Sunday, March 14, 2010

I Swear To Tell The Truth. Jury Duty Sucks!

by Joelle Charbonneau

Almost two weeks ago, I did my civic duty and reported for jury duty at the Chicago Criminal Court building. I’m one of those strange individuals who can’t win a raffle or the lottery to save their soul, but every year without fail I get a jury duty summons. Normally, I watch the video on how to be a good juror, I type away on my laptop for a bunch of hours, eat almost inedible cafeteria food and go home without doing anything more exciting than watching some guy picking his nose in the corner.

This time I got called to be on a jury panel. Whoo hoo. Okay, this part was kind of exciting. After all of my jury duty visits to the courthouse (and yes, there have been many) I’d never actually made it into a courtroom. This was at least different and interesting. More interesting was being read the indictment. This was a murder trial. Wow. I felt like I was in an episode of Law and Order. Pretty cool stuff.

Or not.

Funny, but once you step inside a courtroom time ceases to exist. Court time is different than regular time. It took 4 ½ hours to question 40 potential jurors. Some folks thought they were on Letterman and gave us lots of information about their love lives and their reading habits. (Male magazines were mentioned at least once…I wish I was making that up.) Some folks were quick and to the point. Others slept.

Nope. Not kidding. The woman next to me started snoring five minutes into questioning. Loudly. The prosecutor dropped his very large binder of papers to jolt her into awareness. That worked for about three minutes until she started snoring again. The defense attorney then leaned over and asked the prosecutor to drop his book again.

I have to admit that the byplay between to the defense attorney and the prosecutor during those snoring moments was interesting. Clearly, they got along. Not exactly the animosity that you often see portrayed by the two sides on television. They laughed every time she sounded like a buzz saw and raised their eyes at each other. Needless to say, that woman didn’t make it onto the jury. But I did. Not that I wanted to. I did try saying I was a murder mystery author. I even got questioned about my upcoming book and asked to give a blurb about the story….fun marketing, but it didn’t get me booted from the case.

What followed was three days of lots of waiting in the jury room followed by longer periods of time in the jury box. My fellow jurors and I arrived at noon and often didn’t see the inside of the courtroom until 3. We rarely left the courthouse before 6 or 7 p.m. (The last night was actually 1:15am, but that was after deliberations.) While I wasn’t happy about the delays or the long periods in the courtroom, I understood them. But more than one of my fellow jurors did not share my outlook. Every one of them took it as their duty to pay attention and reach a verdict, but more than one hated how long it took to question a witness. They were waiting for the rapid fire dialogue that you get on Law and Order and in the movies. They didn’t want the slow, have to connect each dot, have to verify each fact method that needs to be taken.

And that got me thinking about how false expectations were set by the fiction we see and read every day. So here’s my question to you: has the way our court system is portrayed in books, movies and on television hurt the judicial process as a whole? Do we expect the courtroom to be an exciting place filled with A-ha! and Gotcha moments? And if it isn’t what does that do to the defendants sitting on trial? Do we side with the defense when the prosecution fails to provide the entertainment we expect after watching TV on our living room couch? What do you think?

After this case, I personally think there is no less exciting place than the jury box in a courtroom during a murder trial. No matter if you are certain the defendant did or did not do the crime, you are the one that controls the next ten, twenty, fifty years of his or her life. It makes for great fiction, but in the real world, jury duty sucks.

(not) Produced by Dick Wolf


Anonymous said...

I also sat in my first jury box recently. It is absolutely nothing like television (the judge was doing paperwork with the lawyers presented their cases).

We actually found the defendant guilty of one count and innocent of the other. As the foreman, I just kept reminding people of our jobs - look at the evidence and decide if there's enough to prosecute.

No one really seemed bothered by the lack of theatrics (although it was not a murder case - theft and passing a forged document). The hardest part was for people to make a decision that could potentially send a woman to jail. No one wanted to be the one who convicted her.

I think with court, like everything else, we HAVE to remember that TV is NOT reality. The apartments aren't really that big in NYC, people can't really eat like Lorelai Gilmore and stay that thin, and court isn't really that exciting.

Paul D Brazill said...

Never done it but I'd have to have a 12 Angry Men moment!

Joelle Charbonneau said...

Karin - I was the foreperson, too. I kept reading the judges orders over and over to make sure I wasn't expressing my own opinion about how to proceed. And yes...sending someone to jail was something none of us wanted to do...but we ultimately had to make that choice.

Paul - I REALLY wanted a 12 Angry Men moment...after 7 hours of deliberation I thought we might get one. Maybe next time.

Kathleen A. Ryan said...


Loved your post. Jury duty is nothing like we see on TV & in movies (as the snorer found out!). I served, too, after they allowed cops to serve on juries. It was a civil case (a car accident), and I tried to tell them I used to assign the apparent contributing causes to accidents when I handled them in the street, but both sides wanted me. It was an interesting experience, and luckily it didn't last long at all.

I enjoyed the clip ~ thanks for including it ~ it was perfect for your post.

Congrats on completing your civic duty! Enjoy your time off 'til you get your next summons!

Mona Risk said...

I received my first jury duty two months ago and thorouly enjoyed myself the whole time observing and taking notes. I made it to the courtroom but when the defense lawyer told me: you will declare him not guilty, I threw a sidelook at the defendant. The lawyer said you hesitate? and didn't choose me.

Debra St. John said...

I actually got called for jury duty for the first time this past fall.

I actually had a legitimate conflict that day, so I scribed my required excuse and asked if I could get called in the summer instead...

We'll see what happens!

Cindy Shipley said...

I have been on 2 trials. One disorderly conduct and the other a rape trial.
The jurors on the rape trial were a bit disconcerning. The minute we got into the jury room they wanted to vote and go home with no discussion. This was disheartening to me. As a juror we have a duty to the defendent and the victim to take time to review the case and make sure that we make the right decision, to the best of our ability, not just vote because we don't want to come back another day.
If I am ever on trial (don't plan on it) I am not sure that I will trust the jury to make the right decision after serving on one.
I do believe that sometimes the judicial system does fail.

Joelle Charbonneau said...

Kathleen - Funny you mention the next summons. My husband just received his in the mail last week. I only wish I made that up!

Debra - you'll have to let me know if you get called again. I deferred once when my son was just born and my father was going through chemo. They gave me six months before sending the next notice.

Mona - Hmmm..I'll have to try that trick next time!

Cindy - WOW! Your jury was different than mine. Our group really wanted to go home, but we wanted to make the right decision more. I don't know how I would have done on the rape jury you served on. That sounds tough!

Steve Weddle said...

Never been on a jury but I've seen, and I'm estimating here, about 17-gazillion trials, mostly felonies.

As a newspaper guy, I can tell you that prosecutors, defendants, heck, even judges, tend to get along -- at least as I've seen it. I've seen cases in many different counties/districts/circuits.etc, and getting along is the rule, not the exception, in the non-phony world.

The reason is that day-in and day-out, they have to work together. They have to make deals with each other. They have to trust each other enough to work on plea bargains every single day.

Sadly, I'll never have the patriotic honor of serving on a jury. They don't like having newspaper people on the inside. We're a sneaky bunch.

Mary Marvella said...

I've appeared for jury duty several times. I was even questioned once, but I didn't make it because one of the lawyers moved around and postured so much I couldn't hear his questions.

Anonymous said...

Dear Joelle,

No surprise you were the foreman!

My one experience was in civil court. We hung around all day and then were told the parties settled.

Thanks for sharing your experiences and for the clip!

Deb G.