I spent the month of February on a jury for the first time. I had been called for jury duty at least a dozen times in three or four different cities where I’ve lived, but I was never selected. I assumed because I was a writer and active in human rights work, I was considered a dubious juror. But in February, along with 15 other people, I was empanelled in a criminal case that lasted over a month.
 
Because the judge wanted to assure that he had a jury that could go the distance of a long trial, he also sat four alternates in the jury box. Only at the end of all the proceedings did he tell who the alternates were. For four weeks all 16 of us arrived every day on time at the court house to follow the trial for 6-7 hours. No juror was ever absent and only once or twice was anyone a few minutes late. Everyone took their responsibility to each other and to the court seriously.
 
Where I live, the requirement is that every two years a citizen appears either for one day (to be considered for a jury) or for one trial. Like most people in the jury pool, I was not looking forward to serving and interrupting my life, but I was willing.  I was perhaps more willing than usual because I was following the upheavals in the Middle East, particularly in Egypt at the time. The citizens there were protesting for the very freedoms we had in an open democracy, the freedom to participate in government and in one’s justice system.  Each day during the breaks many of the jurors followed what was happening in Egypt…had Mubarak resigned yet? It turned out that the people of Egypt overturned a 30-year regime faster than our trial unfolded. When Mubarak finally left office, we were still sitting in the jury box.
 
The jurors came from a wide range of professions, including government workers, an architect, a publisher, a bus driver, two veterans. One woman who worked in Asia was home for only a month’s leave, and her month was spent on jury duty. During our weeks inside the courthouse, the weather outside moved from snow and winds to cherry blossom buds on the trees. The deliberations themselves took almost a week. We reviewed all the evidence and testimony, discussed, debated and agonized over some of the decisions required, but finally 12 individuals arrived at unanimous verdicts.
 
The idea of twelve strangers judging other strangers goes back to the Magna Carta, to June 15, 1215 where the term “a jury of one’s peers” was introduced.  The idea was to reduce the powers of the king and to come up with a system where disputes could be solved more equitably.  It took centuries for the process to evolve so that the “peers” included at least a somewhat representative slice of the community. In the US it  wasn’t until the mid 1970’s that the right of women to serve on juries on equal terms with men was secured and not until the civil rights movement in the late 1960’s that blacks and minorities were included more regularly on juries.
 
I left the experience with a deeper appreciation of the justice system, including its flaws, and an appreciation of my fellow jurors, all of whom missed more than a month of work, and many of whom fit in work during the off hours.  (Pay for jury duty is minimum wage.) I also left with a sorrow for the inadequacies of support services in communities in the city, a fleeting hope that the penal system might have within it means for rehabilitation. I left with a deeper humility and awareness of the connectedness of all our lives and an expectation that I may find several of my fellow jurors working in the community in the years ahead.

6 Comments

  1. Steve Isenberg on March 23, 2011 at 12:09 pm

    Joanne, A good bracketing of Egypt and their striving and jury duty and its place in our life.
    ‘–Steve

  2. Mary L on March 23, 2011 at 5:29 pm

    Twelve strangers judging other strangers.  It makes you realize we’re not such strangers to each other after all.  Maybe human nature is not so mysterious.  Though we all have individual strengths and weakness, our own tragedies and successes, and unique personalities, our legal system depends on our ability to come together and judge the behavior of another, not by majority vote but unanimously no less.  And we do it every day in juries across the country.  Reading your piece made me realize that we may be more unified than we think in our values and our public spiritedness.  It was a healthy antidote to the relentless focus of the press on our divisions. 
     –Mary L

  3. Bonnie McIntire on March 23, 2011 at 5:30 pm

    Fabulous blog and a wonderful and timely reminder!  I forwarded it to one of my key helpers who is this very day down at the courthouse to see if he will be selected.  If he is, it will be a seeming big hardship to be without him for a spell, but I thank you for your blog which gave me a better perspective. -Bonnie

  4. Fred Hunter on March 23, 2011 at 5:30 pm

     Thanks for your blog post about jury duty. I salute you for serving, not that you had a choice. I was recently called for jury duty, but our group never even had to go down to the courthouse. As a writer I’ve often wondered what the process would be like. It’s an inherently dramatic situation. —Fred Hunter

  5. Ronny Stoddart on April 1, 2011 at 8:39 pm

    Finally had a chance to read this, as I am sitting on a jury (criminal case, too) at this very moment, and trying to cram my day job into my evenings. This isn’t my first time, either, as I seem to have fair-minded written all over my face:) I’ve always wondered why I was such a desirable candidate, when others go years without ever being chosen. I’ll never know. In any case, I agree with many of your observations…it’s an illuminating experience on many levels.
    Ronny

  6. Richard Bray on June 24, 2011 at 2:59 pm

    I am glad to have remembered this posting and just re-read it and the responses and am sharing with Suzannah who has been called to possibly serve this coming Monday. Thanks for all of the thoughtful and timely comments.

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