It arrived in my mailbox around six weeks ago. A jury summons for my county. The summons instructed me that the jury duty service would last at minimum one week, but could be longer depending on the trial for which I would be selected (if selected). Well, not in those words, but that was the long and short of it. My service was to begin on February 8th at 8:30am and I was to report to a specific room inside the County Courthouse, at that time.
On Monday, February 8th, I left my home an hour and a half earlier than my required summons suggested, to ensure I would find parking, find the room and be on time. Never mind that the courthouse was only a fifteen minute drive from my home. My concern was mainly where to park, and how far would that be from the courthouse and then once inside the courthouse- where is that room? Of course I got there in record time and found the Victory Ramp easily and my space on the third floor of the ramp with no problem. The Victory Ramp is kitty corner from the court house, so an easy walk across two streets and short distance to the front door. On entry, I find the typical security screening station where one would have to disrobe of outer vestments and any heavy shiny objects that could set off alarm bells. There is no one there except the security guard at this early hour, and I ask him: “Is there any coffee to be found beyond security?” He shakes his head, only the vending machines. “Is there a coffee shop nearby – I am over an hour early”. “Sure, just head back down the sidewalk to the right and cross the street and follow Wabasha one block to 5th Street; there is a Dunn Brother’s on the corner of Wabasha and 5th. It will only take you about five minutes to get there”. He smiles. “Thanks- appreciate it”. I head back through the heavy brass and wood revolving door of the historic courthouse building and follow the guard’s instructions.
The coffee shop was a welcome haven for about forty five minutes as I unwind a bit from my too early commute and stress of anticipating the severity and importance of Jury Duty. I tend to lean in the direction of crime and courtroom dramas, so I have a head full of fictitious renditions of what might happen over the course of the next few days. And, I am fairly certain most of my impressions of what lies ahead are false. It will likely be drier, less jazzy, less sparkly and less exciting. Still, I am a little excited. This is my first rodeo in the judicial system, and I am, yes, a little excited.
With about twenty five minutes left before I must report, I head out of the coffee house back to the courthouse. When I arrive, there are only a couple of people ahead of me in the security check point line. Each one of us sets off the alarm and in my case, the guard only asks me to show the top of my socks. Looking for a hidden gun or other weapon? After clearing security, I head through the initial hallway and notice that all rooms are in the 100 series. My room number is in the two digits, so without asking, I assume my room is likely on the level one floor down. I head down the marble staircase into the lower level and immediately on arrival at that level I see my room number at the bottom of the staircase. I enter and find a large room filled with cushy leather chairs, a few tables for those while waiting that might want to write or engage in other activities that might require a hard surface. Only a few people are present. I take a seat. Within fifteen minutes, the room is just about completely full and at a glance I guess there are just over a hundred of us gathered. The next hour is a series of instructions from our Jury Room Clerk. All of use must form a line to have our summons bar code scanned, which will check-us in. We are instructed that we are required to show up when summoned, that if we do not show up on one of the day’s summoned, a deputy will appear at our homes, and there will be another court case on the docket, and it will be ours because failure to appear is a crime. We watch an instruction video on the six big screens that are suspended from walls throughout the room, offering a good view from just about any seat. After the video and more instructions, we wait for the first group of prospective jurors to be called. We have been advised that there are quite a few cases to be tried on the docket, so if not called today, we may be called on a different day. The waiting process, we are told, is not a waste of time, as it is this process that is vital in the justice system. In some cases, while jurors wait, trials are resolved. After about another thirty minutes, our Jury Room Clerk comes back to the microphone to announce they have a selection of potential jurists to call. He announces: “Please respond loudly with the word: “Here”, when your name is called, and gather your things and come over here to follow the courtroom clerk up the the courtroom assigned for this trial”. Jury Room Clerk points to an area by the door to the room where the courtroom clerk is waiting with his clip board. Quite a few names are called- it seems over 30. Not my name this time. “The rest of you, you will wait here until we have another prospective jury list for another trial.” He mentions all the lovely amenities in the room for our comfort, we are allowed to use our cell phones, tablets and computers. For those that did not bring a computer, there are two in that back room- he provides instructions for use. He offers the coat room, cubbies, mentions where the toilets are, ATM machine, vending machines and cafeteria. He emphasizes that we must try to be in the room at all times so if leaving, to return as quickly as possible so as not to delay any procedings. About an hour lapses as many read, type and listen to smart phones and MP3 players. The Jury Room Clerk once again appears at the microphone to announce that those of us remaining have been excused for the balance of the day but that we are now on call for the rest of the week. He instructs us to call a specific phone number each day after 5pm but before 7am the next morning, to learn whether our individual “group numbers” have been summoned for the next day and the time we should appear. Each of us has an assigned group number, and if that number is mentioned on that outgoing message we are to appear the next day at the appointed time on the message. So, we all gather our things, and I head into work. It’s still before noon, and I am glad I will have time today to work. It’s our busiest season and missing work is challenging.
Later that day, after 5pm, I call the number, and my group number is not called. I have Tuesday off of jury duty- I get to come in to work. I repeat this the following evening to learn about Wednesday- and I am called. I must report at 9am Wednesday, February 10.
On Wednesday morning I repeat my Monday morning but this time, I go straight to Dunn Brothers after parking the car in the Victory Ramp. I spend about an hour there and then head over to the courthouse. Going through security, once again, I set off the security alarm and show my ankles to the guard. Once all of us are gathered in the jury room, we have the prospective juror all and this time, I am on the list. We gather our things and join the jury room clerk and head up to the 14th floor. As we enter, our group of 34 fills up the gallery seats as instructed. We all rise when the judge enters. The first step is for the jury room clerk to swear us all in- we are to rise, raise our right hands and respond to the swearing in wording. We all say “I Do”. We are then to be seated.
After some initial instructions from the judge, she informs us that a random selection of us in the gallery will now be called to move over to the jury panel. There are twelve high backed red fabric cushy seats in the jury box and another seven harder wooden chairs lined up in front of the jury box. The judge gives us a little history about the random selection from the prospective jurors in the gallery: “back in the day, the selection was made by placing names in that box and with a hand crank we would churn the names and pick names by hand from the box. It’s not as exciting these days as the names are randomly generated by computer. Still, we like to keep the old antique items from historic court days in the courtrooms for interest”. They randomly call nineteen people from the gallery. I am not one of them. These 19 are to move from the gallery to the jury box in the order called, starting with seating in the back row of the jury box, further left back seat and to seat themselves in order left to right back row, then left to right middle row, and then finally left to right front row. The names have been drawn in a specific order and the judge and lawyers want these named individuals in specific seats.
At the center table, there is a man of Hmong heritage seated next to a man- likely his attorney. On the side of the table, a woman with black hair is hunched over her own paperwork, perhaps the prosecuting attorney. In the front row of the gallery, there is a young man- maybe in his late teens or early twenties, with a thick head of straight black hair standing on end, hunched a bit and looking straight ahead. Perhaps related to the defendant.
The judge now goes through the process of instructing us on our duties as jurors, whether in the jury box or in the gallery. She walks through the few pages of instructions – talks about the privilege we all have to serve, that it is our duty to serve, that our founding fathers made a careful and concerted effort to ensure due process and fairness to the defendant in any case by being judged by a group of his peers. Then, the reading of the crime. It is a sex crime against a thirteen year old girl by a male individual more than 120 months her senior which occurred on a given day September 2015. On hearing the complaint, my throat goes dry. My chest feels heavy. I look at the man at the table, his back is to me. I am immediately grateful that I am not in the jury box.
The judge moves on to questions for each juror. For each question, the jurors are to raise their hands and keep them raised, if their answer to the question is yes. Then, after a few moments allowing judge and attorneys time to write down the names of those jurors whose hands are risen, the judge will question each person whose hand was raised. So, first question: do they know the defendant or have knowledge of the case before them. No one raises their hand. Next, a list of witness names- do you know any of these names? She goes through the list one by one to wait to see if any hands are raised. None. Next question: areas of the crime- anyone familiar with the street name? A few. “It’s where I grew up”, “My schools is a few blocks from there”. “I service that area with my job”. Then come the difficult questions: “Have any of you been a victim of a crime?”. At least ten hands go up. The judge starts with the woman in the middle row against the far left wall. “What was the crime for which you were a victim?” The woman hesitates just slightly “I was molested when I was thirteen years old by a relative.” The judge looks at the woman and carefully composes her next sentence with compassion and concern “is it fair to say that we all come to these procedings with our own backgrounds, that we have our experiences and some of them painful. But that even in light of these experiences, it is our duty to offer the defense and prosecution with an unbiased weighing of the evidence presented?” “Yes” she answers meekly. “Do you believe you can follow my instructions and obey the law in light of your experience?” The woman hesitates again “I know by my intellect that I must put aside my memories, but I don’t know that my heart can do the same thing. I can not provide a 100% assurance that my experience will not impact my process of evaluation of the facts”. She was honest. And sitting there, I continued to be grateful that I was not occupying that jury box. And, I silently prayed I would continue to be spared.