I got called for jury duty this week, Wednesday and Thursday. In NYC, you go for two days, and sit and wait for a trial. Then they herd 75 citizens of New York County into a courtroom and winnow us until there are 14 left — 12 jurors and two alternates, and the rest go back into the pool. If you make it through two days without being selected, you go home and resume your life. Otherwise you’re a juror. But the education process begins the minute you sit down in the waiting room.
This time I made it as far as a courtroom, but I wasn’t chosen as one of the initial group of 24 to be interviewed, but I was required to stay, to wait for the selection to be final. I got to relax while watching my fellow citizens go through the process, where each of the sides, prosecution first, then defense, asks questions to see if you’d be a good juror.
It was an eye-opener. The judge had explained a few of important points: 1. The defendent, accused of burglary, is innocent until proven guilty. 2. The standard of proof is high. You had to be certain the person had done what he was accused of, beyond a reasonable doubt. Otherwise — innocent. 3. The burden of proof is on the state. The defendent can remain silent, and you can’t use that fact in coming up with a decision.
Some jurors didn’t seem to understand any of this. They would agree with all ideas when the judge explained it, but when asked a question: “If you think there’s a decent chance the person committed the crime, what would your verdict be?” Many of them said something like this: “Well, it would depend on the evidence.” You could see the frustration with the lawyers in the room. It’s as if you were teaching someone how to enter a command on a computer. “First you type some characters then you press the Return key.” They would say they understand, but still not be able to enter a command.
What would you think if the accused did not speak in his own defense, would that make you think he’s guilty? Yes, some said.
In the end they had to go with jurors who were pretty hazy on the decision-making process, what the rights of the accused are, and how jurors are supposed to think about the crime and the evidence and testimony. I was reminded that it was like this on the jury I served on. Some people just didn’t get that there were rules to innocence and guilt. That it isn’t like a family, where you live in a fog of who-did-what-to-whom-when, that in the end we will make a decision, and based on that, this person will go free, or go to jail.
Jury duty is all about teaching us what it means to be a juror. There’s a lot to learn, and the education system or television or our parents, or whatever, didn’t do a very good job.