Probably the most important protection every citizen in the country has against tyrannical government is the constitutional right to trial by jury by one’s peers. I personally have developed a great respect for juries and the everyday citizens who comprise them. Over my years as a prosecutor, I came to the conclusion that juries almost always get it right; sometimes for the wrong reason, but nevertheless, the right verdict was reached. For most persons who actually serve on a jury, I think it is one of the unique and special events of their life. Over the years, I have met many people who said to me, “I was on the jury once when you were the prosecutor.” After some questions, we concluded that it was 15 to 20 years in the past and the facts of the case are still clear in their minds.
The group of citizens who are summoned to appear as prospective jurors is called the venire, a group called by lot from the list of registered voters in the county. Usually about 30-40 are called and gather in the courtroom, receive their instructions from the court, and are subjected then to the questioning of the trial lawyers.
This questioning is called the voir dire. As the questioning proceeds, it is clear that some of them will say anything in hopes of being excused, some are basically straight forward, and others for their own reasons, really want to be on the jury. Both sides are suspicious of the latter group. Experienced trial lawyers pretty quickly figure out which ones are which.
Some change their attitude for various reasons. My favorite is a case in which a rather non-descript woman was being questioned and showing no appetite whatever for jury service. The defense lawyer, encouraged by the thought of a less-than-hanging juror, made a statement to her comparing the low compensation paid by the county per diem for jury service. With that, her eyes rolled, she hesitated, looked at him, and said, “you mean we get paid for this?” Upon his acknowledgement, her attitude changed at once, she was so cooperative, she said all the right things, and was accepted.
After the jury is finally selected and trial begins, the lawyers pay attention to the jurors hoping to get some indication of their reaction to the testimony of key witnesses, as well as exhibits, photographs, etc. Once the evidence and arguments are complete, the judge charges the jury on the law which controls the case and sends them off to deliberate.
Time never seems to pass as slowly as it does when a jury is deliberating. There are betting pools among the lawyers on which juror will be elected foreman and the time it will take to reach a verdict. The jury always seems to go out in mid afternoon, particularly if it’s on a Friday and the lawyers are anxious to get started on their weekend. The judge usually waits until about 6 p.m. to send them out to dinner at one of the local restaurants, on the county, and in the custody of the bailiff.
The tab is on the county and is charged to the court costs. We always looked at the tab while the deliberations continued and found it amusing that for 12 jurors and one bailiff, the bill was something like six BLT’s, six cheeseburgers and one T-Bone (rare). Not hard to tell which one was the bailiff. Almost always, the jury would return its verdict within a half hour of returning from dinner. Some contend that was because they just wanted a free meal. I thought it was because they had had an hour and a half to quietly think about the case without having two or three conversations going on, like there usually is in the jury room.
Eventually, the bailiff opens the doors to the room in which the lawyers are waiting and announces, in overly loud tones, “Showtime fellas, in court in five minutes.”
It was always a dramatic moment when the court, after examining the verdict forms, called for the defendant to stand, face the jury, and for the bailiff to read the verdict. Upon hearing the verdict, one set of heads hung down, and one set looked skyward, and breathed a big sigh of relief. The judge then thanked the jury for its service, excused them, remanded the defendant to jail, or sent him on his way a free man. The judge usually departed rather quickly leaving jurors, lawyers, court personnel, and spectators milling about free at last to talk to each other. At this point, some lawyers, being now free to communicate with the jurors, quizzed them about their thoughts. Sort of, how did I do, didn’t you believe my eye witness, it was the other guy who did it, etc.
I never did that because jurors being who they are, essentially very nice people, I felt that they would only tell a lawyer what they thought he wanted to hear, not what they really thought.
Moral of the Story: Don’t worry, the jury will get it right.
Lawrence S. Huffman is an attorney in Lima and occasional columnist for The Lima News.