Jury Duty

The Federal Courts don’t mess around. Get eliminated from a jury pool during voir dire and they’ll make you come back the following week to try again. I was quickly rejected the first time around, but those who know me will be surprised to learn I didn’t end up 0 and 2 the following Monday.

Actually, even folks who find themselves on a jury their first day must return for a second go round if the trial lasts less than a week. That’s right, if lucky, you might serve on two juries in as many weeks. Should the second trial be somewhat lengthy, this can easily add up to three consecutive weeks spent in the Federal Building. I met a few folks in the jury lounge (a giant room with a capacity crowd of around 200) who were making daily treks up from Indiana.

The selection process is bizarre. Each of 41 candidates respond in turn to a series of questions ranging from work history to television viewing habits. Few people volunteer this information to strangers, but we get to state our responses under oath in a packed court room while the court reporter dutifully records everything being said. Judging from most responses, far more people read The Chicago Tribune than the Sun Times. Then again, The History Channel is apparently very popular while absolutely no one watches Survivor, so the data may be suspect.

The more personal information one volunteers, the less likely he is to be selected. This presents a quandry for those very private individuals hoping to be excused. Some folks are a little too obvious in their attempts, such as the man who earnestly relates that he watches a lot of Fox News, thinks for a moment, then adds that he’s a big fan of Rush Limbaugh for good measure.

In an apparent attempt to preempt such tactics, the judge treats us to an entertaining civics lesson before the process begins. He stresses the importance of jury service and explains that while the U.S. and U.K. guarantee a trial by jury for serious crimes, many other European nations do not. He explicitely mentions France as an example. I haven’t been a big fan of France of late, but they score a few points with that one. After breaking for lunch, I’m very surprised to hear my name called.

So we spend three more days listening to testimony about two high-speed car chases, three large handguns, and two and half pounds of marijuana. I wait for the Matlock moment when the defense makes a major revelation, and everyone realizes the trial has all been a big mistake, but such a moment never comes. Because you can’t assemble 12 random people without getting a few who really like to talk, we spend a few hours deliberating before returning guilty verdicts on all counts.