The reality of a jury trial is different from what we see on television or read in books, where the action moves quickly towards the acquittal or conviction of the defendant. On television the opening arguments, the witness interrogation, and the closing arguments are all pertinent and exciting. Of course, on television the trials are filled with action, with both sides winning points, stumbling, and articulating rational and often distressing arguments.
When I was summoned for jury duty, my expectation was that while there might be some down time waiting to be selected for a jury panel, once picked, things would move along quickly. Reality, not surprisingly, proved quite different. Perhaps some trials are filled with drama, interesting cross-examinations and surprise endings. But my experience as a juror was, for the most part, all about waiting and listening intently.
If you know me well you would know that I try to learn something from every new experience. And jury duty was no exception. I learned valuable lessons serving as juror. My eyes were opened as I learned about the way the wheels turn in the courtroom.
The process was interesting to be a part of, it is an experience I definitely would love to repeat. It was long, sometimes boring, yet interesting. It was also highly educational, and I’d like to pass on the most important lessons I learned to you, my fellow citizens. Despite some stress and exhaustion, I learned much from serving as a juror and don’t regret my service time at all.
Being on a jury for a rape trial, I saw first hand how difficult it was for the victim to recount her experience. It was difficult to hear. It was pretty emotionally wrenching at times but I was aware that my discomfort was nothing to what she experienced. I watched her break down on the stand. I watched the emotion poured out of her. I watched her cover her face repeatedly and cried.
I listened intently and absorbed the body language of the witnesses and the accused during every minute I was in the courtroom. We were instructed many times by the judge to not discuss the case.
One interesting aspect to me was that each attorney would take turns asking questions one at a time (indefinitely until each attorney was satisfied all questions were asked and answered. Other observations included: instances where the jury was asked to leave the courtroom and wait in the jury room. Following our exit, the judge and lawyers have what is called point of law, it was also noted that the roll call was done each time we return to the courtroom.
Here are just a few of my, many, many, takeaways:
A. We were deciding the fate of a real, living person, not some character on television. It is a weighty responsibility. Someone’s life and well-being are in your hands, and the evidence is seldom black or white. You know that what you are doing is terribly important, but you also know that your knowledge and ability to process information are imperfect. What this jury decided would determine the course of his life for years to come.
Lesson learned: Our words and choices can have lasting impact on those around us. Especially in a legal setting.
B. This case was not as easy as some may have believed, when we walked into the courtroom that first morning. Both sides did and said things that impacted the other. Some choices made were bad choices with lasting consequences.
Lesson learned: Don’t be quick to judge another. Try to be fair and impartial to both the defense and the prosecution. Listen to the facts, not the feelings. There are often underlying issues that must be considered before making a judgment in the courtroom and in life.
C. Genuine bonds formed in a short time with people from very different backgrounds. We had two men on this journey, two older women, all of them professionals, and two middle-aged. We shared 19 days of our lives together.
Lesson learned: Common experiences can draw people together. Maybe it was knowing we were stuck in this situation together. I’d like to think we made some genuine connections, even though most of us will probably never cross paths again.
D. Each of us wanted to make the right decision. There were strong personalities on the jury, but we all wanted to end up at the right decision based on the evidence given. It was difficult to do this with only the evidence given. Many of us thought around the bigger picture the evidence indicated, which made it hard not to speculate.
Lesson learned: Unfortunately, there are relatively few instances when most of us, in life, really make a difference. Serving on a jury is one of those instances. It is not easy to decide another person’s fate, maybe it is sometimes. But in this situation, where some details were incomplete or grey, knowing our decision impacted the defendant weighed on us. Also what you do on that jury has an impact not only on the defendant and plaintiff but on their families and the community at large.
E. I appreciated the demeanor of the judge, the lawyers and the police officers. They were organized, professional, but also approachable. They were level-headed and calm from the beginning to the end of the process.
Lesson learned: When in a position of power, humility and calmness go a long ways toward gaining respect and getting things done.
F. As citizen it is your civic responsibility to serve on a jury when called. You would want a fair trial as a plaintiff or defendant. You should afford others the same respect.
Lesson learned: It is an amazing and powerful opportunity and experience – one that will strengthen your sense of humanity and your own responsibility.
G. When you are on a jury, you are on a team of equals. A decision cannot be made without every single person’s vote counted. I think this same philosophy should be applied to every person we come in contact with.
Lesson learned: Everyone should be seen and treated equally.
H. I learned about the role of the judge in a trial and the jury, of course. It dawned on me that the whole process of a trial is about presenting the case to the jury, not the judge, who likely knows all about the case already. I learned that all of us involved in deciding the fate of the defendant had roles to play and during the trial, we were expected to play our parts.
Lesson learned: Never forget to take a second to rethink something you seem to be absolutely certain about. It is very possible you have used your previous experience to make that judgement.
I learned a number of things from my jury experience, most importantly, I learned about the judiciary system, seen it on television and even heard other people’s war stories is no substitute for seeing the process first hand. Being a part of the justice system in action makes it more of a reality, there is no substitute for experience. I also gained some familiarity with prosecutors and police officers as real people, and with the difficulties of their day-to-day work. In addition, I came away with new insight into how ordinary citizens contribute to the proper functioning of our government.
Though I have been summoned before, this is my first opportunity to actually serve on a jury. Yes, it was an inconvenience on my schedule. But, I would do it again, if called upon.