BY NORBERT RUG
It’s a small piece of paper, usually the size of a postcard and it is easily hidden between the junk mail and the bills that crowd a mailbox, but it manages to create fear in many of its recipients. It is the jury duty summons. Jury duty is regarded as vital to the administration of justice and, as such, is considered a condition of U.S. citizenship.
Some people start trying to think up things to say that will guarantee they will get rejected as soon as they receive this notice. “The police never arrest innocent people”, “I’ve never met a government official that I trust!” and “I have no problem with (insert racial slur here). Others are reconciled to the fact that jury duty is just part of life for most U.S. citizens, age 18 or over. But serving on a jury is something that you should take graciously. I served on a jury once and I felt honored to serve.
There are a number of reasons why people hate jury duty. It can be a pain to get to the courthouse, find parking, go through the metal detectors, then wait, wondering when or even if you’re going to be called. I had never been on a jury so I had no idea what to expect and after the judge dismissed those with hardships, the rest of us were told to return the next day.
The day of the jury selection I showed up and was shown a seat in the court room. When my name was called, I went up and was questioned by both the prosecution and the defense lawyers. I was selected to serve and was assigned the job of jury foreman.
When we went back is when the real fun began. The judge told us not to feel bad if we weren’t selected. He explained that some people are just a better fit for certain cases. By this point, I was still just sitting there, in the audience area, questioning whether I would have a chance to serve.
We were chosen at random to go and answer several questions about our work, families, drinking habits and any brushes with the law. We were told this case involved driving under the influence. People were told had to answer truthfully and asked if they felt that they could treat the defendant fairly.
Right about then I was called. Some of the more outrageous people had been dismissed and it was my turn. I made it as the last member of the panel, and after two alternates were chosen. We went home and the following day we listened to the jury instructions and jumped into the trial.
The case we heard, a person said they had spent 5 hours in a bar and had “Two beers”. Upon leaving the bar, he then drove to Transit road, made a right turn and proceeded to swerve down the wrong lane of Transit for better than a quarter mile attempting to get his car under control before hitting another driver.
Just prior to the start of the trial, a lady came into the courtroom. She was on crutches because she had a broken leg. She took the witness stand and told the story of how she was headed north on Transit and saw him coming She said she moved as far right as she could and stopped her car to try and avoid an accident. Unfortunately, the suspect hit her head on while she was stopped there. She had to be extracted from her car by the Fire Department and the EMTs.
We heard testimony from the Lockport Police officer who was the first to arrive on the scene. The police officer testified he used the standard field sobriety tests and determined the defendant was drunk.
It was hard not to discuss the case with my fellow jurors before deliberations. At night, when I went home, I thought about the trial, the defendant’s testimony, and the defense lawyer’s explanations for things. It was hard, especially since I couldn’t talk to anyone.
Once we started deliberations, it felt weird to suddenly to be allowed to discuss the case. To my relief, there were no arguments and while presenting our thoughts, everyone stayed respectful.
We carefully looked over the evidence in the jury room and even asked the court reporter to come in so she could read back the testimony. We had one hold out but we managed to change her mind. I was proud and honestly amazed that this group of 12 strangers coming from completely diverse backgrounds would come up with a consensus.
We filed into the courtroom one last time and the defendant, his lawyer and the prosecutor stood up as we walked in. I read the verdict, the judge thanked us for our service and then we were done.
When you sit on a jury, you have someone else’s fate in your hands. That’s a mind-boggling obligation and one I think gets forgotten by people trying to get out of serving. I thought about this the entire time. This duty shouldn’t be taken lightly and it shouldn’t be something to try and get out of.
Being on a jury is an absolutely rewarding experience. When it was over, I felt like I had made a difference and that I was a part of something bigger.
Norb is a journalist from Lockport.