It's a small piece of paper, usually no bigger than a postcard and easily lost between the bills and advertisements that crowd a mailbox, but it manages to instill fear in many of its recipients: the jury summons.
Some people instantly start thinking up things to say that would guarantee they'd get the boot. "Everyone is guilty until proven innocent!" "I've never met a police officer I trust!" "I'm a racist who enjoys drunk driving and committing hit-and-runs in my spare time!" Others are resigned to the fact that jury duty is just part of life for most U.S. citizens, age 18 or over.
There are lots of reasons why people dread going. It can be a drag to get down to the courthouse, find parking, go through the metal detectors, then wait for hours, wondering when — or if — you're going to be excused. For people who work the night shift, they have to show up when they're supposed to be sleeping, and for parents, the already hectic morning routine gets cranked up a few notches.
When I was called in early last month, I was still getting over being super sick during the holidays, and the idea of my first foray outside the house being to jury duty didn't exactly thrill me. Justice may be blind, but it can hear, and I was afraid that my rattling cough wouldn't go over well. Still, I showed up on time, ready to do my civic duty.
I live in California, a state that still forces potential jurors to watch a video, circa-O.J. trial, which was outdated about five minutes after its release (according to the credits, it was copyrighted 2002, but I still have my doubts). I kept waiting for Judge Ito to make an appearance, but instead people who served on juries shared testimonials about how fantastic the whole experience is, including one woman who predicted we'd make lifelong friends with our fellow jurors.
Yeah right, I thought.
I was on Panel A, and sure enough, we were picked to go into the courtroom. I had never made it this far in jury selection, so I had no clue what was ahead, and the rest of the afternoon was a whirlwind. After the judge dismissed those with hardships, the rest of us were told to return the next day.
That's when the real fun began. We were all assigned numbers, and 18 people were chosen at random to sit on the panel and answer several questions about their work, families, and any brushes with the law. It was kind of like a warped version of The Dating Game. We had been told this case involved driving under the influence, and people had to answer truthfully if they felt they could not treat the defendant fairly.
This was about the time I realized some people should not be trusted with a microphone. Most answered the questions quickly without elaborating, but others acted like it was open mic night at The Comedy Store, firing off one-liners. Being irritating isn't a crime, but it should be.
The judge told us not to feel bad if we weren't picked, and that some people are just better fits for certain cases, but I knew I would feel the sting of rejection if I was dismissed. By this point, I was still just sitting in the audience section, wondering if I would even have a chance to answer the questions. Right about the time I was starting to feel Dead Sea-level salty, I got a reprieve: Some of the more outrageous characters had been dismissed, and seven new people were called up. As luck would have it, mine was the first number.
I made it on the jury as the last member of the panel, and after two alternates were chosen, we listened to the jury instructions and jumped into the trial. By the end of the day, we heard testimony from the California Highway Patrol officer who pulled the defendant over and an expert witness, who explained how people get drunk, blood alcohol levels, and retrograde extrapolation.
The entire trial was fascinating. I learned a lot from the expert witness, like what the heck retrograde extrapolation is, and found myself curious about all parts of the legal system. How do you become a bailiff? Why didn't a potential witness testify? Why is this nothing like an episode of Law & Order?
It was extremely hard not to talk about the case with my fellow jurors before deliberations. One of the alternate jurors likened the experience to watching a movie, and not being able to talk about it once it was over. Every night when I went home, I thought about the trial, and the testimony, and the different explanations for things. It was all-consuming, especially since I didn't have anyone I could talk to. Once deliberations started, it felt weird to suddenly have permission to discuss the case, and we all just sat there awkwardly until someone cracked a joke. To my relief, no arguments ever broke out, and while we were passionate in presenting our thoughts, everyone stayed respectful.
We took the task seriously, carefully looking over the evidence, re-reading our notes, and asking the court reporter to come into the room so we could listen again to certain parts of the testimony. After a full day of deliberations, we had a verdict. One person said we could teach Congress a thing or two about how to work together, which made me laugh because I know if we had been discussing politics in that room, it might have ended in fisticuffs. I was proud, though, and honestly amazed, that this group of 12 strangers with completely different backgrounds could come up with a consensus.
For one last time, we filed into the courtroom, the defendant, public defender, and prosecutor standing up as we walked in (I must admit, having people stand as I entered a room made me feel very important). The verdict was read, the judge thanked us for our service, and just like that, it was over.
When you sit on a jury, you have someone's fate in your hands. That's an incredible responsibility, one I think often gets lost in the shuffle of trying to find a way out of serving. I thought about this the whole time, the gravity of making a decision that affects someone else's future. That shouldn't be taken lightly.
It can be a major commitment, but being on a jury is an absolutely rewarding experience. When it was all over, I felt like I had really made a difference, and that I was part of something bigger. It was a good reminder of how important it is to be patient and cooperative while working with others, and that sometimes it's necessary to shift your perspective. Oh, and I did make a friend on the jury! Well, a Facebook friend at least. Maybe I shouldn't have scoffed at that ancient video after all.