The summons came. Report for “Jury Duty” on a particular day in April at the Buncombe County judiciary complex in downtown Asheville. Was that how I or any of us so summoned thought we wanted to spend our time? My subsequently found answer is that jury service is truly a privilege of our society and definitely something to which we should give our time if we are called.
I’d always heard and been taught to believe that the right to trial by jury is one of the fundamental privileges our Constitution gives us as citizens. Now I know from experience.
But I have to admit that my first reaction was probably similar to that of many others receiving the same notice. Reports indicate that increasingly the majority of American citizens first groan on receiving a jury summons and try to avoid this duty of a citizen in a democracy, including us in the United States of America. Yet that should not be our response to this call for civic duty. We should welcome serving on a jury as a contribution to preserving the right.
My first reaction, admittedly but also ashamedly, was to think of figuring out how it might be possible to avoid doing jury duty. Once before I’d been summoned, but then I was working as a diplomat overseas and, thus, hadn’t had to show up. So, my second thought this year on receiving the summons was that I would just accept this as a duty of citizenship, arrange my calendar to be in town, show up on the set day at the courthouse, and see what might happen.
Another thought also followed my initial idea of jury avoidance. What about approaching it as a special experience of serving on a jury, regardless of how long it might last? Wouldn’t it be worth having that experience then always to know what it’s like? Get the real experience if possible, to feel and know it as it actually is and not as one sees juries in movies or on television.
In so many ways I’ve lived my life to get behind the scenes to know how things work, what people are thinking, why they behave in certain ways in different situations. But I could not say I had any real idea of what it was like to serve on a jury. So, the jury challenge was there.
The whole process of jury selection was the first thing that surprised me in spite of my having followed many trials over a lifetime. Remarkably, it was like a “survivor game.” First, there were the numbers and range of citizens, all legal residents of Buncombe County in Western North Carolina, all brought together on one day to await instructions and begin the process. Everything about the rules, how it would work, seemed mysterious and vague to the first-timer.
All of us, nearly 100 of all ages from 18 up, sitting in a big waiting room, slyly and shyly eyed each other with interest, wondering whether we might end up being together on a jury for days or months, trying to get hints of who each person was sharing this experience that could be life changing. No one could predict the outcome. No one could plan the rest of their day or week until they got through this process. We were all on hold for that period of time.
The first division of those summoned to appear that day was according to the type of trial. Then the names were called, none in alphabetical order. We were assigned, apparently by random computer selection, whether we would be going for a civil case or a criminal case, both starting that same day. We separated and never saw the other group again. Into our courtroom we marched in a line to take seats and await the next unknown stage. Everyone seemed nervous.
Our actual jury selection lasted into the second day. Each of us had to tell many personal details about ourselves to the whole public courtroom, and then each was questioned more about possible prejudices or knowledge that could be prejudicial. Finally, we were the chosen, or the survivors, somehow selected while others had been de-selected sometimes for reasons not at all evident in the weeding out process that seemed to be searching for any inherent bias pro or con either side in the case. Even though during the selection questioning there had been hints of what the trial concerned, the trial was now to begin with the lawyers formally laying out their cases.
“Seriously focused” was the apt description of all the players involved in the courtroom drama. The jurors, who were probably the only un-coached participants, were clearly all determined to be as serious as humanly possible during the courtroom proceedings. It was evident that all of us jurors were very serious about fulfilling our duties, about listening carefully, staying focused, trying to stay fully awake, and seeking to be fair to all sides. Only once was there an inadvertent gasp from one juror when one part of some testimony seemed at odds with all presented earlier. Some jurors took notes throughout the proceedings, as allowed, while others of us simply focused without writing, trying to soak in all the evidence presented.
The courtroom provided so much to observe that one was often tempted to shift one’s focus—the lawyers, the plaintiff and the defendant, the judge, the bailiffs, the court recorder, the unknown public sometimes walking in and out, the other jurors, and the whole scene. A different scene was the jury room where we were sent for various breaks over the course of the four days. There we were not allowed to speak of the trial until the time for deliberations. So, there we began to get to know some of the other jurors and their personalities and talents, like singing. And there the bailiff, who herded us in and out of the courtroom and the little jury room, became our friend and offered some light relief from the seriousness of the trial.
Over the four days in that courtroom, each of us learned a lot from our observations of the different players’ habits. But not all impressions of courtroom demeanor held forever. At the end of the trial, when the judge graciously came to speak with and thank the jury in the small sideroom, he surprised some of the jurors by showing his casual, light side that contrasted dramatically with his most serious courtroom face. With a sense of relief that the trial was over finally, jurors bantered with the judge about their discovery of his smiling face and humanity.
[quote float=”right”]This real-life experience made me appreciate why we should not shirk it if we’re summoned and should not dismiss it as an institution of our free democracy. [/quote]Finally, all the evidence had been presented, and it was time for the jury’s deliberations and the effort to reach a verdict. That was when the beauty and the fairness of the trial by jury seemed to shine, in spite of all the arguments and weaknesses of the system. Twelve citizens, not the lawyers, not the judge, not the motley array of witnesses, talked and weighed, and reached a verdict. Jurors had their disagreements as to what they had heard and seen in the testimony. But all adhered to the judge’s instructions to keep only to the laws pertinent to the case. The verdict finally reached seemed as fair as possible for all in the end. And I don’t think that verdict could have been reached so fairly by any of the other players in the case.
What an experience it was—this jury service—full of new insights, feelings, and mostly the understanding of what it is to be a member of a jury in an American courtroom, in such contrast to my previous perceptions from decades of reading about and watching videos of trials by jury. Regardless of all the shortcomings of the system, this real-life experience made me appreciate and value more than ever this special right we have and why we should not shirk it if we’re summoned and should not dismiss it as an institution of our free democracy. What I learned serving as a juror was fascinating to me as one who loves understanding and learning from experiencing. I recommend it for all citizens.
Thinking back to a case I once had, I wished then and even more so now that my lawyers had been able to prevail in our original effort to have my case against the government tried by jury and not by all the politically appointed judges with their possibly innate trust in the actions of government. Should any of us ever have to be involved in litigation, we should all have the right to trial by jury. And we should all honor a summons to serve on a jury if and when we are called. I will gladly agree to serve if ever summoned again. I recommend jury service as a real experience of value to any citizen in the midst of a virtual world.
Elizabeth (Liz) Colton, a former American diplomat, foreign correspondent, and professor of politics and journalism. Currently, Liz is CEO of the Dallas Committee on Foreign Relations and previously served as program-director for other American Committees on Foreign Relations. She grew up in Asheville and the mountains of Western North Carolina.