A TRIAL CONSULTANT’S EXPERIENCE WITH JURY DUTY
Even though I spend a significant amount of time in a courtroom for my job as a trial consultant, it is rare that I have the opportunity to be on the other side of the equation and serve as a juror. I recently received a summons to appear for jury duty and I thought it would be interesting to share my perceptions from a seat in the jury pool.
My first day started with a near disaster as I left my wallet at home and I had to run back to get it. Luckily, I still made it to the courthouse on time and checked in to the large jury assembly room. Here I joined my fellow citizens to serve the people of our community. The first hour and a half was taken up with orientation by the jury services staff and one of the superior court judges. A video was shown that outlined the legal process, and I found it to be very informative. If you pay attention, you really get all of the information you need to get through the voir dire process and potentially seated for a trial.
After the orientation, I experienced the old cliché that “the wheels of justice turn slowly.” Apparently none of the courts were ready for jurors, so we sat and sat and sat. Some of the jurors started to pair off and chat about life while others (like me) kept to themselves or did work on their phones or computers. It gave me a greater appreciation for what is happening to the jurors while the attorneys are arguing motions to the judge or otherwise engaging in business from which the jurors are excluded. I understand why judges get frustrated when counsel is not prepared or leaves issues to the last minute, as jurors get frustrated while waiting and court staff bear the brunt of their frustrations.
Finally at lunch time they announced a variety of numbers of people who were chosen to participate in voir dire for a trial. I was not picked, so I was sent home for the day. It was frustrating to spend a half day waiting with no payoff, but that is an inherent part of the process.
My group was not required to come in on the second day, but I was summoned to appear again on day three. Unfortunately, there were many new people also summoned for this group. As a result, I got to enjoy the same video again, which was less engaging this time. However, I must admit I was frustrated to not know the outcome of the sample case they used as an illustration. Why did they need to leave us hanging!?! I guess they figured it could create bias if we saw a defendant found either guilty or not guilty during our orientation. I do feel sorry for the jury services staff who give the same orientation over and over, day after day.
Finally, I was called to go to a courtroom for voir dire. I was actually nervous about going through the process, and I have done it many times on the other side. This reinforced for me the apprehension many people must feel who are participating in jury selection for the first or second time. Attorneys must be sensitive to this and try to treat people with kid gloves and encourage them as much as possible to share information.
As we began being questioned, one of the issues raised was a matter about which I knew my opinion was not in the mainstream of my fellow jurors. It made me uncomfortable to admit and it took a moment for me to summon the courage to share. This points to two important considerations for attorneys conducting voir dire. First, make sure you take your time and wait for people to raise their hands. It is uncomfortable just standing there for a few moments, but it can take that long for a juror to decide to share an opinion, especially if it is unpopular. Second, encourage those with unpopular opinions or those against your client by citing people you know that share a similar perspective. This can take some of the stigma away from sharing an unpopular perspective.
One thing these attorneys did well was to use comments from one juror to encourage others to share more about themselves. Often jurors will be willing to “piggyback” on comments made by other panelists, and you should encourage them to do that.
One thing that is hard for attorneys is to cut off a juror who is clearly just speaking to hear the sound of their own voice and impress upon others how smart they are. Sometimes it is useful to hear what they have to say and judge if that person is likely to be a leader, but sometimes they are so far off topic it is clearly unhelpful. I think it is OK to cut them off and apologize for doing so, but convey that you have very limited time and want to hear from more people in the group.
Ultimately, I was dismissed from the process since my firm had done some work in the past with one of the parties, a bit of information that was not covered in any of the questions. It is important to ask jurors at the end of voir dire if there is anything they have not shared that might be relevant to trial, just to be sure nothing is left unsaid.
My tour of duty ended at the end of this day, as it was a slow week at the courthouse and my services were no longer needed. It was hard to sacrifice a couple days of work and I understand why many people are reluctant to do so, especially if they are not getting paid. But it was rewarding to do my civic duty, even if I was not able to continue through to an actual trial.