Jury duty, a curse for some, a great day or week for others. I have picked hundreds of juries in my 24 years in the prosecutor's office, and I can tell you that the attitude among jurors has changed over the last 10 years. I remember the days of people being really mad when the juror notice came in the mailbox demanding that they appear at the courthouse over a certain period of time. They whipped out the rolodex of excuses, and were fully prepared to explain why they could not sit. I think times have changed because of the media's involvement with criminal law, and I now believe that the tide has turned and more people want to be on jury duty when it comes to criminal cases.
Court TV, Law and Order, CSI: New York, and Miami, NCIS, The Good Wife and Snapped, along with all the other law shows have put criminal cases in the forefront, and most of them try to pattern their shows with actual events that are pulled from the headlines. High profile cases have become the new General Hospital and Days of our Lives and people find themselves fascinated with the lives of those involved in these cases. Print media and television have covered cases gavel to gavel, and experts weigh in on both sides in analyzing the evidence and the testimony.
Hill Street Blues, and Barney Miller were way ahead of their time. Detectives, DNA analyzers and lab technicians are now role models and their occupations have brought them into the limelight. We have become obsessed with verdict watch, and jury press conferences. Criminal law has become true theater , and you don't need a ticket, because you can sit on a jury, or just observe from the gallery.
Jury duty is similar to auditioning for a part in a movie, except you are not asked about your previous experience in film or television, but rather about your previous experience in life. Lawyers, who do not know you from a hole in the wall are then given cart blanch to stand up and ask you detailed questions about your background and your private and professional life. In criminal law, we are looking for various factors to determine whether or not we feel you are eligible to sit. Judges and lawyers are looking for fair and impartial people from the venir (fancy word for group) so that there is not a miscarriage of justice, but ultimately each side would like to have people that they believe will go back in that jury room and return the verdict that they are seeking. I have found that most people have trepidation about disclosing personal information in front of a bunch of strangers, but I think potential jurors need to realize that the answers they give cannot be what they think "each" lawyer would like to hear. This begs the question, are potential jurors saying things to stay on juries or are they saying things to get themselves purposely knocked off?
I think those of us who are veteran trial attorneys have seen people fall into both of those categories. When we are up asking questions we walk a very fine line. We have to make sure that when we dive into your past, we are not doing anything that might offend you. Just as jurors are judging the credibility of witnesses when they take the stand, potential jurors are judging the credibility of the lawyers that are up there asking the questions. Jurors are often mad when you ask them if they have ever been arrested or had dealings with the criminal justice system. The reality is that if you have had contact with system and are harboring bad feelings towards what happened to you, or to someone in your family, then we can't be sure that you will give this case a fair shake. The flip side to that is if you were the victim of a crime and your whole family is part of law enforcement, then you might think that everything that comes out of the mouth of a police officer is believable. The lawyers take the answers that are given and analyze them to determine if the person would make a "good juror for our side."
Believe me, quite often we get it wrong. We sit at the table hanging on your every word guessing whether or not you will see things our way, hoping that if you like us and our banter that you will "vote for us." Very often jurors send out mixed messages. I can't begin to tell you how many times during a closing argument jurors will be nodding their heads in agreement with me (or what I thought) only to return a verdict of not guilty. Some might wonder if people on a high-profile case want to stay on a panel in order to write a book, participate in press interviews and bask in the glory knowing that they were the decision makers in a case that captivated the world. Jurors have the most important role in the criminal justice system. I don't think people realize the incredible responsibility that jurors hold in their hands. Their decision will determine (in a criminal case at least) whether someone's freedom could be taken away. It's the best system in the world and should not be taken lightly. I only hope that when that juror notice arrives at your door, that you take your oath seriously. I hope that you won't give answers that "just sound" good, and that you will be honest with the attorneys and the court when you are questioned. Justice will not be served if you are sitting back in that jury room with secret feelings whether good or bad, that you haven't shared with the court. Remember, any failure to be candid with the court and the lawyers could result in you compromising the system, and the life of the person that is on trial.