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Adventures in Jury Duty

I was summoned for jury duty a couple weeks ago. It wasn’t the most opportune time with work scheduling, but I did not think to defer it and it sneaked up quickly. I was last summoned for it in 2018. That was very shortly after I got my CA license and I remember thinking “wow, they’re fast.” That time I only had to stick around for a few hours before I was dismissed, so I hoped I’d have similar luck this time.

This was my first time going in the COVID era. I brought my new Aranet4 CO2 sensor out of curiosity. The jury assembly is a big open room that I would guess could hold a couple hundred people. I think there were 100–150 there that morning (? I’m bad at guessing large numbers of people). CO2 levels peaked about 1200ppm and didn’t get below 800ppm. That was not as bad as I was expecting, though still not great. I played “count the masks” and saw at least 10 other people masking. It’s unfortunate when such a small percentage seems like it’s worth celebrating, but alas.

After some introductory things, one of the judges came out to greet and thank everyone. He asked by show of hands how many had served before and a good portion had. Then he said, “It can’t be that bad if all these people came back, right?” which made me laugh because, uh, we’re mandated to show up.

They explained that most cases are 3–7 business days, but there was a longer case that could be up to four weeks. They wanted to pre-screen out people who couldn’t serve that long and gave a few reasons. I really didn’t want to serve that long. It would have definitely put stress on our small work team, but I didn’t technically meet the financial hardship criteria, so I didn’t fill out the form.

After lunch my name was called and I went up to the 20th floor. There were 67 of us called, though somehow between the morning check-in and then, we lost a person. That delayed the process of getting everyone in the courtroom because they have really specific procedures and can’t start until everyone in the jury pool is there. We were finally seated and got started. The judge briefly explained the criminal case and how the jury questioning process would go. He was very careful to explain that some things might trigger traumatic experiences, like questions about crimes we or loved ones have been victims of. I appreciated the care he took with that and that we had the option to answer more privately instead of in front of the whole jury pool. We got through a couple hours of questions before being sent home for the day.

The next day we only had a morning session, which was also delayed a bit by jurors showing up late. I was juror 40, so I was pretty sure they wouldn’t get to me that day. I also realized that the judge was only going through the first 50 people with the questions. I guess they only go through the last ~16 jurors after they start dismissing jurors and need to fill in those empty spots. (That “I guess” might be a bit of a spoiler for what’s coming…)

On Monday we were back for a full day. It was definitely interesting listening to other people’s answers. Some heavy things were discussed and it was fascinating hearing people talk candidly about their biases. One thing the judge explained very thoroughly is that we’d need to make our judgement only based on the evidence presented and the law as the judge explained it to us. We weren’t supposed to do any research of the law ourselves or ask other legal experts.

The case would apparently have some testimony in Spanish and we were directed to only take the English translation as the testimony, even if we understood Spanish. A couple people fluent in Spanish indicated that would be difficult, since they’d hear the Spanish first and sometimes nuances/slang can get lost in translation.

One of the last questions was if we would have any difficulty using only the evidence and the law explained to us in making our judgment and specified “even if you disagree with the law.” The expected answer is “no,” but I could not honestly respond that way. I think there can definitely be instances where a law is unjust and it’s the right of people to follow their conscience and vote not guilty. This is known as jury nullification, though I definitely don’t recommend using that phrase if you want to serve on a jury.

I was honest and answered that I could potentially have some difficulty with that, depending on the laws in question. I explained my thoughts (without using the phrase) and, understandably, the judge had some tough follow-up questions like, “so you would replace it with your own law?” I stuck to it, though, and explained I wouldn’t characterize it like that. He asked a few more questions and I think got a pretty clear picture. He didn’t even touch on some of my other question responses, like the attempted break-in that my mom experienced, and a potential work scheduling issue I mentioned. I took that as a sign I was probably going to be dismissed.

I didn’t say this out loud at the time, but I think I also have an issue with the potential impact on a person’s life by returning a guilty verdict. We wouldn’t be determining the sentence itself, but I have a hard time separating the two. When the prosecutor got to ask questions of us, another juror did basically bring this up. The prosecutor asked by a show of hands if anyone else felt similarly. I raised my hand and she said, “I think we already have a pretty good picture of you, juror 40.” I was quite certain I was getting dismissed at that point.

I was surprised the defense and prosecution only got about 20 minutes each to ask questions of the first 50 jurors. The defense was much more conversational and only asked about 4–5 questions in that time. The prosecutor had a slew of papers with sticky notes and rattled off like 15 questions of different jurors, though. It was impressive.

The judge and attorneys went out of the room for a little while and oddly, they played some white noise in the courtroom speakers. I guess it was to be extra certain that no one could overhear them. They came back after about 15 minutes and called about a dozen of our numbers, informing us that we’d been dismissed for cause. I was relieved, honestly, though glad I got to experience at least part of the process.

I might get to experience more of it this month, though, because I’ve also been summoned for jury duty in federal court. Oof!

My friend Al also had jury duty on Monday, so we were able to meet up for lunch and have some good conversation. Here is an obligatory picture of us in front of the courthouse. Apparently I forgot to check if I was blocking part of the name on the building. 😂

myself on the left in a pink, check pattern shirt, Al on the right in a black shirt, in front of the courthouse

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Joe Crawford, Al Abut

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