Posted by: Staff | 04.17.2008

Jury Duty Is No Joke

JAN DEVEREUX

Ed. note: while so far the content of the Beaver Reader has been dominated by high school students, we welcome contributions from all members of the community, including middle schoolers, faculty, alumni, and parents. The following is a guest editorial by Director of Communications and parent ’07 Jan Devereux.

Once you turn 18, you become eligible for jury duty. Apart from serving in the military, jury duty is the most important civic responsibility a U.S. citizen has. Voting is also important, but as a juror you hold a fellow citizen’s fate in your hands. As the judge I sat before today described it, jury duty is an “awesome” responsibility – that’s awesome in the original sense of the word. As she reminded us, America is one of the few countries in the world that entrusts ordinary citizens with such an awesome power.

Yet most of us are annoyed when we are called to report for jury duty (it can be as often as every three years for a Massachusetts resident). Let’s be honest, there’s never a convenient time to wait around a courthouse with a bunch of strangers and no cell or Internet access. They don’t even sell coffee in the courthouse. The majority of those summoned spend the day waiting without being chosen, and go home feeling like the court has wasted their time. For the self-employed, jury service can be a financial hardship, too. Like others, I have joked with my friends about ways to avoid getting picked as a juror: “Just say you don’t trust the police, or cross your arms and glare at the defendant. That’ll get you off the hook.” Even without resorting to such tactics, I had never been selected for a jury. Until today.

And, after today’s experience, I will never again joke about jury duty. I learned it is no laughing matter.

With about 200 other potential jurors, I reported to the Middlesex Superior Court in Woburn at 8:00 this morning. As part of our orientation, we watched a video that explained courtroom procedure and reminded us of our duty to remain impartial. While the video’s cheesy production values were ripe for an ironist’s snickers, its solemn message was straight out of a high school civics book. Innocent until proven guilty. Beyond a reasonable doubt. Decide only on the evidence presented.

After three hours of waiting, I was chosen (“impaneled”) to sit on the criminal trial of a young man accused of two counts of illegally possessing a firearm. Conviction of a weapons offense would likely mean jail time for the defendant. A visibly pregnant young woman, probably his wife or girlfriend, was the lone spectator in the courtroom. Our jury’s decision would affect not only the defendant, but also his unborn child. As I raised my right hand and swore to uphold the laws of the court, I felt the full weight of my awesome responsibility.

I’ll never know whether I was selected because the prosecution figured that as a well-educated professional and a resident of the People’s Republic of Cambridge I support the strict enforcement of gun laws (I do), or whether the defense hoped that as a mother I might have a soft spot for the clean-cut young defendant with a baby on the way (I might). I never got the chance to prove my impartiality because another juror’s careless joke got us all dismissed even before the opening arguments.

Right after the selection process concluded, we jurors were escorted to a small waiting room where a uniformed court officer explained that the trial might last up to three days. At that point another juror blurted out, “It’ll be a short trail – he’s guilty. Ha-ha.” The rest of us squirmed, stunned at his inappropriate “joke.” This guy was probably the same fool who would joke about having a bomb as he went through airport security. The court officer was obligated to report the “joke” to the judge and the attorneys, who ultimately decided that the joke had prejudiced us all, and we could no longer be trusted to remain impartial. The judge scolded us about disrespecting our awesome responsibility and wasting the court’s time and our own tax dollars. All of us were dismissed, and the selection process would start over with a fresh group of untainted jurors. The defendant’s day in court would drag on a few hours longer.

Ironically, being sent home midday and excused from jury duty for another three years was the outcome the joker and most others had hoped for. He probably thought he had done us all a favor. Equal parts relieved to be sprung by lunchtime and disappointed not to be able to prove myself a worthy juror, I wondered how the joker would feel if he ever found himself in court, either as a defendant or a victim, and heard a juror joke about his case. If he keeps joking around, he won’t have to wait long to find out.

Image from beavela at Flickr.

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Responses

  1. great story


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