Jury Service, Jury Selection Rights – Versus Threats, Hunger & Lack of Privacy Protection.

Jury Selection, Civic Duty and the Jury Trial Court System. Your Rights if Selected for Jury Service: The Pope and Brad Pitt

A Harris Poll commissioned by the American Bar Association in 2004 concluded that the majority of the people believe that jury duty is an important civic responsibility.  “It remains crucial to the function of our democracy that we encourage as many people as possible to respond if they are called for service,” declared the president of the ABA.

The ABA recommended that jury service could be improved by: 1) the shortest jury service possible; 2) the preservation of jury privacy through relevant juror-screening inquiries; 3) allowing jurors to answer sensitive questions privately.

“The sixth and seventh amendments to the U.S. Constitution provide for rights to a jury trial. Our nation’s courts depend on the active participation of the people of this country. In order to make it easier for Americans to serve as jurors, we advocate for the shortest possible jury service as long as the needs of the courts are being met; for the preservation of juror privacy through juror-screening inquiries that are relevant only to the trial and by allowing jurors to answer sensitive questions privately; and for the protection of employees, by prohibiting employers from penalizing those who miss work because of jury service.”

Excellent recommendations.  Unfortunately, practice is something else. I’ve recently had the opportunity to observe jury service for a criminal case in Miami, Florida. Court staff members – those who answer the phone, welcome and brief prospective jurors and lead jury groups through the court house – were unfailingly polite and respectful.

The judge, by contrast, insulted, threatened and treated prospective jurors like hapless children. A woman at the reception desk stated, “If you have a problem serving on a jury for more than one day, please tell the judge. Our judges understand the economy and how difficult jury service might be.”

The judge, however, was nearly cruel in his disdain for “excuses.”

He said, “This will be a three or four-day trial. If you have an emergency – like your parent might die tomorrow or you’re scheduled for an operation – I want to know. Anything short of an emergency is not an emergency. Travel arrangements are not an emergency. Work is not an emergency.” A young man stated that his final college exams started the following day.  Not a hint of compassion from the judge.

The defendant committed a crime against property. The witnesses were police officers, but there was apparently little or no evidence.

The prosecuting attorney grilled potential jurors for over an hour and a half with mind-numbing versions of  a single point: “If you trust the person giving testimony, you must convict, even if there is no evidence to support the testimony.”

The judge repeatedly reinforced this view, in effect, convicting the defendant without a trial.

A 30-something fellow raised his hand. “Even if I trust the person giving testimony, I couldn’t convict without further proof,” he said. Verbal guns  blazing, the judge declared: “What if you’re mother was accused of being a terrorist and told you she was innocent? Wouldn’t you believe her?”

The young man responded, “No, I would want further proof.”

The judge was incensed. “Obviously you’re trying to get out of jury service. So here’s my gift to you. You won’t be selected to serve on this jury. You’ll have to wait until the end of the day to see if you’re selected for another jury. And that jury might last for six months. Congratulations.”

After that tongue lashing and threat, most were afraid to utter a word.

The Pope and Brad Pitt

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The prosecutor then said, “What if the person giving testimony was the Pope? Wouldn’t you have to convict?”  A brave woman dared to speak, “I must tell you the truth. You’re the problem. You’re badgering us.”

The youthful defense attorney was much nicer, but frivolous in her presentation. A heavy-set woman with an inappropriately short dress, she said, “Let me tell you a secret. You can’t tell anyone. I’ve asked the court reporter not to record it. I just received an email from Brad Pitt. He wants to see me as soon as possible. He invited me to dinner. Our relationship has been going on in secret for a very long time.”

Potential slander aside, her eventual point: “Just because I tell you something, and you trust me, it doesn’t make it true.” The defendant stared at the ceiling, certain that his case would be lost.

In the welcome briefing, potential jurors were informed that there would be a lunch break at noon. The judge, however, wouldn’t let anyone get a sip of water, let alone food. Jury selection questioning continued until 2:15, when he finally declared that “We will now select the jury. You can wait outside this courtroom until the selection is made.” Another 20 minutes went by. At 2:30, the group was told to reenter the room, jurors were selected and the rest were told that they could return upstairs to await for further instructions. By now, it was 3:00 in the afternoon without lunch.

So upstairs we marched (or took the elevator), exhausted, drained and starving. We were then told, “We will pay you $15.00 for your service today, so long as you remain here until 5:00 pm. However, if you forfeit the payment, you can leave after we call your number and provide your certificate of service.”

No one chose to stay. And that’s how the jury court system got away without paying for parking  and for the missed lunch.

The Personal Profile

Jurors were asked to fill out a profile that would be turned over to the prosecuting and defense attorneys. The profile included many personal questions, including age, date of birth, whether one had ever been the victim of a crime (with details), family or friends in law enforcement, etc. The profile form was not returned at the end of the jury selection process. Sensitive personal information remained in the hands of one attorney or the other – or perhaps the profile was thrown in a wastebasket.

In fact, the final briefer stated, “If you still have the profile in your possession, just throw it away.” Talk about privacy protection! There was none.

So here’s a warning: If you report for jury service, but are not selected for the trial, make sure that you walk out of the court with your personal profile in hand. Demand that the attorneys hand it over. Take it home and shred it!!!

Yes, jury service is a duty and a responsibility. But the judges, attorneys and “jury system” have a responsibility to get it right.  Those selected for jury service must not be verbally abused or threatened and their privacy must be respected.

To your jury selection rights!

Dr.  Joyce Starr