AT THE DEEP END OF THE JURY POOL

I’ve been called to jury duty often. It’s the price you pay for voting because potential jurors are chosen from voter registrations lists. I’m sure they call us in alphabetical order, too.

Our last name begins with “A” and we were called early and often, as frequently as every other month and always two or three times a year until one day I called and said “Hey, enough!” After that, they slowed down to every other year. I’m pretty sure there’s an outstanding jury summons for me somewhere that I never answered. I was in the hospital trying not to die. Oops. It’s just possible I’m a wanted criminal. I assume they’ll get back to me on that.

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They called Garry, but never let him serve. Reporters are like cops. They’ve seen too much. Garry knew the judges, the D.A., the lawyers. And the criminals. They all knew Garry. And they knew he knew stuff they preferred he not know. So, no matter how many times they called him, he was in and out in an hour. Maximum two.

I was a better pick. No connection to law enforcement. Not a lawyer, no lawsuits, or weird political opinions. That I was a freelancer who was going to lose my shirt if I couldn’t work did not matter to anyone except me. I went in, sat around. No trial needed me, so I went home. Done, until next time.

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Until one day, I got assigned to a trial. I had instant images of a long criminal trial. Being sequestered for weeks in some fleabag motel. Losing my clients. Losing my house. I was an unenthusiastic juror, but when duty calls, you might as well go quietly. Unless you want to wind up on the other side of the courtroom. Besides, they have officers with guns stationed at the exits.

It was a minor civil case. One woman hit another at an intersection. Woman A claimed Woman B was jumping the light. Woman B said she had mistakenly thought it was a cross street.

There was no evidence. She said, she said. I thought both of them were lying. It was a matter of who you believed less. Eleven of my fellow jurors were ready to acquit. I thought we should at least talk about it. But, they wanted to go home and pointed out everyone knows the intersection isn’t a through street (I didn’t).

I caved. Because there was nothing except a small amount of money at stake. Peer pressure gets intense and ugly quickly when eleven people want to go home and you are preventing it. That was more than 20 years. Tonight, we watched “Twelve Angry Men.” That’s a movie made in 1957 where Henry Fonda forces eleven of his peers to reconsider the evidence and grasp the concept of reasonable doubt. It’s a great movie which has aged well.

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It did leave me wondering and not for the first time, how many verdicts are based on jurors who just want to go home? How many people are convicted or acquitted because the jury was bored, needed to get back to work, or couldn’t stand one more minute sifting through evidence? How many jurors are bullied into a verdict with which they disagree because they are threatened?

There are no statistics on this and I’m sure there won’t ever be. No one, given the criminal liability and potential physical danger, is going to admit it. It makes you wonder, doesn’t it?

Next time a jury comes in with a weird verdict, consider the possibility that some of them didn’t really agree. It happened to me and I’m sure it’s a regular occurrence.



Categories: Anecdote, Ethics and Philosophy, Government, Law, Legal Matters

Tags: , , , , ,

15 replies

  1. Now you scare me…. I only know your system from films I’ve seen and books I’ve read. Even THOSE I found scary because, how can a bunch of freely chosen people judge a crime of any size or form. And we all know how badly it already went wrong in the early bible times….. I just hope I’ll never get myself into a situation where I will have to be judged!

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  2. This is such a well-written (like always) and interesting post, Marilyn. I have wanted to watch that movie for years; now I must. Admittedly, I’ve watched shows like “Dateline”, “20/20”, and “48 Hours” for many years. Human behavior, to say the least, is interesting. I’m for certain your situation is not uncommon. We are only human after all. I want to trust our system; however, its power can be overreaching in the most damaging ways, too.

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    • We always talk about jurors being threatened by the D.A. or the defendant. In reality, you are more likely to be threatened by your fellow jurors who are tired, need to get back to work or rescue their children from babysitters, or are so bored, they don’t care who wins or loses — as long as they get to go HOME. I’m not sure it’s even a crime to threaten a fellow juror. I’ll have to look it up.

      “Twelve Angry Men” is a really great movie and probably is even better now that it was originally. It was Henry Fonda’s personal favorite and he was very involved in the script and some of the directing. He believed in freedom and the law. I wish more Americans were believers.

      Liked by 1 person

      • And the answer is:

        No matter how they do it, people who try to influence jurors are guilty of jury tampering. A classic example of tampering is bribing or threatening a juror to decide a case a certain way.

        Apparently anyone who threatens a juror to vote a certain way for any reason is committing a crime, though I’ve never heard of the charge being laid against one juror for threatening a fellow juror to just vote so everyone can go home.

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  3. I was pretty much called yearly when I lived in San Francisco, but since moving to the East Bay almost 2 1/2 years ago, I haven’t received a jury duty summons. And yes, 12 Angry Men was a great movie!

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    • I got one last year. It was for a court more than 50 miles distant and I was not going. I don’t drive much anymore and I’m not spending hours on the road. They cancelled me out of the jury pool because I’m over 70. Finally!

      “Twelve Angry Men” is still a great movie and given our current reality, maybe even better now. What a pity more Americans don’t understand any more of the law than they’ve seen on “Law & Order”!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Hi Marilyn, from what I know of how your system of jurors works, this is exactly what I thought happened. It’s not a great system, in my opinion.

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    • I don’t think it has ever been a great system. It was designed with great ideas, but it never really worked the way it should have, probably because so few people understand the legal stuff they are dealing with. If it hasn’t been on “Law & Order” (the TV show), no one knows anything about it.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I agree that it isn’t well understood. My son explained a lot of detail to me. He is very interested in the USA justice system and wrote an excellent essay on racism in the USA judicial and prison system last year. He received 100% for it.

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  5. I’ve never served on jury duty (been summoned and told I didn’t have to report) and appreciate your insider view. Our justice system seems screwed up in so many ways

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    • The big problem is how few people other than lawyers understand the legal stuff with which they are suddenly required to deal. They don’t teach any of that in schools and never did. Even the fundamental concepts of “innocent until proven guilty” and “reasonable doubt” are concepts few regular citizens grasp. It was designed with the best of intentions, but has never worked the way it was intended.

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  6. I am sure it happens a lot. The jury system is far from perfect. I can’t recall if I have watched the movie but we did “Tweive Angry Men” for high school English. I remember having to read one of the parts. I thought it was a great story. It appealed to my idealistic side. Now, many years later I can easily imagine that many jurors, are tired, worried about losing pay or spending time away from their families or just plain don’t care.
    Neither David nor I were ever called for jury duty either in South Australia or here. I don’t know how they allocate jurors. I always wondered why we weren’t called at least once.

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      • Twelve is the “official” number, but juries can actually include as few as 6 people, especially when it’s not a major criminal case. They can also be as many as 24. The problem is that most people who aren’t lawyers don’t understand “innocent until proven guilty” and tend to assume you ARE guilty until proven innocent. Maybe that’s just a standard non-legal human response. The theory is “if he/she wasn’t guilty, why is he on trial”? “Reasonable doubt” is way too vague for most of us. I’m not sure exactly where the line between guilty and reasonable doubt is. There is ALWAYS some doubt unless it was caught on camera. How much of that doubt is reasonable and how much is prejudice of some kind?

        The movie does more to explain “reasonable doubt” than anything else I’ve seen or read, but I’m pretty sure real juries don’t work like they do in the movie.

        Liked by 1 person

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