Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Civic Obligations: Reflections on Jury Duty

Over the past two weeks, I had the profound honor and privilege of serving as a juror on a first degree homicide trial here in Juneau. 

For six hours a day for the past six days, I listened with rapt attention to testimony from witnesses, scrutinized dozens of exhibits, and took copious notes knowing I would ultimately be one of twelve community members deciding whether the defendant would spend the rest of his life in prison for shooting another man in the back of the head at close range, and that it could be the most consequential decision I would ever participate in making. I came home each day drained from the focus and the gravity of it, and thought of little else since the trial started last Wednesday.

Unfortunately, the judge declared a mistrial this afternoon about halfway through the trial because of an evidentiary issue that arose unexpectedly during some testimony. Now that the trial and my role as a juror is over, I'm free to discuss the case and read about it as any other member of the public would, and I am using the opportunity to make a pitch for serving jury duty.

The amount of work that attorneys and witnesses put into preparing for trial is enormous, not to mention the victim's family and the toll the experience takes on everyone involved. Both the state and the defense were capably represented by two highly competent female attorneys, neither of whom I know personally but both of whom were a credit to our profession and the criminal justice system.

I had been watching the trial through a slightly different lens since I was the only lawyer on the jury. I was seeing the chessboard in ways perhaps the other 11 jurors weren't, and I was watching the attorneys work as a fellow professional. I could see how the story of the case was unfolding and had my guesses as to why. I took the judges' admonitions to the jury seriously and buried my face silently in my iPhone during breaks, scrolling aimlessly through old photos and trying not to think about all of the possible reasons for the numerous breaks and side-bars.

That's why the minute the evidentiary issue arose I knew it was a serious one. I knew it could likely cause a mistrial, meaning the case would have to be tried all over again from the beginning with a new jury, perhaps in a different venue. 

I felt extremely frustrated even before the judge issued his ruling, not just for myself but for everyone working on, observing, and testifying in the trial. I have litigated civil cases and I know how much work goes into preparing for and conducting a trial. The stakes are even higher when a person's liberty is on the line and a murder victim's family is relying on the criminal justice system to hold someone to account for his death.

Even though it took a lot of time and it feels like all of it was for naught, I would happily serve jury duty again. Right now in Washington, DC, our Constitution and the ideals on which America was founded are being tested in ways we haven't seen in living memory. But this week in Alaska, at least, I was humbled to play my own small role in fulfilling their promise.

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating to read the insights of a legal insider on the other side of the jury box. Thanks for giving us a peek.


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