Jury duty, it’s a civic duty that just about every American citizen seems to grumble and complain about and try to get out of. However, one of the things I was most looking forward to when becoming an American citizen was the opportunity to serve on a jury. I was so curious about it and very excited when I finally received my jury summons.
I don’t think I could have asked for a better first jury duty experience. It turned out to be a serious criminal case (gang related murder in my local area) with a judge I respected and who had a great sense of humor and a jury group that was pleasant to be with and took the responsibility seriously. I am looking forward to the next opportunity, which theoretically could come any day now since it’s been a year since my jury duty was completed.
Luckily, I had completed the online orientation so my report time on Day 1 was a comfortable 9:30 a.m. instead of 8 a.m. Not knowing exactly what to expect, except probably waiting around a lot, I brought my book and made my way to the LAX Courthouse. And waiting I did, but with a view like this of the snow-capped mountains, it wasn’t always so bad.
I was not called for the first panel of potential jurors, but when I returned from lunch, I was called for the next panel along with about 80 other people. In the courtroom, the judge told us about the case and that it would likely take about three weeks(!).
The jury selection process was fascinating. I loved getting an inside look at how a jury is selected. Many people were dismissed right away due to language difficulties or the extreme hardship a 3-week trial would inflict. The rest of us completed a questionnaire that gathered information that the lawyers and judge would use for further questioning in an attempt to select an unbiased jury.
When it was my turn to enter the jury box for questioning, I felt like I was up for an oral exam for which I hadn’t prepared. I was told I had “boring” answers on my questionnaire, no experience with violent crimes, police, or gangs. Apparently, nothing stood out as possibly making me unable to decide the case fairly and impartially. Basically, the only question I was asked by one of the lawyers was how I deal with my kids’ fighting and decide what actually happened. The questioning moved on the other jurors, and then suddenly the day ended with the lawyers saying they accepted the panel as is. There was no warning that those of us sitting in the box would become the jurors of this case. Everyone seemed equally surprised. I was quite happy that I had been picked.
It was interesting to chat with and observe and listen to the other potential jurors during this process. Surprisingly, many actually had a positive attitude towards being there. Maybe the ones who didn’t want to be there had already found a way to postpone or get out of it. A shocking number of people or their families had been victims of violent crimes or had distrust of the police. The judge and lawyers tried to weed out those who might be biased against Latinos and/or gang members. I couldn’t always make sense of why a potential juror was let go, but one potential juror made it very clear. He said he had already made up his mind. “Either way that’s not good,” the judge said and let him go.
Day 4 was the beginning of the witness testimonies. We first heard instructions by the judge and then opening statements by both sides. It was interesting to see how the lawyers had hinted at the direction of the case through their juror questioning. It wasn’t just a case of a straight forward murder. The defendant was actually “only” the driver and a buddy of his had shot the gun which caused the death, but according to California law, the drivers are potentially just as guilty as the main perpetrators, though of course innocent until proven guilty.
We had a total of seven days of testimonies. We heard from all sorts of witnesses: police officers, motor and traffic officers, dispatchers, detectives, firearms experts, a high tech expert regarding cell phone activity, gang experts, a coroner about the autopsy, and current and former gang members. I’m sure I’m forgetting something, but the notes I took had to stay behind in the courtroom. It was fascinating to get the inside look at a real crime investigation. Most eye-opening was what I learned about gang activity and gang rivalry going on in areas I frequent on a daily basis (Santa Monica and West LA) and not far from my own neighborhood!
There was a lot of sitting in a courtroom without windows during these days. I took advantage of the stairs going down from the eighth floor of the courthouse, as did many others, and enjoyed my little circular garden for breaks in the fresh air and sunshine.
During Day 10, the testimonies ended, the lawyers said their final arguments, and the judge gave us strict instructions to follow during deliberations.
We all returned on Day 11 to begin discussing the case. A fellow juror brought a delightful box of donuts to start off the day. This was the first time we discussed the case with our fellow jurors. It soon became clear that we did not all agree on a verdict, but being the conscientious jurors that we were, we went through the testimonies again and thought about and discussed it some more. Everyone was given a chance to share their opinion and thinking. However, we could not come to agreement and saw no way it would happen. We were pretty evenly split. We sent word to the judge that we were ready to share our decision.
Soon we were called into the courtroom. The judge didn’t accept our deadlock and encouraged us to return to the deliberation room and continue discussing. This was towards the end of the day and we made no headway and went home to sleep on it. The second day of deliberations we returned, but there had been no change in minds. We were still evenly split. Once again, we sent word to the judge. This time he accepted our deadlock, and it was over as fast at it had begun. It was somewhat anticlimactic.
The lawyers from both sides were eager to speak to us outside the courtroom afterwards. They wanted to learn the strengths and weaknesses in their cases and to hear why we weren’t able to come a unanimous decision. The People planned to try the defendant again. I’ll continue to cccasionally search online to see the status of the case. It looks like the next hearing date will be next month.
A few days after it was over, I received a letter from the judge. He hoped I found the “experience both interesting and rewarding” and reiterated how “jury service is one of the few acts in which we each can fully participate as Americans” and thanked me for my “contribution to our community and to our legal system”. Little did he know how big a deal this experience was for me and how much I appreciated the opportunity. The letter was probably a form letter that’s sent out to all jurors for all sorts of cases, but I certainly took it to heart.