The Importance of Jury Duty
“How did you feel when you got your summons in the mail asking you to come to court?”
More often than not, it is the first question I ask potential jurors during jury selection. Most folks sigh, and then state that they weren’t happy. Jury service is regarded as an inconvenience, a bother, and, in some cases, a hardship.
The other day, I responded to a summons directed to me. I appeared in New Haven, reported to the ninth floor of the courthouse, and tried to blend in with the crowd.
“You look familiar,” a woman said, as we rode the elevator. “Are you a lawyer?” I told her I was, and redirected the conversation. I wanted to serve on a jury. More to the point, I did not want to become a distraction to others who might be called upon to serve. Writing a weekly opinion column, I understand, makes me a lightning rod of sorts.
The film shown during orientation was helpful.
A judge advised that in criminal cases, the state must prove that a defendant committed the crime charged beyond a reasonable doubt. That means that it is not enough, the judge told us, to prove that the defendant possibly, or even probably, committed the crime.
Lawyers debate endlessly whether jurors really pay attention to judicial instructions on the law. We fear that jurors convict often on insufficient evidence, reasoning that if a defendant is likely to have done what the state alleges, then he must be guilty.
That’s inconsistent with another bedrock principle, the presumption of innocence.
The judge on the tape reminded that the presumption requires a juror to disregard the mere fact of an arrest. A defendant must be presumed innocent. That presumption remains with, or, as some judges say, “cloaks,” the defendant unless and until the state proves its case beyond a reasonable doubt. The presumption of innocence alone is sufficient to acquit.
As luck would have it, my day of potential jury service fell during a brief adjournment in a case in which I am picking a jury elsewhere in the state. The result would, I realized, almost certainly create a scheduling conflict that would make it impossible for me to serve on a jury myself. I regretted that, but was determined to get on a jury if I could.
Soon enough, I was seated in a jury box. I was to be considered in a slip-and-fall case, a claim by an injured party that a property owner had been careless in the care and upkeep of their property, resulting in the creation of a dangerous premises. Someone was suing for money damages because they have been injured.
I confess to being somewhat jaundiced about personal injury claims. Life is risk, I say; it’s too easy to blame another for bad luck. There are too many lawyers out there playing spin the bottle with chance, hoping to make a living off of the mere misfortune of others.
But I knew the law firm bringing the action. The lawyers are serious, reputable people. Indeed, one of the partners in the firm is a person I routinely turn to for advice and counsel about tricky ethical issues. Surely, they would not bring a frivolous claim.
The judge disqualified me from service based on my relationship with members of the plaintiff’s firm, and because of my conflicting trial schedule. The judge offered to excuse me for the day, but I urged him not to. I wanted to be sent back up the jury assembly room. Perhaps, I would be called to serve on another case, a case involving no one I knew, occurring at a time in which I would be free.
“I believe in the jury system,” I told the judge. “I want to serve.”
Perhaps that is mere self-serving chatter coming from me. After all, I make my living, and have done so now for decades, standing in front of juries asking them to do things. I suppose it is easy for me to be a booster of a system I depend upon to support my family and employees.
But jury duty is more than that. It is a chance to have a voice on matters of profound, and often life-changing, significance to others. The other day a man called out to say hello as I walked down Whitney Avenue. He once sat beside me, accused of murder, a sentence of 60 years awaiting him if the jury found him guilty.
A not guilty verdict changed his life. Ordinary citizens did that. They had a ringside seat as the state produced its witnesses. Each juror listened to the evidence presented by the state. The jurors then listened to the lawyers argue the case. The judge then told them what the law was they must use to decide the case. Then, all 12 of them became the voice of our community and rendered a verdict.
Not guilty, they said. In that moment, they wielded as much power over the life and destiny of another as they are likely ever to have in the course of a long life.
I heard from one of the jurors shortly after the case. He told me he appreciated the hard work that went in to the trial, and congratulated me and the defense team on our win. But he also did more. His letter reflected the pride he felt about taking part in this important civic duty.
It is saddening to see how eager so many are to avoid jury service. We call ourselves a republic, and take pains to create institutions, practices and procedures designed to protect the rights of each and every one of us. Jurors sit on the frontlines of significant disputes.
You might require the service of a jury some day, to evaluate criminal charges brought against you, or to help you decide a civil dispute involving money, property or personal injury. Who better than an honest citizen to sit in judgment? Who better than someone just like you to make the decision about what justice requires?
Don’t duck jury service. Don’t look for an excuse to avoid serving. It is a chance in a lifetime to have a direct and powerful voice in the community. I regret not be asked to serve when my chance came.