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Blogging On History, Science, and Education

Jury Duty

Like most people who get a jury summons I had mixed feelings when mine arrived last week. Yes, trial by jury is a foundation of our democratic system of government. I know that it is my civic duty to take part in the system. But last week I also knew that I’d probably spend a lot of time waiting in a jury room and then I might be dismissed. I’m trying to finish a book; could I put up with the frustration that usually comes with anything bureaucratic?

Here’s what happened, in brief, in a Colorado county court: We began by watching a video on the history and importance of trial by jury. Yes, it was inspiring. Then we waited. I’d brought books and a notepad and found a corner where I could work. Hours later, after many potential jurors were dismissed, thirty of us were sent to a courtroom. The female judge (with long blond hair) gave us an overview of the trial ahead, introduced us to the lawyers, and thanked us for playing our part.

After some dismissals, to my surprise, I was selected to serve on a six-person jury. It was a case of domestic violence. A husband and wife, both in their sixties, well-heeled, with a long history of disharmony, had fought as they headed home from a restaurant. She wanted to get out of the car, it was dark, she’d had three drinks; he wouldn’t let her out. He held her down, bruising her arms; she bit him, drew blood, and screamed. Two witnesses arrived. He was arrested, spent two nights in jail, and was charged with third degree assault, false imprisonment, and harassment.

We heard testimony, examined photographs, and listened to a taped phone call. The story evolved in layers. Who was telling the truth? It was hard to tell.

The judge gave us 20 pages of instructions—much of it in legal language. One copy was sent to the juror’s room. We asked for six copies and got them. (The judge told us we were the first jury she’d encountered in hundreds of trials that had made that request.)

We deliberated. We sent a question to the judge. We had a hard time agreeing. Finally we made a decision based on an instruction, which we learned is rarely used. The case is being appealed and is expected to go all the way to the state supreme court. We jurors will want to see what happens when it does.

What did I take home? That justice is well served by a jury bringing their common sense and experience to the issues, tempered by instructions from the judge on the law. I saw that six people, chosen randomly from diverse walks of life, brought different insights, focused intensely, worked through serious disagreements, and found a harmonious conclusion. Yes, it made me appreciate our system of government even more than I had. By the way, the judge said that courtrooms are open the public. She wondered why more students aren’t brought to view the process.
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