Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Jury Duty

Today I had the rather unique experience of going through the jury selection process for a criminal trial. The defendant was being tried for drunk in public and resisting arrest. During the course of his arrest, in which multiple officers were involved, the defendant allegedly became violent with the officers and a tazer gun was used to subdue him. The defendant was also suspected of gang affiliation.

Because I am still registered at my parents’ address in Tracy, I had to serve jury duty at the Stockton courthouse. I wasn’t all too happy about doing the extra driving, but knowing I had dibs on my parents’ couch and that my office would pay me for up to twenty days of trial, I was fairly excited to participate in the civil process. However, by the time I was dismissed this afternoon, I was rather disappointed by the experience.

The defendant, his defense lawyer, and the prosecuting lawyer were all present for the entire jury selection process. I was among the first dozen randomly selected persons asked to be seated in the jury box for questioning, and remained there until the very last round of dismissals. Every time a new person is moved into the tentative jury, they are asked to respond to a set of general personal questions, including what is your name, where are you from, what is your profession, do you personally know anyone in law enforcement or in the DA’s office, have you served on a jury before, and so on. I must have given satisfactory enough answers for both sides because I was asked relatively few questions throughout the rest of the interview process.

Toward the end of the day I began to assume that I would be on the jury, which I didn’t mind since the judge had already informed us that the trial would be finished by week’s end. Initially our group had been intended for selection for a child molestation case, which would have lasted much longer, but new evidence had been admitted, delaying the trial’s start until next Monday. My case was to be a misdemeanor filler until the other case was ready for jury selection.

I was curious about our case, ready to see the evidence and hear the testimonies. I was beginning to get excited about participating on a jury and having the opportunity to take an active role in the judicial process. It was no surprise when the man who had been charged a few years earlier of accessory to murder was dismissed, or the woman who outright admitted that she could not be fair in a case with charges so similar to one her son was facing the following week. There were a few others who were clearly saying whatever they could think up that might get them dismissed for bias or inability to “fairly” judge the defendant. I felt like I was different. I had never been arrested, never gone to court, never known anyone to face the same charges, had no harbored hatred toward lawyers or law enforcement. I understand the value and purpose of jury selection, and am conscious of how significant it is that I, as a woman, am allowed to participate, when not so long ago only Caucasian property-owning men were permitted.

It wasn’t until the defense attorney questioned my views about the limits of law enforcement that my seat was scrutinized. I still stand by my answers; they were simply not what the defense wanted to hear. When the lawyer asked whether I thought it was okay for multiple officers to arrest one person, or if it should always be one on one, I responded that if more than one officer was needed to subdue a person then yes it would be an appropriate means of force. When asked whether I thought there was ever a time when it was okay for an officer to use a tazer, I responded that under some circumstances I could see where a tazer would be necessary. From that point it was clear that the lawyer was done with me, and when he was asked to eliminate one last juror, there I sat in chair number 12 with a big red bulls eye on my forehead.

I quickly gathered my belongings and left the courtroom, rode the elevator to the basement and turned in my badge, validated my parking, and headed home. I felt like a cheap date. Like I had done everything right and was discarded for having done just that. There were several people who the lawyers questioned at length, people who could hardly form an intelligible sentence in response, and admittedly knew nothing of the laws that pertained to the case in question. How, I wondered, could these people be more able to decide this case? Sure, this was a rather minor infraction with relatively low consequence to the defendant, but what if we had gotten that child abuse case. Would these same people be selected to apply their awkward personalities and socially inept presence toward making a decision that affected people’s lives in such a huge way?

The judge repeatedly mentioned that a jury had to remember that their decision wasn’t a popularity contest; it was to be based solely on the facts. Why does that same reasoning not apply to jury selection? The judge dismisses those who are most blatantly not willing or able to participate, but then it is up to the lawyers to take turns questioning and dismissing those who they don’t want on the jury. Had the lawyers mistaken a lack of general intelligence for neutrality? Probably not. One can only assume that each lawyer will make selections that they believe are most likely to benefit their side. But if that is the case, where is the justice in such a trial? It’s like childhood kickball in the park, with each team captain selecting the players they think will be of most use to them, rather than selecting in the interest of who will create the most fair and balanced athletic experience for the game as a whole. Sure, in sports that’s not how it works. But in court, isn’t that hypothetically how it IS supposed to work?

And so as it is, I will not be juror number 12. Why? Because I believe that it is the right of law enforcement to use the force we as a society have bestowed upon them, even though I do support the reasoning that some officers may abuse that force, and also that it is the defendant’s right to pursue legal accountability for the officers he has drawn into question. Rather than being dismissed from jury selection feeling proud to have participated in a legal process that our nation boasts as a central function of its democracy, I am coming away feeling disheartened by an experience which has made me acutely aware of how at the end of the day even the “due process” of “justice” is merely bureaucracy.