt before God. There is no lack of evidence of that guilt, and there is no evidence to the contrary. I am thankful that Jesus poured out His blood, the same blood that runs through all our veins (except in its innocence) so that we would not have to bear the consequences of our insurmountable guilt.
My jury experience also reminded me of the importance of acknowledging God every step of the way so he could direct our path. It is nothing like television. I always watch trial on television, but actually being inside, seeing seven persons sincerely trying to find their way to the truth was kind of awe-inspiring. I never realized that the days I spent serving as a juror would prove to be so enlightening and disturbing at the same time.
Serving jury duty was a surprisingly satisfying experience. More than the annoyance I expected, I was proud to have participated in the system, and to have reached what I thought was a just verdict. I felt a strong sense of pride for doing my civic duty and being completely honest and invested in the situation. I do have to say that I found it a most fulfilling experience. It is something I will remember for quite a while.