Thursday, June 4, 2009

Jury Duty

I satisfied my civic obligation by serving on jury duty in Kew Gardens, Queens earlier this week. It was a privilege, or that’s at least what the judge told us. Many people try to get out of it, but most simply want to get over with it. I’m in the most crowd. This was my fourth time serving on jury duty since 1996, which I thought was the norm until I met someone who said this were her first time being called for jury duty after 40 years of working in NYC.

I did serve on an actual jury once back in March 1999 when I was on Spring Break from law school. It was an enlightening experience, especially for the career I was undertaking. What surprised me the most was how my fellow jurors took their responsibilities so seriously. We poured over the evidence, strove to keep an open mind throughout, and had a healthy debate to reach a consensus. We were serving on a burglary case and agreed to acquit because the prosecution’s case had fallen apart during the trial. Yet while we were concluding our deliberations the court officer informed us that the defendant had pled guilty. Oh well.

This time there was no chance I would be selected to serve. I’ve been practicing law for about 10 years now. I’m a litigator who has appeared in the courthouses in every borough of NYC as well as appellate and federal courts. The prosecutor and defense counsel would be nuts to pick me. Yet, I had to go through the motions and was put on a jury panel.

For those that don’t know, a jury panel is about 60 to 80 prospective jurors from whom the prosecutor and defense counsel gets to chose 12 jurors and between 2 to 4 alternates to serve on a particular case. That’s how it works in a criminal trial. For a civil trial there are only 6 jurors.

In this instance, the court went through 4 rounds before picking the 16 jurors. That is, the court calls 16 people from the jury panel, the Judge and attorneys ask them questions, and then the attorneys decide who to keep. They chose 4 in the first round and then called another 16 for the second in which they chose 5. By the time they called another 16 for the third round I was feeling good because I thought there was a great chance they would get the final 7. This was Tuesday afternoon and if they filled all the slots there was a good chance I could be discharged that day. Nope, didn’t happen. To all the prospective jurors’ surprise and chagrin, the attorneys only picked 3. That left 20 of us from who 16 would fill the 4th round. I got lucky again and wasn’t picked for the round. That left 4 of us in the back of the courtroom watching for the fourth time the same set of questions. Arrrggghh. Then, someone from the 16 was let go and they had to fill another slot. The bailiff called a name and it wasn’t mine. Luckily this was it and from the final round the attorneys selected the final 4. It will be a long trial considering it is a murder and attempted murder case.

So I finished my service where it started: in the jury room at Borough Hall in Kew Gardens. The waiting around is a pain, but it’s the nature of the system. We have to wait around until a panel is called or until they let us go, the latter only when there are enough replacement jurors. While there me and others debated the value of the way the system is set up with having twelve random people decide a person’s fate rather than a panel or professional jurors or even if the defendant should be there during jury selection considering our vital information is disclosed in his or her presence. We weren’t the first to debate these issues and we won’t be the last. But it’s worth discussing to pass the time as we fulfill our civic duty.

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