Wednesday, August 29

Jury duty ends in triumph

When we went in to the deliberation room after the prosecution and defense counsels’ final presentations, I rediscovered the real value of the jury selection process. It had taken an entire week to put this panel together. Hundreds of people were interviewed for selection. It ended up with fourteen, the jury panel and two alternates. The twelve of us made up a varied cross-section of the citizens of the county. A man who farms 11,000 acres of almonds, a woman who’s a retired executive from one of the biggest farm services companies in the world, a man who drives for United Parcel Service, a free-lance software writer, a schoolteacher, and the sharpest promoter of his own business ever to set foot in a courtroom (more on that later), plus others whose occupations I didn’t find out.

The first duty of our panel is to select a foreperson (used to be foreman, but I digress). I spoke up and said, “If this is a beauty contest, I’m out,” Chuckles. We selected a man whose job is to hire and fire workers for a large industrial construction company. He had been a jury foreman several times and knew the ropes. We had previously listened to the long speech from the judge about our duties and responsibilities; it took the better part of an hour. Our foreman summed it up in twenty seconds: Go down the list of charges, discuss each of them and vote guilty or not guilty on each. We had a general discussion of the case and everybody chimed in with his or her opinion. It was a very revealing conversation as it proved that everyone was paying very close attention during the trial and had a good understanding of the case. One real surprise to me was the man who was off by himself during all our breaks. He never got into the juror banter when we were out of the courtroom. I assumed that since he was the only black man on an all-white jury, he didn’t relate to the rest of us. But in the deliberation room, he opened up and poured out his convictions in a huge gush. He summed up in very quick succession what all of us eventually decided on, and included the reservations he had about the prosecution’s case, the star witnesses’ testimony, the defense’s strengths and weaknesses—in sum, he had the case nailed. We all agreed with his assessment. I tell ya, United Parcel Service has some pretty savvy drivers.

The Sheriff’s Department handles the service to jurors through a bailiff. If jurors need some printed documentation, the court reporter’s notes, some drinking water—that’s his responsibility. I asked if we could get Shiatsu massages and he said no but maybe he could bring in a stray cat we could pet and pass around if need be.

As the foreman read the charges against the defendant and asked for our vote, it was “guilty” from each of us in turn, twelve times each on the four charges. Probably took all of five minutes. I asked if there was a competition for fastest verdict on something like the Guinness Book of World Records. We had finished in maybe twenty minutes since we entered the deliberation room. The software writer volunteered to look that up, but said we probably couldn’t win because that’s really not one of the things that juries should aspire to. But our guy was so incredibly guilty I’m surprised they even bothered to have a trial in the first place. But of course that wouldn’t have been fair or legal. Even in Madera County we don’t have a hangin’ tree outside the courthouse for quick administration of justice.

Oh, before I forget—the sharpest promoter of his business (mentioned above) was yours truly. During the jury selection process the prosecutor asked me what I did for a living. I told her that I worked at a guest ranch in the high Sierra along the John Muir Trail that was private land in the middle of the wilderness and had been since 1885 and had the San Joaquin River going through it and log cabins and tent cabins and hot spring baths and we delivered resupplies to thousands of hikers on America’s most-traveled hiking trail and accommodated guests for a day to a week at a time and had superb dining. All one sentence—no commas.

After the trial, the jury members met with both attorneys in the hallway outside the courtroom. I thanked them for their good work and commiserated with the hapless defense attorney. White-haired, mid-fiftyish, portly, he looked like he belonged in a movie from the 1950s. “You had an impossibly tough case,” I said. “I know,” he replied, “but then sometimes the firm gives me something I can win just to keep my spirits up.” He had a good sense of humor. The prosecution attorney was a trim athletic vibrant woman whose final summation was worthy of an Oscar. She asked if I had a card—she wants to come to the ranch next summer. I gave her my business card. One of the jurors asked for one also. They took the last two business cards in my wallet. Now I have to go get some more in case I make an off-the-cuff sales pitch to some other unlikely group.

2 comments:

mackenzie said...

Great story. I was just chosen to be on a jury last month. I was very excited to be picked, I never had jury duty before. The worst part was the jury selection and the waiting around for hours upon hours. The only exciting part was when the nurse expert witness was on the stand. She was the only witness we got to see because the case was settled shortly after. I was a little upset that we didn't get to do the deliberation process. I don't want to be foreman but I definitely want to deliberate a case. Hopefully next time!

Tom Hurley said...

It is such a shame that so many people consider jury duty a waste of their valuable time. It is very educational. I only wish I didn't always get a criminal case — for once it would be nice to sit on a case where two comedians are suing each other over the issue of stealing each other's jokes, and their evidence is the jokes themselves. That would be good for a few laughs anyway.