Jury Duty

This is a long and somewhat personal post about my experience with jury duty. You’ve been warned.

Like many people, I have generally not appreciated being summoned for jury duty. My distaste for the process has been compounded by the fact that the selection computers seem to like me — while most of my friends have not been called more than once in their lifetimes, I have been called three times in less than ten years. In each case, I have not been chosen to serve on an actual jury; in two cases, I wasn’t even questioned by the attorneys before being sent home. This was, I had felt at the time, the best possible outcome.

My most recent summons was for service this week. (King County has a rather onerous system — you are automatically assigned a four-day term of duty, and even if you are not selected to be on a jury your first day, they can keep calling you back each of the next three days until you are finally selected. Oftentimes, you might be excused for one or even two of the four days, but you might never be excused. This time, I was excused twice, and required to show up twice.)

On my first day, I came the closest I ever have to serving on a jury. It was a DUI case, the jury selection pool was relatively small, and for some reason the prosecution seemed very interested in me. I was asked many questions about the burden of proof that I would require in a DUI case, my opinions on DUI, etc. I answered them all honestly, not making any effort to be bounced, but fervently hoping I would be. I got my wish. My final feeling as I left the courthouse was a mild sense of pity for the accused, whose defense attorney seemed pretty ineffective; he was shockingly inarticulate, asked a great many questions that seemed pointless or redundant, and he was fond of metaphors that didn’t lead anywhere. The prosecution, on the other hand, was laser-focused when seeking out jurors (like myself, it turns out) that wouldn’t suit her purposes.

When I returned to the courthouse this morning, I bumped into one of my fellow panelists from Tuesday. It turned out that he had been chosen as the alternate juror on the case. (This is the worst thing that can happen to you during jury duty — you have to stick around for the entire trial, but you don’t get to participate in the jury’s deliberations in any way unless one of the jurors gets dismissed.) By coincidence, my fellow panelist also happened to be an anti-trust lawyer for Microsoft. Given what’s at stake in Microsoft’s anti-trust proceedings, one can probably assume that the company hires the best and brightest to defend it. This guy certainly seemed sharp to me.

The alternate juror told me all about the proceedings and outcome of the DUI case. It turns out that I was right about the defense attorney — he wasn’t very good. Or rather, he was awful. He didn’t object to inappropriate statements made by the prosecution. He didn’t ask the witnesses intelligent or useful questions. And most egregiously, he failed to attack the prosecution for having no real evidence of DUI. Apparently, the defendant had swerved “half a tire width” (that’s a few inches), on one occassion, in over a mile’s distance. And apparently, he also “smelled strongly of alcohol,” but had no trouble walking, etc.

The most damning thing that the defendant did was to refuse a breathalizer test. When I first heard that, I immediately thought “why would you refuse a breathalizer unless you’re drunk?” But the alternate juror speculated that the defendant may have been intimidated by the police officer — a large former marine who behaved somewhat aggressively after the defendant failed to roll down his window when the officer first approached the vehicle. Unfortunately, the defendant couldn’t roll down the window even if he wanted to… it was broken. The defendant had been unemployed for a while and couldn’t afford to fix it. The alternate juror also speculated that the defendant might have been a Vietnam vet with mental issues (he looked the right age, had a metal plate in his head, and “behaved strangely” even while on trial); if true, this might also explain his unwillingness to be tested.

Anyway, the defendant was convicted. The alternate juror felt very strongly that it was an inappropriate conviction, but as alternate he couldn’t do anything about it.

I don’t know if everything the alternate juror told me is a reasonable interpretation of the events in court that day. I don’t know if, after sitting in that room myself, I would have agreed with his conclusions. What I do know is that a DUI conviction can really mess up your life. For an unemployed guy, it could make the difference between finding a new job or not. It comes with a big fine and possibly jail time. If you’re down on your luck, it might be just the thing that pushes you over the edge.

I consider myself a reasonably intelligent person, and believe that I have the ability (in general) to know the difference between a good argument and a bad argument. I also believe that many people do not have this ability, and that many people are easily swayed by authority and by emotional appeals. I believe that as a juror, I might have the opportunity to convict a criminal with a great attorney, and to exonerate an innocent person with a terrible attorney.

This defendant may have been guilty. And maybe not. Next time I’m summoned to jury duty, I’ll look forward to having the opportunity to make such determinations for myself, rather than pray that I get off the hook so that I can rush back to work. Sometimes work can wait.

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