A View from Sierra County

Small town life and politics, lots of knitting, and travels with and without my five burros

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Location: In the Sierra Nevadas, United States

I blog about rural living and social issues, and the creativity that comes from knitting, as well as post random pictures of the Sierras and my burros. "In order to be an artist, one must be deeply rooted in the society" - Simone de Beauvoir


Tuesday, December 13, 2005

A Glimpse Into the Justice System

Yesterday, both my DH and self spent the day inside the courtroom (yes, there is only ONE) of the Sierra County Courthouse, waiting to learn if either or both of us would be selected for jury duty. Now, I have discovered, living in a rural area, that this is a very common experience amongst my friends and acquaintances, but an uncommon one in the United States at large, so I thought I would enlighten you.

The courts in California have a policy allowing a person who reports for jury duty, even if not chosen, to be exempt from summons for twelve months, but in such a small county that is about the only "break" we get. The pool of registered voters here is just over 1,000, and even though the numbers of trials scheduled per year is small, we each have received several summons over the twenty years we have lived here, and both had already had the experience of going through the voir doir, or instruction, questioning, and selection process, only to be "excused", a polite word for being rejected by one side or the other as a person who possibly would not be objective, or who had too much expert knowledge in a given area.

I have also watched the process several times, and find it fascinating to try to predict which people will be excused and which side of the case will consider them as unfavorable jury candidates. Although I could have pled hardship, as getting a substitute for myself for a four to five day trial would not be easy, I decided to go through the whole process and see if I would be selected, even though I was pretty sure in advance that I would not be (I had previously been employed for seven years for the attorney now sitting as the judge for the case).

Once all the jurors were checked in by the court clerk, and the potential jurors present were sworn in, the judge gave initial instructions and asked for a show of hands of those who considered it a true hardship to serve on a week-long trial. He held a brief recess to discuss this with those requesting release, and about 15% of those who had reported were excused, some for health hardships, others for economic. This process is done "in chambers", away from the main courtroom to ensure privacy for each juror.

Then, a computer random generator program pulled the first 18 names, to be seated and questioned. Neither of us were in the first round, so I knew it would be a long day. At least I had knitting (in fact, there will be a FO in tomorrow's post).

The questioning process is very lengthy, and should certainly be thorough in the interest of fairness to both sides. The trial I was called for three years ago was a criminal case, in which a fleeing jail escapee from Reno, driving into our county in a stolen vehicle at high speeds, crashed into another car, killing two occupants. Yesterday's case was a civil case, also involving an auto accident which happened in our county in 1998.

The burden of proof is significantly different between criminal and civil: in a criminal case, the prosecution must be able to prove to the jury that the defendant is guilty "beyond a reasonable doubt", whereas in a civil case there only needs to be a "preponderance of evidence" (or a majority) that the defendant was responsible for the events under scrutiny. Many of the questions centered on the potential jurors' past experiences with accidents, being either a plaintiff or defendant, serving on a prior jury and being able to distinguish between a civil and criminal standard of proof, and with the stretch of highway in question.

By the time lunchtime (and my accompanying stomach growling) rolled around, we were not even close to the point that the judge had suggested to start with - that of having a jury impaneled, so I told my husband over lunch that I could pretty much predict at least four in the jury box who would be excused in the first set of challenges. Each side gets six peremptory challenges, not having to reveal why but merely excusing someone they would not rather have hear their case. Following lunch, each side used three of their challenges, and the four persons I had pegged were amongst those sent home... two were a brother and sister who had been injured in an accident when young, and the most educated and least educated persons were also let go. I had remembered something statistical about those selecting jurors wanting a cross-section of Americans, and not those at either end of the spectrum, so guessed right on these.

Another round of seven names needed to be randomly drawn at this point, and I was the second pulled. I already had a hunch this would happen, but was a little dismayed to hear my husband called as the seventh; I knew he was dreading the possibility of giving up four days of good outside weather, with lots of repair projects looming, as they always do during his off-season. Our questioning went much more briskly (the judge and lawyers assumed we had all been listening, and not napping, which I had done, especially when I ran out of knitting project).

The judge had to disclose that I had worked for him in the past, and I stated the stretch of years, quipping that I did indeed know at least one judge. The plaintiff's attorney also pointed out that since it appeared that my husband and I might both end up on this jury, he wanted to know if that would be a "problem". I was thinking to myself that it would be hard not to talk about the case with him, as we discuss everything, and was obviously on a different train of thought than the questioner, for when I answered "My husband would agree that I am an independent thinker and would definitely make up my own mind without consulting him", I got a confused look from the attorney and a round of laughter from the courtroom, including my former boss!

As I had already foreseen, the attorneys eliminated me and another friend who had also worked for an attorney in the past, as well as the wife of a highway patrolman, and my husband, in light of his role responding to and reporting on traffic accidents in his job as a law enforcement officer for the Forest Service. That is another interesting observation about jury selection: those familiar with the law in any way are pretty much automatically excluded from the jury process. When I related my story to my dear friend Wit last night, who has been through law school, he stated that he was glad to have served on a jury before getting his degree, for he realized he will never be seated on a jury again.

I do believe in the good of this process - carefully screening a jury of one's peers to determine if they can objectively look at the facts presented by both sides and come to a conclusion based upon the laws in effect as to the appropriate outcome... but what would I have said in another situation?

I already know that I would have difficulty maintaining the same sense of objectivity in every situation, for instance, I would have to insist on being excluded from a death penalty case, as I am opposed to this on moral grounds. My beliefs, particularly as influenced by Buddhism, are that choosing death, even to punish another who may well warrant severe punishment, is even more harmful to my karma, than the actions that led them to such a dire position.

I would not be able to maintain the same sense of objectivity if the parties were close to me as I could yesterday, when both parties were strangers. That sense of distance has altered in me over time, as I have worked to develop compassion for all beings; dispassionate compassion is the ultimate goal, but I am a long ways from that point yet.

It took much thought and a night of dreaming, then a day of plunging back into my workaday world to shake some of the images that arose from this experience. Although I will probably never shake the past that has precluded me from serving on a jury, it is a strong formative experience to go through the selection process and face the possibility of influencing someone else's fate in such a way all the same. I would be very interested in hearing anyone elses experiences.


Blogger margene said...

Does anyone ever get a jury of their peers? The only time I have been called in was a shop lifting case. I was a store owner at the time and worked with law enforcement. There was no way they'd put me on that jury.

8:22 AM  
Blogger Tactless Wonder said...

I'm probably going to jinx myself here. I have yet to recieve a summons to be a juror. The closest was changing my address at the DMV in San Diego just before leaving the country on a sailboat. My xMIL emailed me saying I had to appear for jury duty at such-and-such a date. But San Diego must be weird, it was an electronic phone call. My x had her "write me a note," stating the commute was a bit far, but that I'd gladly go in once I returned to the country.

That was almost 2 years now. No word yet.

9:37 AM  

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