The sixth amendment in the Bill of Rights assures all Americans that, if accused of a crime, we have the right to be judged by an impartial jury of our peers.
It’s an integral part of our judicial system, an essential piece of the American way of life, and a big pain in the ass if you’re called to serve on one. One month ago, I received that dreaded summons that I had, until that point, forgotten to dread. And so, on Monday, I reported for jury duty. Here’s a rundown of my experience.
8:15 am: Arrive at courthouse. Receive brusque instructions on what do do during the security search from the woman behind me who turns out not to be a courthouse employee but is in fact just a bossy woman who has apparently done this a few times before.
8:20 am: Enter jurors’ room. Check in with a man wearing a button that says “Don’t yell at me, I’m a volunteer.” Contemplate what compels someone to volunteer for this.
8:23 am: Take a seat at the end of one of many wooden rows. Look around at my “peers,” who are, for the most part, 30 years my senior. Make silent vow never to commit a crime against an elderly person, because I fear the jury pool would be tainted.
8:35 am: Room is filling up. Volunteer makes announcement urging everyone to squeeze in closer to make room in each row. Everyone shifts a few inches, desperately trying to maintain the bubble of personal space that defines us as Americans.
8:40 am: Watch Ken Burns-style documentary about the history, importance and process of serving on a jury. Video swings back and forth between praising our patriotism and dedication to the system for being here and repeating that we bold patriots are here because our drivers’ licenses were selected at random.
9:00 am: Safety briefing by deputy who starts with the line, “The reason I’m here is because they’re paying me to be.” Make second silent vow to use this line to introduce myself at every work-related event for the rest of my life.
9:10 am: Deputy lists the things we are not allowed to bring to jury duty. List includes cocaine, meth, heroin, throwing stars and brass knuckles. She presents visual aids of weapons that people attempted to sneak into the courthouse, including, among others, a cane that is actually a concealed sword. “People try some crazy things,” she laughs, shoving the sword back into its cane-sheath. Everyone chuckles nervously while warily eying the many senior citizens/potential sword-wielding psychos that fill the room.
9:15 am: Another court employee gets up to read the rules. There are a lot of them. Most are about when to use the bathroom.
10:00 am: Names are called for groups that will go to different courtrooms. I feel bad for the woman who has to read them. I’ve never thought of Tacoma as having a large Polish population, but that’s because apparently they all spend their time at jury duty.
10:10 am: There’s a guy here named Thomas Thomas. Who does that?
10:25 am: My name is called and I’m given a colored badge with the number 2. Now things will get started.
10:30 am: Court’s not ready for us yet. Sit back down.
10:45 am: Called for real. Now things will get started.
10:50 am: Line up in the hallway and walk upstairs to courtroom. They appear to have lined us up based on physical fitness. The front half of the line makes it through our first physical challenge – walking up a single flight of stairs – with little issue. But I now see why they put so many of us in one group, as it seems the second half has fallen out.
11:05 am: Everyone’s made it up the stairs and no one’s having a heart attack. Enter courtroom.
11:10 am: Voir dire from attorneys begins. First round involves answering various versions of the question, “Do you want to serve on a jury?” I make it clear that no, I do not. Several other people share that sentiment. The prosecutor asks why we wouldn’t want to be picked. Everyone has different answers, work, family, various responsibilities. But when he asks whether we would be able to put those concerns out of our minds and focus on the case, each one of us pauses. And here’s where I have a bizarre revelation.
We all know the answers that can get us out of this. We can say no, there’s no way right now we could possibly think about anything other than ourselves. We can declare our belief that anyone charged with a crime is guilty as far as we’re concerned. We can pontificate on an article we read about jury nullification and how we can really see the merits. We can repeatedly refer to the prosecutor as “Jack McCoy.”
But none of us do this. Even the people who, like me, really don’t want to get picked for this, when asked whether we’d be able to be fair, to be focused and to set personal experiences aside, we all say yes. Because, at the end of the day, we all know that this is important. That if we were charged with a crime, we would want impartial people to set aside whatever’s going on in their lives and take a few days to hear it all out. And who better to do that then a group of bold, dedicated patriots who were randomly selected based on driver’s license numbers.
It’s that attitude, exhibited by each person in that room, that makes me feel pretty good about America as a whole. It’s also that attitude, however, that got me put on a jury for the next three days. So be warned. That video they make you watch is effective.
And that’s where I have to stop my rundown. Because the second rule of jury duty is don’t talk about jury duty. The first rule is to go to the bathroom during breaks because they’re not going to stop and wait for you.