When I received my notice for Jury Duty, I did what pretty much everyone does. I groaned. I thought about how I would be out of work for at least a day, wasting time sitting around in a Jury Pool room. I realize of course that as Americans, it is our right, our responsibility and our civic duty to participate when called. And yet I don’t know too many people who jump up and down and say “yippee! Jury Duty!”
Luckily, the system has improved enough that I had ample notice that I may have to appear, so I could give my employer a heads up, and try not to schedule anything else that day. I called the “magic phone number” the afternoon before the date, and was told by a recording that I did indeed have to appear in person.
The previous two times I have been called upon to do my civic duty, I was released by early afternoon. So I trooped into the city to the Court House, smug that this would again happen. I was armed with snacks, my smart phone, magazines and a book to keep myself occupied. I do have to say that the personnel there were all pleasant and polite, and shortly after arrival, we were all shown a video about what Jury Duty is, what to expect, and how important it is. The Judge on the video described the service as a time when “ordinary people are entrusted with extraordinary power.” Huh, that’s pretty heady stuff. I felt a twinge of guilt that I wasn’t feeling more honored to be there.
Besides, I should have looked at it as a day off from the usual grind, a chance to catch up on my reading….there was a TV on in the Jury Pool room, so I watched bits and pieces of the news and Rachel Ray. The thrill of this “time off” lasted about 3 hours — then I started pacing. I wasn’t feeling especially honorable or powerful. I began to wonder how the whole process could be more efficient — typical me, I was fairly certain that with more logistical thought and event planning, much of the waiting around could be diminished. This is what happens when you close a Type A into a room for several hours with little to do.
Then it happened. Shortly before lunch I was selected to serve as a Juror on a District Court Criminal Case. What? I thought to myself, really? Me? I thought I’d be going home by now! I had mixed emotions. Certainly part of me was anxious about this meaning more time away from work, how long it could last, etc. And yet the other part of me thought “huh, so I’ll finally see what happens beyond the Jury Pool.”
For the balance of the day, and into the following day, 6 of us Jurors (and an Alternate) experienced a trial. It wasn’t an especially wild and exciting case, but it was still very interesting. It felt a bit like being in one of those court room dramas on tv, but with less drama.
What struck me most was not the case itself. It was truly what the Judges on the video had said….that the Jury system is made up of regular, every day, real people, and we are suddenly put in power to make some very important decisions regarding some one else’s life. The prospective Jurors I met, and those I served with, were a fascinating mix of Real People, just like me. There was the man who ran a landscape company, and was concerned how his crew would get along without him. There was a nurse coordinator for a local hospital, an MRI technician, a man with a pest control company, and a couple of retirees. One woman, who ended up being our Foreperson, had recently retired after 35 years with the Postal Service — she had worked and lived all over the country, and had recently been re-united with an old flame from high school, and was considering moving to North Carolina to be with him. Hers was a fascinating story, perfect for a made-for-tv movie. Every one of these folks were very real, very ordinary people. And yes, we were now entrusted with extraordinary power.
I have to admit I enjoyed the experience — however, when the time came to deliberate and make the big decision of guilty or not guilty, I felt a bit uncomfortable. That “extraordinary power” that I had scoffed at the previous morning now felt heavy and real. I, and my 5 partners in this little room, were deciding the fate of another individual.
As it happened, we had to go with a not guilty verdict due to a lack of evidence; there was not enough proof “beyond reasonable doubt” to convict the young man in question — even if many of us had a nagging feeling that he was not totally innocent… We hoped this experience would at the very least have taught him some important lessons. As we left the court house, I thought about how we were all dispersing in different directions. The Judge was heading into another case. The Court Officers would be helping other Jurors through the system. The defendant would no doubt be going home to celebrate with friends and family. And for the rest of us — we were going back to our usual routines, and our real, ordinary lives. This slice in time, this power we wielded, was over.
But for me, not easily forgotten — and if I get another notice in 3 years when I am once again eligible, maybe I won’t groan quite so loudly.