Re: Jury Duty

Someone commented that they were really dreading having to do jury duty. I think if you go with the attitude that you’re going to be doing something different for that day, it will be a positive experience. I live pretty close to downtown (when I originally wrote this post), where the courthouses (of all levels of government) are located and work downtown too, so I’m always interested in meeting people from the outskirts of the city, who usually don’t have a clue about much of downtown, so they don’t have any idea where to go to eat or even what most of the buildings are.

But even more importantly, I think you have to feel good because you are doing a service for your city, state, or country, which really is the basis of what the judicial system of this country was founded on: that even though we can be charged by law enforcement for a crime, it is really a group of our peers who decides whether we are guilty or not. This system is a rarity in the world, even in countries that we consider “free countries”. In most countries, one judge or a panel of judges decides the verdict. Think how bureaucratic that must be, when day in and day out these same judges are deciding the fates of people. Here in our country, each jury is fresh and unique, making a decision about another citizen’s innocence or guilt. (Think if you or your husband or wife or child were the defendant in a case. Would you rather have a judge who hears cases day-after-day-after-day decide your fate? Or would you rather have a group of fellow citizens who are listening to your case and only your case decide your fate?)

Something that was explicitly told to us, even before we were even put into a panel from which the final jurors were chosen: that the defendant is innocent until the state (or in this case, the city) proves beyond a reasonable doubt, that he is guilty.

That is also something different in many other types of judicial systems around the world–in some, the defendant must prove his innocence!

Fortunately, the process of what we would be doing that day was explained to us very clearly before anyone was selected for a panel (the larger group from which the actual jury is chosen).

What is unfortunate is who actually shows up for jury duty. The law says the defendant’s fate will be decided by a jury of his peers. Houston is a very multi-cultural city, and I would guess that the average age of all the residents is around early 30s. I’m also of the understanding that all residents who are citizens receive a jury summons from time to time. So who shows up for jury duty? The morning I went, there was a small group who appeared, less than20. The most surprising aspect was the age; the average age was at least 50, if not older. More than half of the group were white (non-Hispanic whites make up about 1/3 of the population of those who live inside the city limits), about 30 per cent were black, with the rest a sprinkling of Hispanics. Then when we were selected to be in a panel and went to the courtroom for the final jury selection (there were 14 of us), we were interviewed and had to tell our occupation. Twelve of the fourteen were either white-collar professionals or retired white-collar professionals or housewives (elderly housewives at that–nothing against their age, but how many others had decided not to show up?). In the end, six of us were picked for the jury, and the defendant in this case was an 18-year-old Hispanic guy. Of the six of us, there was one young woman, whom I estimated to be around 32 to 35 years old. As far as the rest, at 58, I’m sure I was the youngest of this group; as far as ethnicity, 3 white, 2 black, and 1 Hispanic. But I don’t think in the end, any of us felt as if were a peer to this 18-year-old defendant.

It’s a shame that others won’t go. It’s understandable in some sense because people who are self-employed or work by the hour probably will lose a day’s pay if they go to jury duty–you get $6 for a day of municipal court duty in Houston, Texas.

But it’s also what makes our system of government work. I think if those people who avoid going would just go, they would understand that better. It’s really part of the system that we say we believe in–as Americans–we say we love our democracy. Jury duty is really where we can truly be part of that democracy. We citizens make decisions that help make the whole system work. Think about that the next time you avoid going to jury duty by making some excuse.

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