Saturday, December 17, 2011

Civic Duty

Okay, I'll admit it. When I first got the notice to report for jury duty (or, as it's handled in Shelby County, the notice to report to pick the time to report for jury duty), I groaned. After I got through the hassle of navigating flooded downtown streets at 8:15 on a weekday morning and picked a somewhat acceptable week, though, I decided I was going to shift my thinking. For better or worse, our legal system is based on conducting a trial by a jury of one's peers, and I had to ask myself: if something awful happened and I ended up in a courtroom, who would I want making major decisions about my life?

So in the spirit of judicial karma, I sat through the juror orientation session with my eyes front and my phone off, appreciating the enthusiasm and dedication of our jury commissioner. I was calmly resigned to a day of waiting around and doing nothing, so it was a pleasant surprise when I was called into jury selection about 45 minutes into the morning. (I know you're looking for the sarcasm in those last sentences, but it's really not there.)

I entered the courtroom as the 19th person in our carefully organized line. The first voir dire session lasted longer than I expected, especially since it was nearing 2:00 and we hadn't broken for lunch yet. Because we were sitting for a civil trial, the questions asked of potential jurors were focused on legal and medical knowledge, as well as general attitudes about liability and compensation. After several conferences with the judge, the attorneys dismissed four people from the pool. Some of the cuts made sense - like the lady who insisted she couldn't process anything verbally and wouldn't be able to pay attention to testimony - but others were a little more mysterious. I was surprised to see that the law office intern was sent away, but the law clerk with 30 years of experience in the city's best-known firm got to stay.

It looked like I was about to be sent back to the holding area, but after a little more questioning, another juror was excused. I was called up to fill the fourteenth spot in the box (twelve jurors plus two alternates sit through the trial), and after I answered a few questions about my education, job, and experience with car accidents, the jury was set. I was on a trial.

There was a nervous energy permeating our new group as the judge read through our instructions. Also, we were really hungry. The judge finally let us break for lunch around 2:30. When we returned to the courthouse, we were now officially allowed to enter the jury room through our own special door and our friendly courtroom deputy gave us our official juror badges. She also gave us notebooks and pens to take notes with, but we were given instructions not to read from our notes to other jurors or present them as facts of the case. Our notes were for our own memory-jogging purposes only.

I found this direction even more baffling than the admonishment not to look up anything on our own that had to do with the case – no Googling medical terms, no drive-bys of the accident site, no talking to our lawyer friends about burden of proof. It was clear that the intent of the system was for our “peer” status to be defined very narrowly and literally. We were to approach the case with our own personal knowledge and nothing more, and could present nothing to other jurors other than our own interpretations and opinions of what occurred within the framework of the trial. 

By the time we all got resettled in the courtroom, there was only enough time for the attorneys to give their opening statements and the judge to give us instructions for the next day. When we reconvened in the jury room the following morning, there were already the beginnings of that camp-week familiarity that forms between people in short-term, close-knit situations. The deputy learned all of our names, which meant we all learned each others’. We lined up in the same order each time we entered or exited the courtroom, so we knew our line buddies and who was missing.

The trial itself was fairly uneventful: a civil suit between participants in a minor car accident in which the plaintiff said she incurred a major injury. The testimony consisted of each driver giving a side of the story, pre-transcribed depositions from doctors that the plaintiff’s attorney read out loud for two hours, and an account from the traffic officer who was at the scene of the accident. We were shown photographs of each car and copies of the plaintiff’s medical records. In all, it took no more than five hours. By 3:30 or so, we heard the closing statements and went back to our secret hideout to deliberate. Well, twelve of us did. Right before we were excused, two numbers were randomly pulled from our group to remove the alternate jurors. I panicked for a minute, thinking how disappointed I’d be to sit through the whole trial and then not be able to decide on it, but I stayed in the group.

The case wasn’t clear-cut, and although I had a strong leaning toward one side, I expected the other jurors to be mixed in their opinions. I was somewhat shocked, then, when our first pre-discussion vote came up 11-1 in the defendant’s favor. I guess everyone else had gotten the same impression that the plaintiff’s injuries were real, but she just hadn’t made the case that a tiny fender-not-even-bender had caused them. And as I pointed out in my Perry Mason moment, the only photograph she had of her car’s “damage” was taken at least six months after the accident. Or about 90 days after her surgery. Or about the same time those final notice bills start coming in. Call me cynical, or just call me a peer who has had my fair share of co-insurance responsibility, but it didn’t do much for her credibility.

As we discussed and re-voted and discussed some more, there was still one person who remained unsure, or at least not the 51% sure we were assigned to be (“beyond a reasonable doubt” doesn’t apply in civil cases). It was nearing 5:00 and impatience was settling into the room. Arguments were getting a little louder and more exasperated. At that point, we were at a stalemate, and I humbly credit my experience in living in a household of nine people with getting us out of it. The holdout was a woman in the medical profession who thought the timing of the accident and the injury were too close together to be coincidental. Arguing that such a thing was unlikely but possible didn’t change her mind. So I said yes, you’re right, let’s say they’re connected. But what if it’s not in the way it seems? What if there’s another explanation? When we talked through other options and she could see alternate possibilities, she was able to agree, without reservation, that the plaintiff hadn’t proven her claim.

We were all excited and glad to have come to agreement, but then a somber feeling came over us, too.  I don’t think I was the only juror who thought that a civil trial would be sort of boring and inconsequential, and from what I heard in the jury room, I know I wasn’t the only one surprised by how high-stakes the case ended up feeling. Although the issue at hand seemed pretty minor, the amount of money involved was significant. Whatever decision we made was going to have a huge impact on both of those people.   

When the forewoman read our decision, the trial participants all seemed unmoved, except for the defendant who was beaming with relief. I got the sense that the judge approved, but maybe she just makes a habit of looking passively accepting. The attorneys thanked us and offered to speak with us afterward if we had anything we wanted to share with them, and although it was tempting to point out to them the car photo detail they’d both missed, I turned in my juror badge and went on my way, my week of jury duty wrapped up in two days, my civic responsibility fulfilled for ten more years.

As we were getting back to our cars, several of the other jurors said that they were surprised how stressful the experience had been, and how glad they were it hadn’t been a more difficult case. I completely agreed, but I still would have wanted to serve, and I'll be willing to serve again. It’s unlikely I would have a lengthy encounter with either of the parties in that trial, but our judicial system is more open in its definition of peers. As residents of Shelby County, we are all considered peers because we are members of the same community, and as such, what happens to one of us is relevant to us all. I’m still not certain it’s the most fair or wise or accurate course of action, but you have to admit it’s a beautiful idea.