something that happened in my life – jury duty – january 30, 2012

(published after the end of the trial)

a random smattering of thoughts as i performed my civic duty for 36 hours.

two sides to every story. if there is a perfect example of two sides to every story, it is the battle that occurs every day on both sides of the table in courtrooms. 

she said: he beat her up for no good reason, chipped teeth, knocked unconscious, cuts/scars on face/body.  $2k in cash disappeared from her wallet, he ended up carrying a lot of cash with some cocaine.  she’s also a nude stripper!?

he said: she collapsed from alcohol.

weirdly personal.  first off, the above is a fairly salacious case.  like they identified this girl as a nude stripper?  they talked about how they both did drugs and spent nights in motels together “because she lived in the east bay”.  personal details!!  they talk about the crimes that the defendant committed when he’s right there in the courtroom, looking into your eyes.

but during the interviewing of potential jury members, a lot really personal stuff was confessed by the potential jurors as well in front of hundreds of strangers.  there were women who were physically abused, testifying against stepfathers for domestic violence, or filing restraining orders.  one woman was crying because she was in an abusive relationship for years and was embarrassed she didn’t get out of it sooner or report him.  another was saying that a friend was date raped and now several of the friends have gone to professional therapy.  pretty intense.  HUNDREDS OF STRANGERS!!!

civic duty. they show you this fairly inspirational video in the beginning on the importance of jury duty and how it is our responsibility as citizens to participate and how we should be proud of what an incredible jury system we have, and how it protects us from being wrongfully persecuted. 

on the other hand….

colossal waste of time and money.  200 people, sequestered for 1.5 days.  all to pick 12 (+3 alternate) jurors. 

they were going down a random list and got through about half the people before they chose the 15 people.  i was not interviewed. 

although i’m sure that, if i were ever in the defendant’s shoes, i would hope that the county would expend a lot of effort trying to locate an unbiased jury….

btw, if chosen, the stipend is $17.50/day.  that about covers food, not even.  my company pays for the first week of jury duty.

wide spread of people.  as a young adult, you sometimes forget that there are people who exist who aren’t young professionals living in the mission who aren’t in finance or tech.  there were people from all around the 7×7 that makes up san francisco.  a surprising number of gay people living with their partners.  very upper level executives and doctors and lawyers and students and unemployed and retired and baristas. 

the judge was surprisingly nice.  i guess i just imagine judge judy like characters that command authority by being mean, but this judge was quite laid back and humorous (facetiously joking about how “we all were hoping for a case that would go on for months” and saying that we couldn’t “tweet about how hot the courtroom was or how boring the judge is”).  she was really understanding when said potential jury member broke down in front of her, crying about how she was in an abusive relationship.  she handled a quite bitter room of potential jurors quite well as well. 

reminded me of hunger games.

“your name’s only been in there once, they’re not going to pick you.”



so you’re sequestered in this room of 200 people, and they start reading down a list of names of the people in the room in a random order. each time the clerk read the names, everyone was WILLING HER not to call out their names and breathed a huge sigh of relief each time their name wasn’t called. and if someone was dismissed, you could see in their eyes as they walked out that they were REALLY FUCKING HAPPY that they dodged that bullet. 

VERY REAPING. (which, btw, comes out in ONE MONTH!!!!!!!!!!!!)

reminded me of policy debate tournaments.  lots of people in suits, many of whom were too young to be looking like they should be in suits.  walking around in foreign hallways with stacks of paper with a certain intensity and tension. 

reminded me of being in school.  the judge as the teacher in the position of authority.  teaching you about laws.  being told what you can and can’t do/believe/take into account.  adhering to strict time schedules.  me passing out because it’s so boring. 

DEVIN.  devin courteously answered some of the questions that i had about the jury system (in addition to including a very nice, heartfelt email).  HE IS AN OFFICIAL ATTORNEY NOW!!! WHAT A BALLER!!!!!!!!!!!!

just survived my first brush with jury duty!  thought it was a good an excuse as any to email you. 

it was interesting and educational and hellish all at the same time.  some questions:

1) why can’t you bias what police officers have to say more than what the defendant says?  isn’t that a little bit goofy? 

2) the judge kept making a big deal how we couldn’t have any bias going into the trial “because no evidence has been presented”, even though one story was wayyyy more believable than the other.  is this at all reasonable!?  like during the jury selection process, one woman was like “you really expect me to believe that she just fell down, which is what led to her eye popping out?” (he said: she fell down, she said: violence).  this led to much laughter from the over 100 other potential jurors.

3) why would a defendant choose not to testify for reasons other than guilt?  and is it really reasonable to ask people to not factor that into their decision making process? 

4) are jury selection process questions just stupid or are there secret reasons why lawyers ask them? 


Hey James!  Sorry that it’s taken me a while to email you back; I’ve been pretty bad in keeping up with people (except rarely over gchat).  Hope you’ll forgive me.

Glad you got to see how the Justice sausage is made–at least the first part of it.  To attempt to answer your questions:

1) Bias is just a “bad” word in the law.  The law says that you’re not supposed to have any bias for or against any party, but that does not mean that the jury isn’t expected to stop what they know about the world from influencing their decisions to trust some witness or make inferences.  On the contrary, the law expects juries to make those connections; it just also expects that you will give each case independent consideration and that you will not judge someone unfairly simply because of the fact that they are accused.  A mere accusation cannot give rise to an inference of guilt (for obvious constitutional and just plain fairness reasons).

2) Well, this may just have been an unfortunate decision on how to instruct the jury pre-trial.  As above, you should not consider the victim right just because they are the plaintiff, and vice versa with the defendant.  And technically, the law expects you to walk into the case and forget what you may have heard at voir dire, because whatever the lawyers or judge said is not “evidence” – nobody has sworn to it, and you don’t know who those people are.  That is the function of the trial.  It may be a bit stilted, but it’s a system that makes sense in some cases more than others, and keep the rules in place to save the judge from having to insert his or her own decision instead of some blanket standard that, when it errs, at least errs in the favor of the status quo.

3) Defendants could refuse to testify because they could crack under cross-examination, even if they have nothing bad to say.  Some prosecutors/plaintiffs lawyers are very good at making people look bad even if they can honestly stand up there and say that they did not commit any wrong.  Case in point is basically any defendant in Law and Order — you see them get up there all the time and say that they’re not guilty, but still they get torn down pretty bad.  In many of those cases, the defendant gets so torn apart that they would have been better off not testifying!  Aside from that, people may not testify because they do not feel like their business or personal thoughts should be a public matter, but it all can be asked about (if it is relevant and no exclusion applies) on the stand.

4) I’ve never been involved in jury selection, but I think that the questions are usually far-fetched and more divination than science.  Most trial lawyers are kooks so this is consistent.


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