As I said yesterday, I should not be talking about the case, and I won’t, but I will continue with the overview of the process, and point out a few things I found interesting. Not to spoil all the suspense, but I was not selected for the jury in the trial, however, that does, I believe mean I can say that the charges included murder and drug distribution. On a personal level, I’m relieved: it would have been a long, ugly case featuring some very unpleasant subjects. On a professional level, though, I’m very disappointed: what a wealth of characters and stories I’m missing out on!
My group from yesterday was actually the second set of prospective jurors for this case, another group had been through the process earlier in the week. Enough people had been eliminated from the group that the judge believed there wouldn’t be enough jurors, so my group was added to the pool. The combined group was almost 60 people.
As I explained yesterday, we had to fill out a brief survey about things that might affect our suitability as jurors for the case. For example, it asked if we had ever been or knew somebody who had been a victim, witness, or defendant in a criminal matter; if we knew anybody who worked in a field related to the legal or justice systems; or if we had any opinions about the legal system that would prevent us from reaching an unbiased decision.
A small group of the pool of jurors is named – the group is randomly sorted by computer – and questioned, first by the judge, and then by the two attorneys.
The judge’s questions are mostly standardized. He followed up on the survey answers; for example, he asked people who had been involved in criminal matters to explain the circumstances and their role, and then asked them if they believed there was any reason that their experience would prevent them from “…listening to the evidence presented in this case, make your decision based only on the evidence in this case, and follow the legal instructions I will give”. (I’m quoting that statement from memory, so I may have it slightly wrong, but I did hear it quite a few times today, so it should be pretty close. There was a lot of formulaic text used; lawyers like to keep things consistent, much like QA people.) In several cases where it was clear that the jurors would find it very difficult to be impartial, the judge excused them. I was not surprised at the number of people who had family members involved with drugs, but I was surprised at how many had experiences related to murder.
Unlike the judge, the lawyers asked questions that were not formulaic – in some cases, quite far from formula. Where the judge was gathering background, the lawyers were asking questions intended to explore the jurors’ emotions and motivations. One lawyer asked several people how they decide if someone is telling the truth. Both lawyers asked questions regarding jurors’ understanding of the concept of “reasonable doubt” and how they felt about it. I was particularly amused by one of the lawyers referring to a recent survey that found that 4% of Americans believe “shape-shifting reptilian people control our world by taking on human form and gaining political power” as part of his questioning a juror about reasonable doubt.
After each group of jurors were questioned, the judge and the lawyers conferred, then the lawyers exercised their “peremptory challenges”: selecting jurors they did not want on the jury; they do not state a reason. Here again, a formula is used: the lawyer says “The People request [or the Defense requests] that you thank and excuse juror number X, Y”. The judge then responded with his own formula: “X, thank you for your service. You are excused.”
Once the 12 jurors had been selected, the process changed a little to select three alternates. The alternates sit as part of the jury, and listen to the jury debate, but only participate if original members of the jury are excused. I found it interesting that if an alternate is needed, one of the three will be chosen at random, rather than taking them in the order selected. To select the alternates, a group of three people from the pool was interviewed; the judge and the lawyers then conferred and one of the three was chosen. The other two were not carried over to the next group, instead they were excused. The same process was repeated for the second and third alternates.
With all 15 selections made, the rest of us were then excused. No, I didn’t make it into the hot seat for an interview. About a quarter of the group that started the day got to watch the whole show and go home without ever saying anything more than “Good morning”.
For those of you who were expecting my usual brand of snarkiness, my apologies: I just didn’t find much to be snarky about. But I hope you’ve enjoyed this little peek into the American legal system, and I’ll see what I can do about bringing back the snark next week.