As a practicing lawyer, I would love to serve on a jury. I would like to see how twelve people interact in the privacy of a room, discussing...or arguing...the facts. Unfortunately, I have never been picked to serve on a jury. One lawyer or the other always strikes me from the jury pool. This might have something to do with the fact that I sue lawyers as part of my law practice, but that is mere speculation.
As far as I can tell, everyone wants to serve on a jury. Some consider it to be an honor, and others consider it to be a duty they embrace. Either way, it’s a great way to spend a few days of your life, right? Actually, the unfortunate truth is that many people go to great lengths to avoid serving on a jury.
Stepping on my soapbox, just for a short paragraph: Jury service is one of the most important duties of citizenship. The right to trial by jury is one of the most fundamental guarantees of our freedom contained in the U. S. Constitution. However, this right would not mean very much without people who were willing to serve as jurors.
Okay, back down now from my soapbox. As I think most people know, in our system of justice, a jury is a group of citizens who are chosen to listen impartially to the evidence in a case and to follow the judge's instructions on how the law applies to the case. The jury weighs the important facts of the case. In a civil case, the jury decides which side is supported by the facts. In a criminal case, the jury decides whether or not the facts presented by the prosecution prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty.
Everybody who is called to serve on a jury gets on that list in the same way: by random selection from public lists, such as voter rolls and drivers license registrations. The goal is to find a group of jurors who represents a cross-section of the whole community. If you try to concoct a way to avoid serving on a jury, then you should ask yourself this question: if you end up in court someday, wouldn't you want fair-minded fellow citizens who understand you to be on your jury? Do you want to be judged only by those who have no daily responsibilities and who would not be inconvenienced, in the least, by serving on a jury?
If you are summoned to jury service, you will find yourself in a large room at the courthouse, along with the others who have been called to court. Eventually, you may be sent to a courtroom, where you will participate in a process in which the judge and lawyers determine who will be picked to serve as jurors in that particular trial. (Actually, it is a process of elimination: each lawyer is able to strike a certain amount of prospective jurors, leaving the last twelve (or six) as the jury.) This is the portion of the trial in which prospective jurors often say something which they hope will disqualify them from serving. I am not going to give any examples because I do not want to help anyone avoid serving on a jury. You might be excused for any number of reasons or for a reason that you cannot figure out.
If you're on the jury chosen for the trial of the case, the judge will give you the rules of jury service early in the trial. Depending on the length of the trial, the judge may remind you of those rules several times. These rules are all intended to defend the fairness and integrity of the trial, as well as the dignity of the court.
The rules are clear and easy to follow (unless you are a character in a novel about a trial, in which case there is inevitably at least one juror who has no intention of following the rules). Some of the most important rules are: don't talk about the case with anyone, including other jurors, until the judge tells you to do so; don't talk to the parties in the case, the lawyers, or the witnesses during the trial; don't discuss the case with spectators or reporters; and don't conduct any research or investigation on your own. The whole point is to form your judgment based only on the evidence, legal arguments and the law given to you by the judge, witnesses and lawyers in open court.
The jury hears testimony from witnesses. Nothing the lawyers say in their opening statements or their closing arguments is evidence. Only the testimony and documents that are presented in court constitute evidence. A persuasive lawyer will try to guide you to a particular decision. But you should be guided by what you believe is the truth.
During trial, some jurors get frustrated by the fact that they are not hearing every single fact that they wish they could hear. Often times, there are facts which could sway a juror but which have absolutely nothing to do with the dispute that is being decided at the trial. The judge will exclude that evidence for the sake of a fair trial. Keep an open mind during all phases of the trial. Pay attention to all the witnesses and all the evidence. That seems self evident, but it’s easy to become distracted or bored during a trial.
Towards the end of the trial, the judge will provide the jury with instructions regarding the law. The judge will explain how witnesses should be evaluated, how the facts should be applied to the law and what the burden of proof is for the prosecution or plaintiff. The judge will then send you off to deliberate. This should be the first time that you discuss the facts of the case with your fellow jurors.
Once you are in the juror’s room, you will first choose a foreman or forewoman to preside over the deliberations and handle any potential communications with the judge or court staff. Choose someone who seems able to run a meeting in a fair and organized way.
As you deliberate, be sure to listen to each other with an open mind, taking into account all the evidence you have heard and each person's views of that evidence, all combined with the laws that the judge has explained to you. You might be surprised that a fellow juror has a perspective on the evidence that enlightens you. On the other hand, don’t be bullied by other jurors. Your view of the facts may ultimately be correct, even if you have to persuade several of your fellow jurors that your point of view is the right one.
In a civil trial, you are considering whether you, as a jury, unanimously agree that the plaintiff's case is supported by a preponderance of the evidence. The burden is on the plaintiff's side to convince you on this point. In a criminal case, you will determine whether the prosecution has proved every element of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt.
In a civil trial, the jury will decide whether the plaintiff is entitled to compensation (or some other relief) for an alleged wrong committed by the defendant. In a criminal trial, the jury will decide whether the defendant is guilty and should be punished for committing a criminal act.
Remember this: if we do not have courts that people can trust, then people will take justice into their own hands. A fair justice system relies on fair juries. Please don’t shirk your responsibility to serve.
Posted By David Lefkowitz on: 13-Oct-13 at 8:23 am  |  Send comment to David Lefkowitz