Monday, December 10, 2012

Jury Duty in US District Court – An Interesting Experience

(on right) Carl B. Stokes United States Courthouse, Cleveland Ohio

I recently had the privilege of being selected for jury duty for the United States District Court, Northern District of Ohio in Cleveland. It was a very interesting experience. Everyone should have the chance to be called for jury duty, if anything to see firsthand how the American system of justice works in reality – and not how it works on a television show.

A few months ago, it was with a slight sense of dread as I opened a piece of mail from the US District Court in Cleveland. It was just a simple survey to verify my qualifications as a potential juror but I knew exactly what it meant – I would soon be called for jury duty. The survey merely attempts to flush out those situations that would likely exclude people – disabilities, military duty, advanced age, etc. I didn’t fit in any of those categories so I knew it was just a matter of time before I was called.

Sure enough, less than a month later came the notice that I was selected to serve. Every night, beginning on a set date, I was to call the court and hear a recording stating whether my jury group was to report or not. As the term of service is one month or one trial, I had to clear my schedule for a 30 day period…a bit of a hassle as I’d already made plans for the time before the Thanksgiving holiday.

The first night I called, I was informed the trial to which I had been assigned had been moved – so I was able to change my schedule back. Within about a week, the trial date was moved again. But that date stuck, and I reported for duty on the date and time required,

The US District Court in Cleveland is located in downtown Cleveland next to the Tower City complex, and the enclosed walkway from Tower City makes it easy to get to the courthouse. The Carl B. Stokes United States Courthouse is only about 10 years old and the design is contemporary and serene, yet conveys serious business.

Jurors were directed to the very large jury assembly room and were asked to complete a questionnaire. (While some jurors seemed to think that sitting in the back of this large room would mean they would likely not be in the first group selected,  this makes no difference.) Having served on a jury for my hometown once before, I knew that the questions asked on the survey were not random but related to the case in some way. Of course, each question was answered honestly.

And then…the waiting. While jurors were asked to report by 7:30, we weren’t moved to the courtroom until about 3 hours later. The names of potential jurors were called and assigned a juror number, and the group moved to the hallway outside the courtroom, which was several stories up. (The view of the Cleveland skyline and the Terminal Tower can’t be beat!) We were lined up according to the number we were assigned (I had a very low number so I thought I would surely be seated as a juror) and we were led into the courtroom and seated according to the number assigned. Some jurors numbering in the 30s-40s were breathing a sigh of relief thinking they wouldn’t be seated as a juror (they were wrong).

The process of voir dire begins, which is the process where prospective jurors are questioned about their backgrounds, potential biases, and in some cases the answers on the questionnaire, before being selected to sit on the jury. The phrase voir dire is derived from Latin and French and means "that which is true"; but I say it means “very boring.” When I served on a city jury, voir dire was quick and took only about 15 minutes, but as this case was in a Federal court, the process is far more time consuming and the questioning far more detailed. In this particular case, potential jurors are first asked questions as a group, and then asked questions individually (yet still in a group setting), verifying some basic information, such as name, occupation, etc.  The process stretched for hours as some jurors (in this case, at least 30 jurors) were called to the bench to be asked specific questions based on how the potential juror answered the questionnaire. While the judge, the prosecutor and/or defense attorney asks the potential juror questions, a “white noise” –  like the static heard over an old analog TV with no signal – is heard, which masks what is said at the bench to others in the courtroom (and vice versa). At first it was not an unpleasant sound, but after this went off and on for hours, it became rather annoying. (By the way, the next day my ears were ringing loudly for hours…was it a rebound from all that white noise?)

I was called up to the bench and asked several questions and answered them honestly. Jurors are not told whether they are being selected or disqualified until the attorneys have screened each juror for which they had specific issues with the questionnaire.

Hours later – it was close to 5PM now – the jurors were selected. After going through aver 40 jurors, the court finally picked twelve jurors and a few alternates. I was not selected, and while they don’t explain why, I suspect that due to the nature of the case and some of my answers relating to the questionnaire (which was completed before we were told the charges against the defendant) likely disqualified me. Some of the potential jurors who thought they had high enough numbers that they would not get selected got quite the surprise when they were picked.

The judge in this case was Chief Judge Solomon Oliver, Jr., and he did a great job in conducting the entire process. He seemed very sensitive to the fact that the process took quite a bit of time and the potential jurors were an impatient lot.

I don’t know the outcome of the case – it may still be going on as the case was projected to run 4-6 days. I believe that the process, while time consuming, did its best to get a fair and impartial jury.

Even though it was a bit of an inconvenience, I would be happy to do it again, including being seated on the jury. It’s part of the American legal system that everyone should experience  - better as a juror than as a defendant!.

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