Jury duty is essential to obtaining justice in the round, which is the title of my latest book on the American jury system (Justice in the Round: Essays on the American Jury System, Cascade Publishing House, 2015). In it I opined that the criminal justice system does not work if good people do not show up for jury duty when summoned to put their lives on hold for however long it takes to settle a dispute between their neighbors.
This week I answered such a summons to judge the factual disputes between residents of Fulton County. The summons spelled out what would happen if I did not put aside all of my business and show up at the appointed hour. A period of time in the overcrowded Fulton County Jail would have been my fate. I like to think that most people would appear without this dire warning printed on the jury duty notice.
The reality is that far too many people avoid this essential part of citizenship in a democratic society, much like, the large percentage of citizens who will not take the time to exercise their democratic right to vote.
American citizens enjoy many of the services that government provides like schools, roads, bridges and athletic arenas, but seldom get involved in making sure democracy works.
I am sure I would have appeared ready to discharge my civic jury duty even if the notice had not included the consequences had I remained at home working on the manuscript for the next book that is due out in July.
In my lifetime, I have answered the call to jury duty three times. The first time was in 1977 or thereabouts, it took the Bibb County SWAT team to get a skinny newspaper reporter into the courthouse for jury duty. You can read about the details in Justice in the Round. For now, suffice it to say the jury duty notice never came, so a judge sent his courtroom bailiff out to escort me into the courthouse for jury duty. The problem began when the bailiff arrived in my driveway in his private van without any documentation for my arrest. When the dust cleared, the judge released me from any further obligation to serve during that term of court.
Sometime in the early 1990s I was summoned to jury duty in Fulton County. A young black man named Norris Speed was on trial for the murder of either an Atlanta or East Point Police Officer. It was rumored that Speed may have acted in self-defense. The trial was expected to last three months or more. I was a relatively young lawyer running a solo practice on Peachtree Street. There was no way I would have had a practice left if I had to spend three months away from it. When I left home the morning I was to report for jury duty, my wife said to me, “You tell that judge you can’t be away from your business for three months.”
I did not tell the judge what she had said, but after defense attorney Michael Mears asked me to explain my bad encounter with law enforcement when I was called to jury duty in Bibb County, Georgia; John Turner, the Assistant District Attorney prosecuting the case, upon hearing this horrifying story decided I would not be a good person to have sitting on that jury, so I was excused.
This week’s jury duty service required me to decide whether a young black man had raped and kidnapped a young black women near the point where Ralph David Abernathy Road intersects with Martin Luther King Jr. Drive in the city of Atlanta.
During Voire Dire, the young man’s lawyer said the crime had in fact been committed at this location. Strange admissions I thought coming out of the mouth of a criminal defense attorney.
Voire Dire, a process used by lawyers to determine whether any potential juror has any biases for or against the accused, was bush league from both the prosecuting attorney and the criminal defense attorney.
First neither gave the prospective jurors much of an indication what the trial was about. Neither side explored the dichotomies that would be contested during the trial. Something I always found essential to laying out a foundation for the factual issues the jury was about to decide.
Secondly, the defense attorney did not question the women jurors about any preconceived biases they may have had whenever a man is accused of abusing a woman in the fashion the State of Georgia claimed this man had done.
Nor did they explore whether anyone had ever been raped, or in a date situation where they thought the other party crossed the line. I was not sure, but I had a vague impression that this situation involved people who knew each other. At the bare minimum it would have been helpful for the defendant to know what beliefs women brought into the courthouse with them about such matters.
It could not have been a surprise when the prosecutor asked if anyone had formed an opinion whether the defendant was guilty, that more than ten hands from the 50 people in the room went up into the air.
When I worked as a trial lawyer, I can not recall so many hands going up at one time on this question, before anyone had heard any of the evidence. Typically, one of two people will seize upon this question as their pathway back to their busy lives. Alas, such is our system of American justice.
I sat there shaking my head, wondering how so many people could already be convinced that the guy on trial had raped and kidnapped the woman bringing the charges.
Maybe he did, but there is no way of knowing this for a fact before the trial starts.
After the 50 jurors were questioned en mass, the judge placed the first six in the jury box for further questioning. He released the rest of us until after lunch.
While we were away the Heavens apparently shook. The defendant agreed to plead guilty. He was facing a life sentence plus an additional 15 years if he was convicted at trial. The plea deal called for him to receive a 15 year sentence. Upon reaching his decision to spend the next 15 years of his life in prison, the young man collapsed onto the floor. He had heart palpitations. The court was unable to immediately sentenced him to prison.
What happened next is something I never experienced when I was a criminal defense lawyer. It occurred often, but the lawyers were not invited.
Suddenly, the judge appeared in the hallway to talk with the jurors. This is usually an excellent opportunity for a judge to remain fresh in the minds of voters. He told us about the plea deal that had been struck while we were away. He said that the system had been trying for several years to give the accused a trial, but something always came up. Today, because jurors were present in the hallway to mete out justice it had helped the accused to make up his mind and accept the plea deal offered by the State.
I have no way of knowing if justice was done in this case, or if my mere presence scared the defendant into accepting the lesser of the two offers on the table. But this concluded my jury duty service. By the time the county get around to my name again, it is a good possibility that I will have reached the age for exemption. If so, I will still show up and do my civic duty to insure that those accused in our criminal justice system get a fair and just trial.
Harold Michael Harvey is an American novelist and essayist, the author of Paper puzzle and Justice in the Round. He can be contacted at haroldmichaelharvey.com.