by Colleen Smith Armstrong
It’s one of the most dreaded pieces of mail you can get: a jury summons. With a grimace, you think of what that little postcard means – time off work, rearranging appointments and having to take the ferry to Friday Harbor.
I receive a jury summons every year or two, but the cases have been settled before I’ve had to actually make the trek to the courthouse to sit before a judge.
Not this time.
On a cheery Monday morning last week, I set off to be a part of the great American legal system. Along with more than 30 other islanders, we were interviewed by the prosecution and the defense on a range of topics during the “voir dire,” which refers to the process of determining your suitability to serve. Did we know the defendant? The victim? Had we been involved in an assault? A burglary? Were we or anyone we knew the victim of domestic violence? Did we own firearms? Did we think firearms should be legal? How did we feel about the local deputies?
As you could have guessed, this was a criminal case, and we were told the defendant was innocent until proven guilty by the jury.
We had to answer the questions truthfully. And if the answer was too private to share in front of others, we could ask to meet with the judge and lawyers alone.
Once you start voir dire, you must be escorted by a bailiff at all times – even when using the restroom. You also can’t use a cell phone or talk or text to anyone about the case or search the internet to answer questions.
Ultimately, I was excused from serving, but the six-hour process of selecting the jury was fascinating. I realized that the concept of “a jury of your peers” is the most important aspect of the court system. Serving as a juror shouldn’t be thought of as an inconvenience. Your participation on a jury will impact a human being for the rest of his or her life.
In the United States, anyone accused of a crime punishable by jail time has a constitutional right to a trial by jury. Each court randomly selects citizens’ names from lists of registered voters and drivers licenses for the jury pool. Those selected complete a questionnaire to help determine if they are qualified to serve. Those people are then randomly chosen to be summoned to appear. The point of this to make sure that a wide range of community members are represented.
When a jury is needed for either a civil or a criminal trial, the group of potential jurors is taken to the courtroom where the trial will take place. The judge and the attorneys then ask questions to determine their suitability to serve on the jury. Common reasons to be excused from serving include knowing someone involved in the case or having a strong prejudice about an issue in the case.
If you are chosen to be one of the 12 jurors (with one alternate) you will listen carefully to the court proceedings and hear evidence and testimony from both sides. A jury is responsible for “finding the facts of the case” and making a decision in accordance with the rules of law. If a guilty verdict is reached, a judge will decide the sentence.
According to the Unites States Courts’ website, “Jury service is one of the most important civic duties you can perform. The protection of rights and liberties in federal courts largely is achieved through the teamwork of a judge and jury.”
Next time you get that summons in your post office box, I hope you consider it a meaningful opportunity.