In 2011, I was part of a host of people considered to sit on a jury. Considering that the trial for the killing Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman has just ended in a Not Guilty verdict, I thought I would share how the process appears to work in Lake County, California.
Jury duty in Lake County, the “City” of Clearlake branch. Before entering the building’s main room, I have to put my stuff through a x-ray machine. This screening requirement is fairly recent.
One woman says, “I’ve never seen a superior court run like this. I’ve lived in rural places all over they country. I’ve never seen anything like this before.” I overhear a discussion between the bailiff and a deputy sheriff, I’m part of the second slug of people being voir dired for a trial that’s expected to take nine weeks to complete. About 100 of us file through the double doors into a courtroom approximately 20′ by 40′. We quickly outgrow the audience seats and overflow into the jury box, and finally into the defendant and prosecution desk areas. We would sit in Judge Hedstrom’s seat if there weren’t a barrier.
Despite the large number of people in the courtroom, when the clerk calls the roll it seems that more than two-thirds of us didn’t show up.
From the discussions around me it’s easy to learn that none of us thinks jury duty is worth the inconvenience of the process. There are thousands, if not millions, of people yearning to have this opportunity to exercise a freedom that is unique to democracy: the ability to face your accuser, the right to trial by a jury of your peers. That doesn’t mean it’s not an inconvenience and a royal pain in the ass. So, the jury of your peers does not come to the proceedings wanting to listen to any bullshit; knowing they are going to listen to bullshit
To demonstrate that our day hasn’t been bureaucratically wasted, they waste more of our time showing us a video on why jury duty doesn’t bureaucratically waste our time. The video says this is about ‘justice.’ Justice? Really? No, not really. It’s about who tells the best story. “We trust in the community to make the right decision,” intones the narrator. The video gives us groundrules of how our State’s judicial system works:
Jurors cannot ask questions during the presenting of the case by either the defense or the prosecution.
Jurors cannot research facts around the case.
Jurors are vessels into which the defense and prosecution pour their crap and their opinions.
“Sit down, shut up, stay awake, listen to the bullshit stories these people tell you” seems to be the purpose of a juror.
Then finally when the important time that questions could be presented is over, you deliberate as a jury and discuss the crap that each side presented. Would told the most compelling lies?
Toward the end of the video the narrator intones, “The jury has reached a verdict. Justice has been served.” Really? They reached a decision, that’s all they did, they made their best guess from the stories each side tries to tell, nothing more.
After a fifteen minute recess, we file back in and Judge Hedstrom swears us in and begins the void dire process. JH lays down the ground rules. He admonishes us not to discuss this case with anyone. This is a criminal trial. Another group of prospective jurors will show up between 2 and 2:30. JH may dismiss some of us to go to a trial set to begin in Lakeport at 1:15. This drill is expected to take six days (eg WTF – two weeks).
JH now starts the “Queen for a Day” hardship excuses. Sole providers living paycheck to paycheck, vacations, caregivers, job requirements, medical procedures, doctor’s appointments, I’m no doctor but I’m pretty sure one fellow who may be mentally challenged has curly white hair and a ten-day growth of salt & pepper beard, says he’d not be a good juror ‘the guy’s guilty.’ JH tells him that this isn’t the time for that part of the voir dire proceedings (though JH doesn’t use “voir dire”). When JH finishes asking about hardships, he calls names of the people who have claimed hardship, has them stand, and dismisses them. “You are free to go.”
JH dismisses some 20 people. They file out and the courtroom thins considerably.
The judge reads accusations against the accused: rape, lewd and lascivious acts, threats on a girl under 14 years of age which took place on 21 Sept 2005., 1 Nov 2007, 20 Dec 2008. 289pc. Statutory rape? 288.b1PC. Lewd and lascivious act with a minor. 269A1 PC – Rape of a minor 261A2 – Rape. 269A5 PC – Rape. 667 PC
After reading the twelve (by my count) felony charges, JH starts questioning those of us empaneled as to whether we can be impartial. Those that say they can’t be impartial are asked, “Do you know the facts of this case, do you know the defendant, do you know the defense attorney, do you know the prosecuting attorney, what is the nature of the case that causes you believe that you could not be fair and impartial? Those who might be prejudiced in this case are told to report to the jury commissioner at 1:15.
Our mentally challenged fellow says, “The guy sounds like a pervert.” The audience groans.
A slight woman with short-cropped gray hair says she’s a retired nurse is on chapter of Women Against Rape. She brings her story to the court but would like to think she could be fair.
Others carry angst of not knowing, hoping they can be, fair and impartial and raise the point for the court to consider. Sexual traumas run deep in the psyche. Four women had been abused. One man with a gray beard and salt and pepper hair says he had a good friend wrongly accused that nearly destroyed his friend’s reputation and life.
Tuesday, 26 Aug 2008 (less than a week until Labor Day Weekend) was Jury Duty Day.
Oh, joy. Still, considering that I’m a writer, it’s a great time for people watching and gathering names, faces, clothing and hair styles, body shapes.
It started a few weeks ago when the jury summons came in one of those perforated, tear, fold, and mangle “envelopes” the government is so enamored with since it saves paper by not needing a real envelope. I ended up ripping my summons into pieces; partly through frustration and partly, well let’s face facts, jury summons rarely elicit celebratory huzzahs. Inside, I’m reminded of the paperwork one signs when buying insurance, a car, or a mortgage; printed in ten-point single-spaced type, it’s information. No one expects it to be read.
Parking is limited, so part of the summons doubles as a parking pass.
Inside, I see we’ve entered the 21st century, sort of, when I am required to put my stuff through an x-ray machine and then walk through a metal detector. It’s not as impressive as one might first suppose, the building has more holes than a made-for-TV mystery. For instance, there are no alarmed exit doors just signs in English warning that the doors are for emergencies only. Remember Blazing Saddles where the good guys put up a toll crossing in the middle of the desert and the bad guys dutifully stop, get the correct change, and go through the thing one at a time? That’s what I see. The lack of surveillance and/or alarms makes it comical, silly, and—in my opinion—more dangerous than no screeners. The screening is loose, a teenager in front of me is told he can’t take his energy drink can through the machine, instead he’s allowed to put it between the scanner and the metal detector and pick it up after he’s passed through. At least we didn’t have to remove our shoes.
The courtrooms are located on the 4th floor. I take the stairs since I dislike elevators and prefer walking. On the third floor, two signs announce that the 4th floor is accessible by the elevator only—no guard, no alarmed gate, just two signs. I go dutifully to the elevators.
Lake County’s courthouse has only the hallway to hang out in. There is no juror’s assembly area. We mill about, wearing clip-on nametags that say “Juror,” waiting to be called into one of the courtrooms for roll call. We’re quite a cross-section of the county.
There’s the guy chewing gum. He has a graying mustache, wire rim silver bifocals, shoulder length hair flecked with gray pulled into a pony tail that ends slightly below the collar, hair curling on the neck in tufts over the collar neck, balding on the sides of his forehead each forming an inverse vee on the skull, faded red short sleeve shirt with a gut that pushes over the belt, black pants, black Doc Marten style boots.
There’s the scowling biker-type bald guy. His shaved head glistens with sweat on the ends of short hairs, squinting eyes, reddish beard flecked with gray that comes down to Adam’s apple; what looks like a Buck knife on his right side (it’s probably a cell phone, but who knows, given the thoroughness of the screeners), gray polo shirt, black jeans.
One woman, I judge to be 18-22 is wearing 1940’s style office attire: black shoes with thick high heels, black skirt to just below the knee, grey top with capped sleeves, red hair in a bun. She wants to look all grown-up for the day. I later learn during jury questioning that she’s a recent high school graduate and is working for a Certified Public Accountant.
There’s a guy with black hair and brown eyes, wearing untied white canvas sneakers, gray shorts that come below the knees, and a t-shirt. He has one of those beards that starts below the chin and curls backward and a Fu Manchu mustache. He often leans back with an elbow draped on the back of the chair and stares into space.
Others are in Hawaiian shirts, shorts, and sandals. [Note: such attire is not acceptable in other counties, such as Sonoma]
At 9 a.m., we are herded into a courtroom that doesn’t hold us all. The bailiff, an older county sheriff does his best to get everyone seated. He has some sit in the jury box and brings chairs out from the jury deliberation room. A court employee sits behind a wooden desk and calls the roll. Her squarish face has a frowning mouth that looks like it needs a hook in it. Our names are mispronounced and then we respond by saying how many miles we came and if we waive our mileage. [I’m told other counties assign numbers to potential jurors and names are never used. Nor do they ask for mileage, Zip Codes determine distance.] It takes an hour to call the roll. We’re sent back out into the hallway to mill about until the next cattle call.
Doors to another courtroom open and another bailiff with white hair, paunch, and shuffling gait invites us into a smaller room. More chairs are brought out.
It’s at this point that I know that my fellow jurors didn’t read or (if they did) couldn’t decipher, the non-communicable English the summons/parking permit is written in. The bailiff explains the program, about one-third file out of the courtroom with their summons papers. Not me, I put the fragments on my dashboard when I parked.
We’re shown a schmaltzy video about how great we will feel after serving on a jury. It has good graphics and neato visuals showing people, some of whom, are supposed to be just like me. Everyone in the video says how good it made them feel and how worthwhile it is. Well, gee, I’ve served before as a juror and I didn’t like it. It’s a lot like being a parent trying to sort out who’s lying, who’s telling the truth, what, if any of the evidence or testimony matters—all for much higher stakes than a timeout in the corner.
The bailiff announces the judge, requires us to come to order and stand. The judge comes in and introduces himself. His white hair contrasts well with his black robes. The bailiff has us raise our right hands and swears us in.
The judge has kind eyes and an affable manner and has the court clerk read the charges against the defendant.
The defendant looks like a svelte Drew Carey with his gelled short haircut and black plastic-rimmed glasses. He wears a mint green long-sleeve shirt (I wonder how many tattoos might be hidden) and matching tie. His black shoes look very ordinary. He is accused of committing six felonies, including kidnapping, robbery, assault with a deadly weapon, and criminal threats.
The judge tells us what wonderful things these sorts of affairs are—jury trials I mean, not kidnappings or assaults—and that our system of justice is only one of a few in the world using juries. He also understands that our time is valuable so when we are selected for a jury our time should be focused on the facts of the case and not waiting while sidebars are conducted. He pledges to do attorney consults during lunch break or before/after court.
I’ll accept that our jury trial system is important to our functioning democracy. A proctology exam is important to my well-being. Neither one is in any way what you can call fun. In fact, it’s difficult to decide which I’d rather have; both, while necessary, are a royal pain between the cheeks.
And, by the way, he estimates the trial will take three weeks.
With that, we enter the ‘hardship’ excuse portion of the selection process, people have vacations, airline reservations, sick relatives, single-mothers who don’t have childcare; contractors who are in their busy time, and others. Out of the one hundred or so of us, the judge excuses about thirty of the group.
We’re given a break for bathrooms and nicotine. We shuffle to the door like cattle trying to get through the chute. The door puts us in the pen where we congregate for one of two elevators. No one is allowed to take the stairs from or to the fourth floor where the courtrooms are located. Seventy people wait for one of two elevators that take five to seven Americans at any one time.
When we return, we’re in the part of the process where the court determines if anyone knows any of the defense, prosecution, or the witnesses and would or might be influenced/prejudiced about the proceedings. A bunch of folks know the investigators, they worked with or went to school with them. Most say they can be impartial—liars, well maybe not lying, merely deluding themselves.
An older man stands. His hair is in a bowl-style cut with the hairline an inch above the ears. He wears black-rimmed glasses, a suit coat with tie, cream-colored shirt, black slacks, and Ostrich skin boots. He is soft-spoken, even reverential to the process. He says he’s not sure that he can put his feelings aside, seeing as how this case deals with the assault of a woman. The judge says that it doesn’t involve the assault of a woman and ‘does that change things?’ He says that it doesn’t bother him and sits down.
The judge moves on to people who have served on juries. It looks like about one-third of us have served and most of the juries we sat on reached verdicts.
We get out for lunch (12 noon-1:30)
Despite the judge’s admonition and pledge to have attorney consults during lunch break or before/after court, once we all arrive at 1:30 after lunch the attorneys for both sides leave to go to the Judge’s chambers with the court stenographer in tow.
The defendant rocks back in the chair.
After a five-minute consult, the counselors come back to the courtroom.
Now the court clerk reads names of those selected to be considered for being jurors for this case. The woman in the 1940’s noir clothes is among those picked, so is the man with the bowl cut.
My name is chosen. I sit in chair #17. I’m handed a sheet of paper with a list of questions;at the bottom of the sheet it says, “Please leave this questionire [emphasis is mine] on the chair when you leave. It doesn’t inspire confidence in me; the same level of care appears to have gone into the security of the building.
This is the voir dire portion of the trial; it’s designed to determine our qualifications, competence, and suitability for being a juror for this trial for these officers of the court and the accused. First, each of us states our name, years in the county, what town we live in, our marital status, our occupation, spouse’s occupation, children’s ages and occupations, our educational background, occupational history, and present employer.
I’m impressed with the number of college degrees I hear in our group.
Next, the defense attorney and the prosecuting attorney ask about specifics in our backgrounds. I’m asked by the defense attorney about my peace officer background, “will it cause you to be biased toward the police?” I tell him no, that in my previous experience on a jury we found the defendant not guilty. This brought chuckles from the two benches and the judge. The defense says, “you’re not supposed to tell.” “Well, you did ask,” the judge says. I wanted to tell them to “disregard that last statement,” but that might have branded me as a wiseass, which I am; I just don’t want to be branded as one. After their allotted time, the two benches have certain individuals excused ‘for cause.’
Oral questions follow this session. We’re in the ‘preemptory’ portion. In this part, a certain number of jurors may be dismissed by each side for anything, including eye color or dress style. I eventually get into the #11 Chair. Another six names are called and the voir dire starts for them. We continue to winnow and another six names are called to sit in the fill-in seats of 13-18.
One guy is excused. He has a DUI case pending. It’s possible the DA thought this might affect his state of mind.
The man with the bowl haircut stands and says he figures anyone who has that many law enforcement witnesses against him must be guilty. After a few minutes, he’s thanked for his time and excused.
After half an hour as a possible juror, I’m excused and thanked for my service. I don’t know why I was excused; it might have been due to the couple spots of taco sauce I picked up on my white shirt during lunch. Or perhaps that I let it slip about the not guilty verdict.
When I left, the eighteen year old was still a possible juror. I think the lawyers just thought she was cute.