I continued to call in for jury duty but was not needed for the remainder of that first week. However, on the second Sunday of my term, the court’s phone recording asked jurors 1-200 and jurors 400-600 to please return to the courthouse the next day for another selection process. This time, prior to taking us upstairs to meet the attorneys, the court workers excused anyone who had surgeries scheduled or had purchased airline tickets for travel in the next three weeks.
We were being selected for jury duty on a murder trial. I was both horrified and intrigued. Then we had to fill out an extensive questionnaire, answering questions on everything from our views of the US justice system to our suitability as potential jurors.
I remembered lesson number one, and I kept my answers simple and short. I did not share my rather complex views on the death penalty. I did not throw the US justice system under the bus. I did not tout my education, my career experience, my status as a homeowner, as a mother. I did answer the questions honestly, and as I looked around when I left, I could see lots of people writing paragraph upon paragraph. I smirked somewhat smugly—they weren’t going to get picked.
The next day, we again assembled and followed the bailiff to the courtroom, like so many ducklings. The defendant sat near the front of the courtroom, at a table between his public defenders—an African American male. Shit. A jury of his peers? In Whatcom county? Riiight. Two people in the sea of possible jurors appeared to be people of color; otherwise we were white, white, white. A vast sea of WASPishness.
I listened intently as the judge expounded on our justice system: innocent until proven guilty; the prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant was guilty; the defense had no burden to prove innocence, only to cast doubt on the evidence. The defendant did not have to testify in his own defense. His lack of testimony could not be construed as guilt. I watched the defendant—he looked nice enough. He pulled the chair out for the female defense attorney. He had nice glasses and was clean-shaven. True? False?
I continued to listen to the judge’s lengthy civics lesson, and were again invited by the attorneys (different ones this time: the DA and a public defender) to participate in a question and answer session. Now I was juror number 13, and even if none of the first twelve jurors were dismissed, I would be at least an alternate. Based on the previous week’s experience, I kept quiet as the lawyers thumbed through our questionnaires and began the jury selection process.
Finally someone mentioned the “elephant in the room” (her words) and wondered aloud to all of us if this guy could possibly get a fair trial. Thus began a round of questions from the judge and the attorneys if anyone present could not be fair and unbiased. One woman mentioned that she was the mother of African American teenagers and said she would be very empathetic to the defendant. Her admission made me wonder if I too was obligated to mention my African American children. Hmmm. I remained silent, unwilling to tip my hand, thinking that I really wanted to be on this jury.
I listened as potential juror or after potential juror offered up just about every life experience imaginable: ones father was a cop, another’s sister a murder victim, someone’s distant uncle twice removed a member of border patrol. I didn’t have anything to say. No one in my close circle of family or friends had been the victim of a serious crime—I once had my wallet ski parka stolen out of my unlocked car. No one I knew worked in law enforcement or was a lawyer.
The clock ticked, the lawyers worked through the stacks of questionnaires festooned with yellow post-its, and I was perhaps the only one in the courtroom who hadn’t either been asked a direct question or offered an opinion beyond a nod or shake of my head. The defense attorney finally noticed my silence and thumbed through my questionnaire, which appeared to be Post-It-less. He asked me what I meant when I wrote that I was a Senior Field IT Administrator. I told him that meant I helped folks find the power buttons on their computers. Everyone laughed, and the selection process began.
“The state thanks and respectfully dismisses juror number 2.” Good, I thought. She seemed a bit unbalanced.
“The defense thanks and respectfully dismisses juror number 5.” Thank god. What a blowhard. He’s probably a serial killer himself.
“The state thanks and respectfully dismisses juror number 8.”
“The defense thanks and respectfully dismisses juror number 12.” That guy had a brother who was murdered and still had huge issues with the ordeal. I couldn’t imagine the energy he might suck from the rest of the jury. Plus he’d probably never shut up long enough to listen to anyone else.
“The state thanks and respectfully dismisses juror number 25.” She clearly had suffered as the victim of a serious crime and being a juror would only traumatize her further.
And on it went. I was no longer a potential alternate; I was now a full-fledged potential juror with the elimination of many jurors between 1 and 12. My stomach tightened. I held my breath, still not quite sure I wanted to be a juror or not, a bit worried that this trial might stretch through the month of June (i.e. interrupting my upcoming vacation) even though they’d promised only three weeks (the wheels of justice seemed to move slowly). Finally, the attorneys had made their allotted uncontested dismissals, and we all moved up numerically to fill the empty slots. I moved into the jury box and became Juror Number 5.
The rest of the jury pool was dismissed. The judge gave us our oath. The bailiff explained how things worked and told us to show up the next morning when the trial would begin.
Lesson #2—be careful what you wish for.