There probably aren’t many people who get a piece of mail from the county courthouse and think, “yes!” And if I’m being honest, I didn’t either. At first.
Back in September, an official-looking yellow envelope arrived at the house, addressed to me and sent by Washington County. Upon inspection of the return address label, it was clear I had won the jury duty lottery. From October through the end of the year, I was on-call. A phone call could come any day, and I was expected to report to the courthouse for – at least – a morning of jury selection, and – at most – multiple days on the jury, hearing testimony, weighing evidence, and deliberating a case.
It wasn’t hard to think of all the ways this was inconvenient for me. And “jury duty” has become such a punchline in society. As if sitting on a jury is a punishment for unlucky people who dare register to vote. Jury duty is right down there with taking a number at the DMV. The least glamorous aspects of American citizenship.
I notified my manager and team members at work, and made peace with the likelihood that my jury duty phone call would surely come during a most inconvenient time.
Sometimes, I hate being right.
As suspected, the phone call came. And as suspected, it was NOT to be a quiet week at work. But from the time of the Friday phone call, until my Monday morning date at the courthouse, I had some time to adjust my attitude. And remember why I put “Sit on a jury” on my Life List in the first place.
What’s that? You WANTED to have jury duty?
Sure enough. Right there in black and white. #55 – Sit on a jury.
When I wrote that list a few years ago, I peppered it with travel and a bit of nonsense, but my ultimate goal was to capture a list of experiences. LIFE. Big, small. Here, there. I wanted to do things I’ve never done, see things I’ve never seen, try things I’ve never tried.
And jury duty made the list.
I pictured it as an experience, plain and simple.
And while most of the experiences I collected into that list are things I will schedule, plan, budget for, and excitedly anticipate, there are a few laced with impulse and luck. I couldn’t have known that the jury duty experience would provide a bonus lesson: life experiences are not always planned or convenient.
By that Monday morning, I was ready. Universe, if this is my jury duty experience – then let’s do it.
The courtroom was heavily silent which only magnified the awkwardness of people shuffling past each other to sit uncomfortably on the courtroom benches. Forty relative strangers (though I knew two of them and I had a quick “wow, I’ve officially lived here a long time!” thought) sitting, staring, half awake, and not entirely sure what to expect. We got started more or less on time, and the process moved efficiently. Each attorney asked questions of us — clarifying professions (“Ms. Smith, you’ve written S-A-H-M. What does that mean exactly?“), potential connections to the litigants (I imagine this is nearly impossible to avoid in a place any smaller than Washington County), and any other indicators of bias. Before long, the judge read a list of 18 names — 12 “first string” jurors, and 6 backups. Everyone else was dismissed.
The chosen twelve sat in the jury box, and the next six — with yours truly leading the way — filled the first row in the gallery. I was the first “alternate” and I noticed the twelve in the box included the lady who had treated the attorneys’ Q&A as a cathartic, open-mic opportunity to share with the rest of us about her own traumatic lawsuit experience 20 years earlier, going into unnecessary detail about dishonest lawyers and lying witnesses and the ironic injustice of it all. I didn’t have to do long division to assume she’d probably get the boot and I’d be in.
And I was secretly excited.
So after a short break for one more round of attorney conferencing, we filed back in and the judge read the final list of jurors.
Juror #8 – Sarah Hood. Game on.
The morning of jury selection had lasted no more than two hours, and the trial started immediately. I took my seat in the front row of the jury box and prepared myself for two days of “he said, she said”. The case was a contract dispute between homeowners and their building contractors, and I was little nervous having absolutely zero knowledge of such situations. But after hearing excruciatingly detailed testimony regarding drywall, trusses, crawl spaces, French drains, and the like — I felt educated. Empowered, even. Let’s go build a house!
In all, the human dynamic of the scene is what fascinated me. The blend of verbals and non-verbals from everyone in the room — attorneys, the judge, the witnesses on the stand, the litigants in the courtroom. Their tone, their expressions, their nervous tics, their eye contact. It was quite the social observation. And quite the combination of people with wildly different motivations for participating.
During breaks, the jurors would file into the jury room and nervously stare at each other. We all got a little more friendly as time passed, and the small talk started. It mostly revolved around work since most everyone there was unexpectedly spending time away from their respective jobs. There was chatter about whether they worked hourly, or had to take vacation days, and speculation as to how much we were being paid for our service as jurors. Breaks were quick so it didn’t venture past the small talk until the second day.
Day 2, however, seemed to inspire an air of confidence and honesty in some of them that materialized in jury room discussion topics ranging from politics and hospital waiting room horror stories to childhood immunizations, school shootings and “these kids today”. I remember sitting there, carefully refraining from the banter, and thinking the scene was a little like my Facebook News Feed come to life. Instead of politically or religiously-charged statements or posted and re-posted “news” and public service announcements, it was all right there in living color. I caught myself involuntarily smirking at the first “I have this friend…” It’s incredible how many people in this world have “a friend” with a wildly exotic and highly unlikely disease or family situation or other life circumstance. And it doesn’t take long before it becomes a one-up contest. “Oh, your cousin’s husband’s coworker had THAT, well listen to THIS.”
That jury room held quite the cross-section of society. Everyone brought in with them all of their own, unique experiences and — when it was time for deliberation — their own methods of processing information and making decisions. Wow.
Friends, my advice to you: get along with your fellow humans. Do not get yourself into a situation in which you are relying on a “jury of your peers” to decide your fate. GET. ALONG. These people — myself included — are not trained or specifically educated on your circumstances. They’ve listened to a few days of only the context your lawyer wanted them to have before they were holed up in a tiny room with stacks of court documents, a fridge stocked with soft drinks, a few slices of bad pizza, and their own flawed rationale.
Don’t get me wrong, I believe in the system. I considered it an honor to participate in this small but critical component of being an American citizen, with rights and freedoms and protections.
But I’m not kidding. It’s not for the faint of heart.
Among just 12 people during deliberation, there was bossy and quiet, reasonable and absurd, patient and irritable. Invested and dedicated to the cause, and apathetic. There’s a reason the movie 12 Angry Men could take place entirely in a jury room and still captivate audiences. The dynamics in that room are incredible.
We had to get past statements like “I think they deserve…” and stop to rehash (as many times as necessary) for a few members of the group that it’s not necessarily what you personally believe, it’s what was presented and proven during the trial. I can hardly believe I’m admitting this, but during one such discussion I took advantage of the opportunity to quote A Few Good Men.
It doesn’t matter what I believe. It only matters what I can prove! — LT Kaffee, A Few Good Men
Eventually we found common ground, and though 9 of 12 is all that was necessary, we handed the bailiff a unanimous verdict by the time it was all over. After three hours of deliberation everyone filed back in and the verdict was read. Honestly, following two days of tension — whether on the witness stand, between the attorneys, or among the jurors — the verdict was anticlimactic. It was just — over. We were dismissed around 8pm, waited for the elevator together, and said our polite goodbyes as we headed out into the dark, cold night.
At the end of 12 Angry Men, two of the men realize they’ve never been properly introduced and they exchange names as they part ways after the trial. As I walked to my car that night, I smiled thinking about that scene. There were 11 other jurors, and I don’t know a single one of their names. We never introduced ourselves, and in place of the generic “My name is…” stickers usually distributed at meetings and conferences and lectures, we all wore badges reading simply “JUROR” — as if the system prefers to consider us “the jury” rather than individuals with prejudices and motives and emotions.
Jury Duty more than deserved to be on my Life List of experiences, and it more than delivered on my secret desire to be a fly on the wall of life. It wasn’t planned and it wasn’t convenient, but it was a pleasantly surprising dose of life and culture and – dare I say – adventure.
Court is adjourned.