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Friday, February 16, 2007

Jury Duty


A couple months ago, both Carol and I received a juror qualification questionnaire from Albany County, which we had to fill out and verify our address and criminal status (or, in our case, lack thereof). So it was not at all surprising to discover that, a couple weeks ago, I received a notification that I had to call to see if I needed to report for jury duty.

The possibility of jury duty has happened to me thrice before. In the fall of 1977, I lived in Jamaica, Queens (NY), voting as I was leaving town for Schenectady; a couple months later, Queens sent me a jury notice. I wrote back that I didn't live there anymore. In 1991, I received notice to appear as a juror in federal court. I wrote back that I was in the middle of grad school; could I postpone for two months? Apparently yes, but they never followed up. Then about six years ago, I had to make calls every evening, but my number, which was in the 250s, never came up.

This time, however, when I called, I received this lengthy message. One group was to go to one place at 9 a.m., another group to another location, also at 9 a.m., and the group consisting of 243 to 411 ended up having to show up at 9:45 at the Albany County Judicial Center, a building built just a year ago, just behind the county office building; my number was 357. The woman giving instructions was very pleasant, but knew she needed to project to the large crowd in a big room, so her voice was at a constant near yell. (One of my fellow attendees thought it was a monotone.) She swore us all in.

We got the scoop on jury duty. For instance, the law requires the employers of 10 or more employees to pay us at least $40/day. The only folks who will get specifically paid for service by the state are those who are unemployed, retired, not scheduled to work the particular days, or the self-employed. (This is all explained here.) She noted how the law had changed so that there are far fewer automatic exemptions because of one's profession, a good thing, I think, since a juror class of retirees and the unemployed is not really, a jury of one's peers. A large part of the discussion was about parking; the Crown Plaza Hotel allows jurors to park for $6/day, rather than $14. We had been encouraged to take the CDTA bus down, but obviously many did not, for at the first break, lots of people went to move their vehicles.

Eventually, we went to the courtroom. After a few more instructions, Judge Herrick came in. He explained that while the jury trial was an important part of the system, he knows it's inconvenient, so he appreciated our service. He asked if any of us had a problem with serving each day until 5 or maybe a little after this week. At first, only a trickle was in line, but the queue didn't seem to get any shorter. I got in line myself, not because I didn't want to serve, but because I had to pick up Lydia before 5:30 that day. No one else who was authorized to get her was in town, as Carol and her parents were all in Harpursville, near Binghamton, at Carol's aunt Vera's funeral. I stood off to the side as the judge, DA and defense attorney conferred. The judge waved me back to the bench and said that he didn't expect that today's session, involving jury selection - known as voir dire - would last past 4:30. Of all the people who came forward, I was the first to return to his/her seat, as opposed to out the door, only one of three total in that situation. So the pool of over 160 jurors was down to around 120; no wonder they call so many people.

The clerk empaneled the first group of 21, using a cage like one of those BINGO caller devices. The 21st person was Shawn Morris, president of the common council, Albany's city council. By mutual agreement among the judge, DA and defense attorney, she was sent home, though she had made no effort to get off the trial.

The facts of the case were read. The defendant was charged with two counts of robbery, i.e., he was accused of robbing two named alleged victims at a specific address on South Pearl Street on a date last August, arrested by two named police officers.

The judge used to have jurors do a juror survey, but since he found that keeping them around might violate one's privacy, he decided on the oral recitation by each juror of the:
Name, City, Job, Spouse/Significant Other's Job (if retired, what the jobs were), Age of Children, Hobbies, Memberships
People forgot to mention all of these points a lot, especially their city.
The judge asked the jurors about the race of the accused - he was black - and whether that fact would influence their decision-making. No one said "yes".
He also asked a series of questions such as:
Have you been a victim of a crime?
Do you know anyone in the Albany police department? (One woman was engaged to an Albany city cop.) Do you know the arresting officers?
Do you know the accused?
Do you know either attorney? Do you know the district attorney, David Soares?
What was interesting about the assistant DA in his presentation was that he made the point, over and over again, that if he didn't make his case, that the accused should be acquitted. Both lawyers and the judge all emphasized that it was unnecessary for the accused's to speak in his defense, and that one ought not to draw inferences from that, if he does not.
The defense attorney seemed to be trying the case when he asked if it would mitigate the circumstances if it were shown that the accused signed something (a confession, I'm guessing), but that the accused was shown to be incapable of reading.

The first panel of 21 started before lunch, wasn't finished until after lunch, when 11 of the 14 needed jurors were selected. This required empaneling 21 more people, and I was afraid that picking up Lydia would become problematic. But all parties were more terse, assuming we all were listening. The 21st juror in this panel, when asked if he had been a victim of a crime, said that his girlfriend had been raped, and that he would be unable to render a fair verdict. Why he didn't go to the bench and tell the judge this - that was an option if there were embarrassing issues - I don't know. Anyway, he was excused, and another person was chosen. From that group, only three needed to be chosen, and that happened quickly. They had a juror of 12, plus two alternates. It was 3:30, and I was done for the day.

My feeling at the end of this long, tedious process, during which I got through five magazines, was that it made me more confident in the legal system, much to my surprise. So, I'm glad to have served, if even for one day. I was surprised, though, that at least one woman was having trouble with the notion of "beyond a reasonable doubt". Didn't she watch, as I did, any of these shows?
Perry Mason
The Defenders
Judd for the Defense
The Bold Ones - the lawyer segment
Owen Marshall, Counselor at Law
LA Law
Law & Order (regular, not extra crispy)
The Practice/Boston Legal

But as the trial progressed, if she had been chosen - I don't think she was - the judge would have made that notion clear.

2 comments:

Scott said...

I served once on a Federal civil suit. The trial and deliberations lasted about six days. It was very interesting, but also confusing. There is no reasonable doubt in a civil suit, so we just had to figure out who was telling the truth and who wasn't. Though the other jurors and I figured everyone embelished their side of the story, except for one witness. I ended up being picked foreman of the jury (only 8 of us), and was petrified that I would have to stand up and read our verdict. Thankfully I didn't have to.

GayProf said...

I have been called several times, but only got to the questioning period once. I was excused. In some ways, it would have been really interesting to stick around, but that particular case was just a civil case involving a motor accident.