Saturday, December 15, 2018

Jury duty: summation

The words I would use to describe jury duty are interesting, intense, and gratifying.

The court system, of which jury service is a part, is interesting. Everyone is entitled to equal protection under the law: the right to have the same access to and to be treated equally by the law and courts. It was interesting to experience and gain a juror's perspective of how the court works in Hennepin County. We found that everyone from the security screeners to the jury office to the officers of the court to the deputy sheriff bailiffs to the people running the cafeteria conducted themselves with professionalism and courtesy.

Criminal trials are intellectually and emotionally intense. If a case goes to trial, the defendant has pleaded innocent, and is presumed innocent until the state proves guilt beyond a reasonable doubt — to the jury, not to the judge or prosecutor. In spite of all of the law degrees and titles in the room, the outcome hinges on the decision based on the experience and judgment of twelve everyday residents of Hennepin County. Every day when we entered the courtroom, the jury was seated last. The jury has the final word. With that power comes the ability to change the lives of those involved in the case: defendants, victims, and their friends, family, and acquaintances. At times we were overwhelmed by the gravity and tragedy of the case.

It was gratifying for us as a jury to play a role in the justice system. Jury duty required us to interrupt our regular lives, but we gained a real appreciation for how important a responsibility it is to keep the courts running for the people. It was a privilege to meet and do important work with a group of honest, hard-working, kind, generous, intelligent, decent women and men — on the jury, but also the judge, clerk, court reporter, and the attorneys on both sides. Even though now we are free to discuss the case with anyone, there are still only twelve people in the world who experienced the case as we did, from jury selection through the verdict. This experience renewed my faith in the admittedly flawed but fundamentally good people of our state and country, and taught me that keeping our society free and just is up to all of us.

Friday, December 14, 2018

Jury duty: the verdict

After less than an hour, the judge, clerk, court reporter, defendants, and the attorneys returned to the courtroom, and the bailiff opened the door to the jury room. We assembled in the anteroom, and the bailiff let us into the courtroom. We filed into our assigned seats in the jury box for the last time, but now empty handed, without our pens and stacks of legal notepads.

The scene was at once familiar and foreign. The officers of the court, defendants, the judge's bench and witness stand, tables and chairs, jury box, gallery, seal of the Great State of Minnesota and the clock on the wall, and the American flag were all arranged as they were during trial and seared into our memories. For the first time, the defense and prosecution tables were bare of notepads and three-ring binders of evidence. Same courtroom, but this was a very different day.

The judge read each charge and asked us to confirm verbally in unison the verdict indicated on the verdict forms that our foreperson signed just minutes before. The defense accepted the option of having the jurors polled individually to confirm the unanimous verdicts. So the charges were read again and this time we were asked, one by one, whether we agreed with the verdicts as read. In those long minutes, we felt the full terrible weight and responsibility of our decision. We were unanimous in our verdicts and felt that justice was served, but that did not make it easy to face the accused.

The judge thanked us for our service, and the bailiff led us back into the jury room.

Some jurors later remarked about the reactions of the defendants and attorneys, but I found it too difficult to look in their direction during the reading of the verdicts. One juror remarked that she could feel her heart pounding so hard that she was afraid she was going to have a heart attack.

Eleven days after jury selection began, our jury service was over.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Jury duty: deliberation

Day 1 of deliberation was a flood of repressed questions and thoughts. We were finally able to discuss and opine (as the attorneys would say!) about what was on our minds (and in some cases, in our dreams) for the past couple of weeks.

After the two alternates were dismissed, a bailiff, who was a uniformed Hennepin County deputy sheriff, was assigned to us to prevent inappropriate contact with the outside world, and to ensure that all twelve of us deliberated, ate lunch, and generally spent the whole day within sight of each other. The deliberation room is equipped with a tiny private bathroom, and we were provided with some snacks, so the room, barely larger than its conference table, was to be our world for the duration.

During the trial, we were permitted to have our cell phones with us in the courtroom, but they had to be powered off. During deliberations, the bailiff took custody of our cell phones and laptop computers and sat with them in the small jury anteroom.

The jury foreperson's primary responsibility was to check the verdict boxes on the verdict forms, and sign the form (with the date and time) on behalf of the jury.

All of us on the jury very much wanted to deliver a true and just verdict. We took our responsibility and the possible consequences to all involved very seriously, some to the point of losing sleep, most thinking about the trial even during recess. We represented a cross-section of livelihoods and ages, but these intense subjects and proceedings were foreign to us outside John Grisham or Law & Order. It was an entirely different experience to be part of the legal process for real than watching it on TV.

Day 2

On day 2 of deliberation, we reviewed the testimony of key witnesses and recorded salient points on large flip chart sheets attached to the walls of the deliberation room. I think that differences of opinion were expressed respectfully, and thought processes evolved in good faith.

After lunch, we voted on each charge for each defendant, our foreperson signed the verdict forms, and we informed the bailiff that we reached our verdicts. The judge, clerk, court reporter, attorneys, and defendants were called back to the courtroom.

Thursday, December 06, 2018

Jury duty: the trial

If you are a fan of courtroom dramas on TV or in the movies, you are probably familiar with the basic format of a trial: opening statements from the prosecution and defense, presentation of the prosecution case with witnesses and evidence (including defense cross-examination and prosecution redirect of the witnesses), presentation of the defense case with witnesses and evidence (including prosecution cross-examination and defense redirects), closing arguments, jury instructions from the judge, deliberation, and delivery of the verdict(s).

Defendants are presumed innocent under the law until proven guilty by the prosecution (in this case, the State of Minnesota). Defendants are not required to prove innocence, only introduce reasonable doubt in the prosecution's case. Our verdicts, guilty or not guilty, were required to be unanimous.

The rules of the court

After the fourteen of us were selected as the jury and the trial began, we always entered and exited the courtroom through a side door that led to a jury deliberation room. For the duration of the trial, this was our home base in the mornings, on breaks, and during deliberation.

We the jury were not allowed to directly speak to any officer of the court (judge and attorneys) except through the judge's clerk, a recent law school graduate. If we had a question, we would ask the clerk, who would relay the question and answer. We were not to have contact with the defendants or witnesses at all.

Although the proceedings were recorded by a court reporter and audio recorder, the jury would not have access to either record. We took copious handwritten notes and were to told to rely on them, our memory, and our own experience and common sense during deliberations.

Our life during the trial

Until the trial began and we took our assigned seats every day in the jury box, we the jury were strangers to each other. Over the course of the trial, we had lunch together in small groups, took sudden breaks for scheduling and legal maneuvering to play out (sometimes for half a day). We could talk about anything except the case. We discovered common interests and personalities, gradually learned each other's first names (we were always Mister or Miss whomever in the courtroom). Some jurors pretty much kept to themselves, until the alternates were excused and deliberations began.

Without knowing for sure, I guess that the ages of our fellow jurors fell into every decade between 20s and 60s. With a couple of exceptions, the women on the jury seemed to quickly find interesting things to talk about in the mornings and during the breaks: shopping, vacations, happy hour bars, restaurants, food, children, mobile phone games. The five men generally did more listening than talking, not even broaching reliable “guy” topics like sports with each other.

Testimony and evidence

Witnesses were admonished to answer verbally with words, for accuracy and since the court reporter would not be able to transcribe head nods or non-verbal responses like “uh-huh.” We would often hear an attorney ask a witness to clarify a non-verbal response with, “Is that a ‘yes?’”

When the attorneys approached the judge to confer, a white noise generator would prevent any chance of the jury (or court reporter or audio recorder) overhearing the conversation.

Some audio and video evidence was introduced, but we would not receive the printed transcripts during deliberation. Replay of recording excerpts would only be permitted by asking the judge.

Witness testimony was intense. We took as many notes as we could, not knowing what small fact or observation would be critical in forming a verdict. We heard from alleged victims, family acquaintances, expert witnesses, law enforcement, Child Protection Services, family members, and finally the defendants.

During morning, lunch, and afternoon breaks, I often fled to the skyways, jury assembly room, or just climbed the stairways up and down for a complete change of scenery and to recover mentally and emotionally until we were called back into court. Checking email and doing some work remotely was possible, but on some days the length of the breaks was unpredictable.

After the prosecution and defense presented their closing arguments, the judge provided us written copies of the charges and the law, gave us instructions, and dismissed us to the deliberation room with our stacks of legal notepads.

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.