Earlier this week I had the opportunity to serve as a federal juror. I will freely admit I was apprehensive and worried about what kind of impact my potential jury service would have on my toddler and my family. I am extremely lucky that I didn’t have to worry about my job or not earning any income during my service, unlike other potential jurors. Turns out, I didn’t need to be overly concerned or stressed.
Overall serving as a federal juror was interesting, enlightening and kind of fun. I was happy to have served and appreciated the opportunity to participate in the legal process. I was surprised at how out of body the whole experience felt. The lights in the courtroom are both bright and dim, the white noise from the ceiling, the intense concentration and the strict instructions were a lot to take in all at once.
I was very impressed with the judge in my case. He handled the court extremely well and was thorough and clear in his instructions. I was less impressed with the legal counsel on both side, but I surmise that may have been because neither side expected the case to go to trial. I could be wrong, but that was my overall impression.
In truth, I arrived about three minutes late the first day because traffic on the bridge was diverted and then I got lost trying to find the U.S. District Court House (which is not the Missouri Supreme Court as one very kind construction worker pointed me to). Luckily I found it, the elusive visitor parking lot and wasn’t the last to arrive.
Wearing black leggings, a black knit dress and a blue cardigan, I was in the top 10 dress wise. I was surprised at what people would wear to a federal court. One woman was dressed in workout clothes and had to be freezing. I am guessing some of these people thought they wouldn’t be picked based on their attire.
We waited in the Jury Assembly room and a clerk told us what she knew, which was that this current trial would last about two or three days.
At 9 a.m. we all went up to the fourth floor. At least 15 of us were crammed into one elevator on the way up. When we reached fourth floor, we were lined up randomly and given cards with our juror number up to 35, I was 8.
That meant I got to sit in the jury box. The judge came in and swore us in as potential jurors and began the vior dire. He asked initially asked us to go through the following questions on the back of our numbered cards:
- County of residence
- Time in residence of county
- Marital status
- Spouse occupation
After those questions the judge asked us other questions such as if any of us have close friends or family members who are in law enforcement, have we ever been victims of a crime, connections with drugs or drug activity, do we have any legal training or close friends or family members with training, etc. These questions took about an hour and a half.I disclosed both my media training and that a relative has a paralegal certificate.
Then we took a short recess and came back about 20 minutes later. At that point, the judge asked his final questions about law enforcement, legal connections, crime and drugs.
About a third of the potential jurors had a close friend or family member work in law enforcement or in a legal capacity and more than a third had been a crime victim or a close friend or family member had been a crime victim. Another third had some connections with illegal drugs. I thought everyone was respectful and each potential juror was given the opportunity to conference with the judge without the rest of the jury pool hearing. I appreciated the dignity that the judge offered each of us.
One of the questions the judge asked that was most interesting was, “Is there anything you aren’t telling me because you don’t think you’ll be picked as a juror?” This is when I raised my card to mention coordination of child care. The judge was kind and considerate and understanding.
It was really interesting to hear how 38 people from different counties had differences and similarities. The education levels went from a certificate of eighth-grade completion to multiple PhDs. I was surprised at how many people had connections to crime victims or had connections with illegal drugs.
Mostly I was heartened by the civility. Everyone was kind and everyone was respectful. It appeared no one outright tried to get our of jury duty, though a few people were adamant that they could not be impartial, which wasn’t without merit. Everyone laughed at the few jokes and were appropriately somber when necessary.
We were called back before lunch. That’s when it started to feel like an elementry school gym class. I very much wanted to be picked. I had overheard a clerk mention that there were other upcoming cases that would be several weeks long and given that we were selected for federal jury service, I guessed those might be more in the murder, assault and those kinds of cases, which I wouldn’t be a good fit for impartiality.
I was happy to be picked fourth and asked to sit in the jury box. Then we took a recess for lunch and when we returned the trial began.
One of the things the judge emphasized heavily was not to let sympathies or bias impact out judgement. Additionally, he emphasized how the questions or the statements made by counsel could not be considered in our deliberation. Yet, the defense tried to play on our sympathies on more than one occasion.
I was surprised at how unpolished both attorneys were in the courtroom. I didn’t expect a Law and Order level of finesse, but the defense counsel seemed flustered a few times and didn’t seem to be able to get his footing. Again, my best guess is because neither the defense or the prosecution expected this case to go to trial. I am not suggesting that counsel was unprepared or did not serve the best interest of the government or the defendant, more that it was more harried than portrayed in Law and Order type television shows.
There were also a few little mistakes that seemed out-of-place. For example, the prosecution didn’t enter a piece of evidence into the record and had to enter it after the witness had discussed it. The prosecution also didn’t ask a witness to spell their last name despite the court asking them to do so.
One piece of evidence was a video, but the audio was difficult to hear and the clarity wasn’t good enough to read lips. The prosecutor had a hard time playing the video back when the computer went to sleep and faded to black though the audio continued to play. He did not hide his frustration with the program.
As an aside, the white noise the judge used when counsel approached the bench is the exact same noise we use for our toddler’s sleep machine and it was making me sleepy on more than one occasion.
The judge asked the jury to step out a few times and each time I was grateful I’d brought some reading material in the form of a few magazines and books (though I actually over-packed). A few other jurors commented on it. I was surprised no one else brought anything.
There isn’t a clock in the jury room and most often just the hum of the refrigerator. It’s awkward for those uncomfortable with silence.
At about 4:15 p.m. the judge recessed us until the following day at 9 a.m. He reiterated that since there were only 12 of us, we all had to return. He noted that the recess wasn’t just for bridge traffic and child care, but because if we had gone to deliberation, the entire courthouse would have had to stay open, which he wasn’t willing to do. I appreciated the judge’s candor and consideration for the additional stressors of the bridge construction and added commute time. After the trial, I expressed my appreciation to the judge and fellow jurors.
One of the judges instructions was in regard to the elevator and how we shouldn’t “pass the time with any counsel” (which means even small talk) for the appearance of remaining impartial. After we were recessed, another juror and I were walking behind some witnesses and would have ended up in the elevator with them. As this might make for an awkward situation, we decided to brave te stairs, only got a little lost. But it prevented us from seeming partial. It may have been a step too far, but at least the other juror and I know not to take the stairs again.
When we returned the next morning, we received our final instructions from the judge and then heard closing arguments.
This is again, where it seemed like both counselors were not as rehearsed as they might have others been. Closing arguments were limited to 10 minutes and the prosecution overran that limit. The defense, however, misspoke and actually said, “I hope you find the defendant guilty.” He then had to walk that statement back and correct himself. I’m sure the other jurors facial expressions mirrored my own.
I found myself thinking about how long I watched the reactions of the judge, the counselors and the defendant. I tried not to overtly stare or hold eye contact. I also was cognizant of RBF and smiling too much.
Once we were sent to deliberation, the first thing we needed to do was elect a foreperson. I was happy someone else spoke up as wanting to serve in that capacity. I would have volunteered, but am glad someone else did instead. I ended up taking notes on the whiteboard. I needed to process some of the information visually and a few other jurors mentioned afterward how they appreciated it.
I was surprised that when we all voted on the counts how we voted unanimously right away, but even then we spent quite a bit of time talking it through and making sure everyone was comfortable with the verdict. We all reached the same conclusion differently and each found different aspects of the evidence to be the most relevant. I was thoroughly impressed with my fellow jurors and appreciated hearing how they reached their vote.
Ultimately, we returned to court to share the verdict. The judge read it and entered it into the record. Then it was over.
The judge was kind enough to come back to the jury room to hand out our certificates and answer questions. Again, I was impressed with the judge and how he answered our questions.
Some general takeaways:
- Dress professionally, but comfortably.
- Bring something to read (iPads and Nooks are electronic and therefore not allowed in federal court)
- Bring a snack (granola bar, apple, etc) the breaks are generous but the food options are often limited