Tuesday, December 7, 2021

Jury Duty: Voir Dire

 I was called for jury duty and selected. I am free to discuss the case and thought to do so. 


I started with enthusiasm. I felt that jury duty is the very literal least that our society asks of us and I tried to make a point of being happy to serve, rather than trying to get out of it. I also had some idealism left in me about more perfect unions and other American exceptionalism. I was interested in seeing how reality matched my perceptions. 


This was a lengthy process and will take several posts. The initial jury interview (voir dire) was over Zoom; the case itself was in person at the courthouse. Everyone I talked to, including bailiffs , liked the Zoom voir dire for being more efficient and giving more time to prepare and want it to become a permanent part of jury selection. This trial took place in Seattle, Washington. What I experienced was likely specific to the court system and state I'm in, and I would expect many things to be very different from state to state. However, I also think there are broad conclusions about the criminal punishment system and jury duty that you can probably draw regardless of jurisdictional differences.  


The prosecutor starts with a statement that he and the defense want the same thing: a fair trial and impartial jurors. He begins his questions by asking us about a hypothetical hit and run. How much evidence is enough? One eyewitness? Two? Three? What would we need? One juror - there are like 50 of us, and that's just the first batch of the day, so I don’t remember who - says forensic paint matching . I find this faintly ridiculous and think it means the juror watches too much CSI. I say video footage. The prosecutor asks, to everyone, if we have an expectation that everywhere is recorded. What if there is no video? Is it possible to convict without video? Raise your hand if you can’t convict without video. I don’t think any hands are raised.  


He switches for a second. He asks specific jurors about their responses to the survey we were all sent. Do you feel strongly about cops? Many people say they don’t trust cops. I wonder if this is a change he had seen in his profession over the past five years. He moves to strike, the judge or the defense attorney intervene and press, the juror admits they can give a fair hearing to both sides. This happens several times. I distantly wonder if this is a strategy for people to get themselves excused. Some people certainly seem sincere. One juror - an older man - seems bored, with his head held in his hands as he listlessly answers questions about his precise reasons and extent of distrusting cops. (Something about how there are enough bad cops that cover for each other).  


Another switch. The prosecutor now asks us all “I want you to think about a specific memory, good or bad. Do you remember all the details from the day of that memory?” He picks one woman who says the day she learned her father dies. She remembers specific moments but not others. She doesn’t remember the day before. He picks another woman who says the night her house burned down. She remembers details. She doesn’t remember the day before. It seems to me less like a screening question and more like a push poll , a way to indoctrinate us into a belief favorable to his case. The prosecutor opens it up to all of us again: “what do you think we learned about memory?” 


The defense begins. “I want to hear from you more than you hear from me”. She asks us if we could ever imagine ourselves committing a crime, then if we could imagine falsely being accused of one. Many people do not raise their hands for the first one but I do. Many more raise their hands for the second one (I do too).  She asks me directly about my response. I say I could accidentally hit a pedestrian with my car tomorrow. She asks about circumstances in which we could be falsely accused. I think of the Newburgh 5 and answer a government sting. Other people give answers like people with a grudge, etc.  


She asks if she should be worried that the jury pool was mostly white because the defendant was black and several people said no. "Seattle isn't like that" "Lots of people work for large corporations and go through sensitivity training". I can't help myself and raise my hand to say I would be very worried. She asks me to elaborate. I say if I were the defendant and sitting next to her I would be terrified to be judged by a group of people who look nothing like me and who likely didn't share my life experiences. The next juror says she disagrees with me and that we can't tell what people's life experiences are from the color of their skin. A black juror speaks and says she is shaking in her boots to hear all of the white people say Seattle isn't racist, and says every time she walks into a store she is racially profiled and followed.  


A few people are obviously dismissed. A lawyer, someone who knows a witness and has a "strong opinion" about the witness, and the woman who spoke up about being racially profiled because she has been the victim of crimes similar to those in the case. I am surprised to be selected, but within a day informed through email I will be reporting to the courthouse for at least the next two weeks from 8:30am to 4pm.