Crime, Jury Duty, New York Times, State Judges, Television, Trials

Elie Draws Jury Duty: Day One — Voir Dire

I have successfully avoided jury duty since I moved back to New York in 2003, but this week they finally caught up with me. This week, I’ve had to perform my civic responsibility of sitting in judgment of my peers (like I don’t do that enough already).

Sorry, I had to “be available” to sit in judgement of my peers. Nobody is ever going to pick me for a jury. I blog about law for a living, hold two Harvard degrees, and have a checkered past. I’m not getting impaneled. Instead, I was just looking forward to the rare business day when I didn’t have to invent an opinion or listen to “the internet” pontificate on my weight.

Then the lady who seemed to be in charge of the proceedings told me that I was looking forward to three days of that. I went to protest, but Nurse Ratched told me to sit down and wait for my lobotomy. So i started paying attention to my surroundings — because blogging is how I cope with the slings and arrows of outrageous people asking me to behave like a normal person.

I’ll deal more directly with Nurse Ratched at another time. Today I got an up-close look at the voir dire process in a criminal trial. While I was not picked, I feel like my McMurphy-esque fingerprints will be all over the case.

Let’s take a look inside our clearly broken jury system…

I’ll speak in generalities to protect the names of the innocent (and, you know, not tamper with an ongoing legal proceeding). All you need to know is that me and about 70 new friends were brought over to 100 Centre Street to serve as the jury pool for a criminal trial involving an alleged theft. The defendant was there, along with defense counsel, an assistant district attorney, and of course the judge.

As one might imagine, I make friends easily. I’m particularly good at befriending 30-45 year old white women (who treat me like their gay friend) and minorities with some college education or higher (who treat me like their white friend). But considering people had the choice of interacting with me or paying attention to jury duty, my “single serving friend” rate was astounding. Out of 70 or so people, I had some kind of conversation or interaction with maybe 30 of them over the course of five or six hours. Not quite half, but pretty good gadflying.

Based on my experience, I’m at once horrified at our criminal justice system and proud of the people who work with it every day.

I’ve organized my notes under three broad themes. The first point is the most obvious but also the most troubling.

You Are So Guilty Until Proven Innocent, But Luckily Most People Hate The System, So It Kind of Balances Out.

Once everybody was settled, the judge started with a long spiel about how the defendant is innocent until proven guilty. Later the even the prosecutor uses the phrase “innocent until proven guilty” a number of times, and I think the defense attorney was being paid by the amount of times he used the word “innocent” in a sentence.

Didn’t matter. On the walk from 60 Centre Street to 100 Centre street, people were already speculating about what “the criminal did” and expressing the hope that the criminal “did something really crazy, instead of just robbing or stabbing someone.” Most people were actively stimulated by the thought of seeing a “real criminal.” But my favorite was the lady who said: “I don’t want to sit on a criminal trial; they’re all scum anyway.”

And it didn’t stop on the walk over. When the judge told us the charges, you could see some people visibly deflated; the accused was just an average criminal instead of an interesting one. And on the lunch break, despite somewhere between two and one thousand admonitions to not talk about the case, people were asking me if I knew what the penalty was for “doing what she did.” A bunch of people moved straight past “innocence” and were speculating about her possible sentence. Yet when the defense counsel asked them if they could reserve judgement until they had heard all of the evidence, these people simply nodded.

Myself included, of course. I’m not better than anybody else. When I heard the charges and looked at the defendant, I thought to myself, “Yeah, probably, I could see a person doing that.” In fact, the only thing that made me think the defendant was not guilty was the fact she showed up in court at all. It’s the kind of crime you plead out. The fact that she was sitting there made me think that maybe there was more to her story.

Which doesn’t mean I would have voted to convict without hearing all the evidence. Because while “innocent until proven guilty” isn’t really a thought most people are capable of having in a criminal setting, “F**k the police” is a powerful emotion. There are people — and I’ll note that it’s NOT just black people and Latinos who feel like this — who simply don’t trust the system. There are people who blame the system for making them waste a day on jury duty and want to take it out on the prosecutor. As one man said, “They ain’t got no right to waste my time with this bulls**t.” Yet all of those people nodded in the affirmative when the prosecutor asked if they could convict if she proved her case “even if you disagree with the law that requires conviction.”

“Yes,” they all said. They would do their duty.

People should really tell the truth. For all the talk about “how do I avoid getting put on a jury,” it really seems that if you are just honest about your crazy prejudices, you’ll never have to worry about being put on any kind of criminal panel.

Of course, jurors being honest about prejudices isn’t what happens on the television shows all these people watch. On to my second theme….

(hidden for your protection)

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