Peg worked for a global telecom company as a project manager traveling the US. She owned her own business and worked in a variety of fields.
Sitting in judgment of a fellow human can be a daunting experience. A jury's verdict can impact someone's life from that moment forward. One of the challenges and privileges of being a citizen is the responsibility of serving on a jury. Often, we're called to that task when it's least expected and sometimes when it's inconvenient.
In America we have the freedom to choose where we work, where we worship and where we live for the most part. We can speak unkindly of our leaders without retribution, most of the time. We can elect to vote or not to vote. And we can elect not to serve on a jury when called, but not without serious consequences.
It's happened again. A yellow postcard arrived in the mail with a summons for jury duty. It always sends a jolt down my spine and a vague sense of foreboding when I receive an official notice, somewhat like looking in the rear view mirror and seeing flashing blue lights.
What if it turns out to be a lengthy trial like the O.J. Simpson debacle that lasted eleven months? Could you imagine missing work for that long? Or having to travel everyday to the courthouse listening to hours of testimony?
Failure to Appear
When I received the summons to report for jury duty years ago, my reaction was predictable. I was aggravated about having to adjust my schedule and worried about falling behind at work in a fragile corporate environment ripe with layoffs. People offered advice on how to get out of serving.
Some suggested that I ignore the summons. Others said when questioned, to behave like a bigot to be dismissed from the panel. The department manager told me to ask to be rescheduled. Despite the discouragement of my coworkers, I was determined to show up at the appointed time.
No Need to Appear if You're Deceased
Exemptions from Jury Duty
- Students enrolled full time in high school or college
- Primary caregivers for an invalid who is unable to care for him/herself (This does not include health care workers.)
- Those serving on active military duty deployed outside of Collin County
- Officers or employees of the Senate, House of Representatives, or any department, commission, board office, or other agency in the Legislative branch of state government. (This does not include Law Enforcement Officers.)
- Someone who has appeared for a jury summons within the past thirty-six months
- A person who is seventy years or older who would like to claim a permanent exemption
When the day arrived I drove thirty-five miles in rush hour traffic to the courthouse where parking was practically non-existent. By 8:00 am I was in the designated jury call area surrounded by a room full of my peers. Most sat nervously awaiting whatever would happen next.
Moments later the bailiff arrived and stood behind a podium at the front of the room. He called for anyone who thought they had a valid reason not to serve to come forward. A number of people made a beeline to the front with their reasons for not wanting to serve. Those with excuses that met the limited criteria walked out of the room one by one until the rest of us had little hope for a reprieve as our numbers grew smaller.
Soon, my name was called along with fifty-four other prospective jurors. The judge told us to report to Courtroom Four where we entered single file into the cavernous, deathly quiet room. The Bailiff instructed us to call out a number in sequence as we took our chairs in a row.
Those with numbers less than thirteen stood a strong chance for selection in this trial where twelve jurors would be chosen. The defense attorney and prosecuting attorneys took their turns asking questions of the group while we had our first look at the defendant seated across from us. One woman, clearly trying to get out of serving, admitted to having prejudice that most would be ashamed of telling anyone in private. She wasn't chosen.
The prosecuting attorney asked each of us the same question which was, "If, after the presentation of evidence would you be able to come to a conclusion of guilt and sentence this person to serve time in jail?" I answered yes along with the others.
The Old Collin County Courthouse
As we sat nervously in the jury box, the defendant looked at each of us in turn. When her eyes met mine, I felt the heavy burden of the task ahead. She'd been accused as an accomplice to armed robbery. If she was found guilty, her life would never be the same again. The fate of this young woman rested in our hands and our hearts.
Despite my wishes and hopes that the panel would be filled before they got to me, I was selected to serve. I prayed that I could fulfill this role and that I would prove adequate to the task.
I prayed for the jury to be filled with reasonable and prudent people who would take this duty to heart. I wondered what would happen if I were in her place. Would a jury of my peers pay attention to the monotonous details of events long past?
Being Called as a Witness was Different
Years earlier, when I worked as a bank teller, I'd been called to court as a witness in a criminal case involving kidnapping and extortion.
One of my customers withdrew a large amount of money from her savings account. I was questioned about her demeanor during the transaction. She had appeared somewhat stressed and nervous while she stood at my teller window. I checked her balance, which at the time was printed out daily on green bar computer paper at the credenza behind the teller line. We were required to write down any transactions on the page next to the customer's balance. For withdrawals exceeding a certain limit, we needed a bank officer's signature to proceed. Thankfully, that day I'd followed the procedure.
Later that day, the woman claimed to have been coerced into withdrawing the money. She reported to the police that her husband had been kidnapped and held captive while she was forced to pull out the funds.
The Witness Wearing an Orange Jumpsuit
As the trial progressed witnesses were called to the stand to give their testimony. One was the ex-husband of the woman on trial. He was marched into the courtroom in an orange jumpsuit, handcuffed and wearing leg irons. He had already been convicted for his part in the same armed robbery.
During the trial, we were shown graphic photos of domestic abuse that the defendant suffered at his hands. She testified that he forced her to go along in the robbery of their neighbor at gunpoint, or else. Her plea of not guilty and her defense was based on Battered Wife Syndrome. When her ex-husband was questioned about abusing his wife he stated under oath, "Well, someone had to straighten her out."
The Prosecuting Attorney had a terrible cold. Throughout the trial he sniffled constantly which was a distraction difficult to tune out. It was a challenge to pay attention to his presentation rather than his frequent nose blowing.
The trial dragged on for a week, during which I caught myself dozing off at times especially after lunch. Sometimes, even the judge nodded off as well.
When we were finally charged with instructions by the judge and sent to the jury deliberation room, each of us questioned our ability to filter through all the lies in the testimony to sort out the believable and come to a reasonable conclusion based on the evidence.
The jury found her not guilty. I hope we were right.
Folsom Prison Blues - Johnny Cash
© 2010 Peg Cole