Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Jury duty: jury selection

The jury
Not us, but this is what the jury box looks like. Photo: Hennepin County
After my name was called in the jury assembly room, I joined a group of thirty prospective jurors in a group called a “jury panel.” The criminal case to which we were assigned required a jury of twelve plus two alternates. There were two defendants, each charged with three felony crimes.

The jury therefore would be asked to return three verdicts for each of the two defendants. Because the defendants were charged separately, they each had their own defense attorney, despite the fact that they were husband and wife.

To reduce the panel to the final jury size, we underwent jury selection, known legally as voir dire. The court administers a jury questionnaire. The judge and attorneys for the prosecution and defense are then allowed to ask each juror follow-up questions based on the responses to the questionnaire. The judge and attorneys try to ask probing questions to expose possible bias.

To understand how surprisingly intense this process was for the members of the jury, most of whom including I were first-timers, consider the rules we were required to follow until the end of the trial, to ensure a fair trail for both sides:
  • We were placed under oath to do our due diligence and render a true verdict only according to the law and the evidence presented during trial.
  • We were admonished by the judge to refrain from discussing the case with anyone, including family members, friends, and even our fellow members of the jury (until deliberation), and from consuming any media reports of the case.
  • We were prohibited from publishing anything about the case in email, social media, or any online or written medium.
  • We were required to power off our cell phones, and were prohibited from eating or reading newspapers, magazines, or anything except court documents while in the courtroom.
In short, we were subjected to a very rare (these days) experience of having to listen to the interviews for each of the thirty members of the jury panel, and later trial testimony, for up to 90 minutes at a time, without any distractions. When was the last time you had a meal, rode the bus, or went almost anywhere without seeing just about everyone using their cell phones, or not being able to check your own?

Jury selection took about a day-and-a-half as I recall, after which time sixteen members of the jury panel were dismissed back to the jury assembly room, to await assignment to a different trial. Immediately after that, the trial began.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Jury duty: summons

In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense.
— Sixth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America
Trial by jury is a Constitutional protection that most citizens take for granted as a theoretical factoid from ninth grade civics class. The day I received a summons to jury duty by the Hennepin County District Court was the day that I started getting up close and personal with the Sixth Amendment.

Jury duty is an important civic responsibility. Hundreds of prospective jurors are needed weekly to be on call to fill juries for civil and criminal trials in Hennepin County.

My employer pays my regular salary for time off for jury duty, and our kids are adults who are living on their own. I had no reason to seek an exemption from the two week stint, other than inconvenience, so I responded as instructed by the summons.

During the first week of my service, I chose to call a recorded telephone line to hear whether my group would be called to appear in person to the Hennepin County Government Center in downtown Minneapolis. During that first week, my number never came up. So far, so good!

Sunday evening of the second week, my number came up to report in person to the court at 8:15 a.m. on Monday.


I took mass transit into downtown  Minneapolis, made my way through the Government Center airport-style security checkpoint, and up to the top floor to the Jury Assembly room, which I affectionately ended up calling “purgatory.” The assembly “room” is a suite with a waiting area that seats over 100, a business center with laptop carrels, and a small break room with vending machines, microwave ovens, refrigerator, and sink.

The county has a refined process for efficiently moving dozens of first-time juror candidates through orientation into “purgatory.” The experience is like waiting to renew your driver's license, except you can't go home until dismissed. The one thing people want more than food, water, or restrooms — free WiFi — is provided. Our orientation trainer warned us that we would have so much time to use our phones and laptop computers that we would eventually not want to even see them! The county also provides magazines, board games, TVs tuned to the news, the Weather Channel, and Friends, and a spectacular view of US Bank Stadium,  East Town, and the downtown Saint Paul skyline on the horizon.

Every so often, the TV screens would display an attention message and staff would read the names of individuals to report to a courtroom for jury selection. My name was called shortly after lunch break.