Things I Learned About Jury Duty

The card arrives in the mail and you groan – jury duty.  No one looks forward to this American “civic duty.”  I was really not interested in donating my free time to pass judgement on some poor fool.  I was even less excited about having my nocturnal sleep schedule messed up.

Facebook quote about jury duty

It was actually a pretty informative experience.  Not one I would have volunteered for, but hey when life gives you lemon-based stereotypes…  So here are some things I learned about jury duty first hand.  Originally this was going to be a post about basic things but somewhere along the way I flipped into story telling mode so buckle up, its a long one.

It is your responsibility to check in

First you get the card in the mail and it says check in to see if they need you and it lists a number.  You are now this number.  They call you in using lots so if you are #206 and they call 100-300 you are up.  Sometimes they blast through ranges and sometimes you get a really high number that will never be needed.

How do you know when they need you?  Duh, you call them every day and listen to the voice mail and find out.  Wait, I have to call?  Every freaking day?!!  Yep, in the age of email, texting and instant notifications you have to remember to call them every day to see if they need you.  And they won’t give you any hints about how busy the month is or let you schedule the days you can be there.  Their way or the contempt-of-court highway.  Never mind how simple it would be for them to set up a system that texts you when it needs you but that is the geek in me rebelling by creating gadgets.

You really don’t want to forget to call in

Take a wild guess how I know.

If you miss a day they can throw all kinds of neat stuff at you, ranging from being next in line, additional months of jury duty or even good ol’ contempt of court.  They are super vague about it and it more matters if the clerk is having a good day than anything I suspect.

First: make sure you call ASAP and let them know you couldn’t make it.  Especially if they send you an official and ominous letter saying to do so.  They really do know when you didn’t show up when you were supposed to.  I called and was honest (my best and worst habit).  I told them I simply forgot to call in one Sunday night.  The jury duty clerk was nice and said I needed to show up the next time they called anyone in regardless of my number.  Oh and if I didn’t serve on a jury this month I would get November as well.  Offers like that are hard to pass up so I agreed, hung up and only cursed a little.

It is really early in morning (for me)

A lot of people get to work before 8 AM and all my friends with kids mock me for complaining about this but darn it this is flipping early for me.  Coming off of writing my thesis for three weeks, where I worked until I couldn’t think, meaning bedtime around 5 AM.  Which was a pretty serious shift in my sleep schedule.  Basically I had been living on Sydney time for all of September.

So you get your earl grey tea and get to the court house 15 minutes early like a good citizen.  Then you go through a metal detector.  Fine, whatever.  Then you join about a hundred other people waiting to get into the room to check in and wait.  Sigh, government.  At a prompt 8:07 AM they open the door and you wait to check in.  You give them your number like a prisoner id and fill out a form with weird questions like “Are cops more honest than average people?” to create a profile of you for use in jury selection.

Then you return the form and wait while the lawyers involved in the trial perform whatever dark rituals they have to do to summon the Angel of Justice and drink coffee.

Seriously, there is a ton of waiting involved

We sat there from 8:30 til almost 10 AM waiting to figure out which of the two cases going on we would need to be selected for.  Many people commented on the fact that 2 cases times 12 jurors is a bit less than the 100+ people in the room.  There is a reason for this as I found out later.  On the plus side about one quarter of the people had missed the last call for jury duty so at least I wasn’t the only one there for make up work.

They understand you don’t want to be there

They really do.  Every single official mentioned at least once that they understood how inconvenient it was for us and that if it was really an emergency we could plead our case with the judge.  Sometimes I got the feeling that a few of them didn’t want to be there either but that’s besides the point.  This is how the system works and without (almost) willing volunteers it isn’t a jury of peers.

Jury selection is insanely complicated

Pretty much every tv show glosses over this fact.  It took us two days to get the 13 people necessary (why 13 and not 12 in a bit).  First they grab a number lot and tell you which court room to go to, this is the case you are now interviewing for.  Yes you really are going to get interviewed to be on the jury.  The judge, prosecutor, defense lawyer, defendant as well as the entire slug of people hoping to go home are all there.  Everyone loves public speaking, right?

Everyone has a seat wherever they can as the room is now packed.  The clerk then pulls out a wooden bingo wheel and starts drawing names, if your name is called you go sit in the jury booth.  We drew 20 people for the first round, which again is quite a bit over 12.  It was explained that there would be an alternate juror who would sit through the entire trial then be determined randomly and released before deliberation.  Which brings the needed juror count to 13.  I was not among them which was actually kind of a bummer because it was a pretty straight forward case so I wanted to serve a few days and be done.

The prosecutor, an assistant district attorney (ADA from here on) in my case, went over the basics first of how trials are supposed to work, guilty until proven innocent, just because you are court doesn’t mean you are guilty and it is up to the jury to decide etc.  It bears mentioning that at this stage they do not give you any details besides the charges and defendants name in order to avoid tainting your judgement.  He then began the interviewing.  Seriously, they hand you a mic hooked up to the overhead speakers and everything so the entire room can hear you.  A lot of people were not happy about this.  The ADA made sure to ask about anything unusual that you wrote down and everyone had to speak.  This took over an hour and the jury-select looked quite relieved when he sat back down.

Then the defense attorney stood up.  Another hour of uncomfortable questioning.  Next the ADA and defense attorney began judging everyone, like fine pieces of meat.  This is called peremptory where any juror can be excused for any reason if either side feels they would be biased.  Everyone in the benches waited optimistically, if at least 13 survived then the rest were free.  The clerk started calling names of those deemed not useful in this case.  Only 10 remained.

Damn it.

It was now 1 PM and the judge excused us until tomorrow.  We are not needed until 8:30.  Pro-tip: when a judge telling you that you get to sleep in an extra half hour is the best part of your day, you are not having a great day.

Jury selection round 2 began with the 10 people from yesterday in the same seats, minus one because of the flu.  Now there are 11 spots to fill.  Out comes the bingo wheel.  I get drawn, of course, and begin waiting my turn to be questioned.  I had several advantages: first that I had seen yesterday’s show so I knew what was going to happen and secondly I wanted to get picked.  I watched everyone the day before and saw who was let go and who stayed and looked for patterns.

Tips on getting selected (or let go)

If you have obvious biases, like one guy who was very very vocal about his distrust for law enforcement due to the bad experience of a friend, don’t be surprised when you get sent home.  Interestingly having no opinions or being fairly meek will also get you the door.  Basically anyone either side can’t get a bead on is asked to leave.  My way in was clear: have an opinion and share some life experiences but nothing extreme in either direction.  Pretty much exactly the quote from Oceans 11.

You look down, they know you’re lying and up, they know you don’t know the truth. Don’t use seven words when four will do. Don’t shift your weight, look always at your mark but don’t stare, be specific but not memorable, be funny but don’t make him laugh. He’s got to like you then forget you the moment you’ve left his side.


There’s your pragmatic tip for getting out of the hot seat, now back to the jury selection.

Jury selection takes a long time

Have I mentioned that?  Finally the peremptory began again and I was selected to stay!  Excited because of my earnest belief in this case and desire to do justice and nothing to do with not wanting to get another month of jury duty.  Nope, not at all.  With that we had exactly 13 and the rest of the room was told they wouldn’t be needed after lunch.  Yeah, it was noon-thirty again at this stage.  Pretty sure I saw some high-fives as they left the room but that would have been unprofessional.

Trials take even longer

Jury selection is supposed to ensure an unbiased group of people.  Trials are supposed to allow each side to plead their case, often multiple times.  I took my role seriously and paid close attention.  Names do not naturally stick with me but through extreme mental effort and some scotch tape it can be done.  Without getting into specifics this case involved quite a few people and their relations towards each other were confusing and possibly in-bred.  Here’s a summarized breakdown of the flow of events.

Prosecution’s opening argument

Defense’s opening argument

Prosecution calls witness #1

Defense examines witness #1

Repeat for however many witnesses there are.

Prosecution closing argument

Defense closing argument

Prosecution final statement

Judges instructions

This doesn’t account for the many, many breaks where the lawyers need to discuss things without the jury being present.  At least once an hour we would be excused to our little deliberation room for “breaks” of up to a half hour at a time.  Luckily one guy brought a laptop so we played Logo Quiz which goes pretty quick when you have a group.  Also the instructions the judge had to read was a 40 page packet of legal definitions so that was a blast too.

Don’t forget about the alternate

At this stage everything is done and it is time to take your notes and deliberate the fate of the defendant with your fellow court assigned peers.  Unless you are the alternate who is chosen at the last minute.  It makes sense to have an extra person because otherwise a single person getting sick would require a do-over of that day.

In the beginning of the trial basically everyone wants to get out, now no one does.  Everyone dreads being chosen.  You put in the time and mental energy to form an opinion about this case and darn it your vote will be heard.  On our way from the jury waiting room to the court one guy was joking about how he always loses draws like this.  I responded with “don’t worry about it, I’m going to get picked.  I ALWAYS lose lotteries.”  My friends will vouch for this, of my many traits luck does not make the list.

There we sit, watching the wheel spin, one of our opinions tumbling inside ready to be discarded like a used tissue.  The clerk reaches inside and pulls out a name, calling it clearly.

“Brian Paden”

Damn it.  Again.

“… yes, that’s me”

“You are excused, thank you for your time.”

Then the judge chimes in “I know it isn’t easy being the alternate so I’m throwing you a bone: you are cleared of jury duty for the remainder of the month.”  Ahh, a silver lining.  Kind of like stepping in dog poo barefoot and finding a quarter inside but better than nothing.

We all walked back to the deliberation room, I grabbed my coat and walked off without saying goodbye as I was honestly kind of out of it.  A very surreal feeling that gave me quite a bit of empathy for what the defendant will feel at the reading of the decision.

Deliberations are awesome, I bet

I have no idea.  I can tell you I was really looking forward to discussing the finer points of the case that we had studied over the last two days.  It felt a bit like collecting a massive pile of candy on Halloween only to have your parents take it all away because it isn’t healthy.  Also they were ordering in lunch as I left too so there was that final slap in the face.

They pay you

A whopping $25 a day, not including the first day.  Many people were commenting on how little this is.  My thoughts were along the lines of: oh, they are paying you for your time?  Because the DMV totally pays better than $25 a day to wait.  And the IRS gives you a nice discount if you file early right?  Yeah no government agency except the court acknowledges that your time even has value so at least they try.

That’s it

And that’s my tale of things I learned about jury duty by serving.  It was only four days but felt much longer.  It was exhausting and difficult and I’m glad I got to experience it.  Also now I can’t be selected for another year.