As a fan of Court TV and Law and Order, I have said for years that I wanted to get the letter saying that I was picked for jury duty.
I couldn't believe it last month when I opened the mail and there it was.
Inside the envelope was the jury questionnaire and instructions on what do to on the designated jury selection date. I quickly filled out the questionnaire and stuck it in the mail, blocked off my day on the calendar and looked ahead to the opportunity to perform my civic duty.
I was surprised at how many people immediately offered suggestions for ways to "get out of it" when I shared my exciting news. I heard everything from a how-to on a medical excuse to suggestions on how to show prejudices and biases both on the questionnaire and in my answers in court. Some people actually seemed surprised that I wanted to do it.
In this citizen's humble opinion, our legal system only works if we participate.
On the day of jury selection, I arrived in Bellefonte with time to spare before the designated 8 a.m. start. I put the parking pass that I received on my dashboard and got in line to enter the courthouse. I stuck my bag with a book for the day through the security x-ray machine and headed up to courtroom No. 1. With some late comers and a new computer registration system in play for the very first time, we got started around 8:30 a.m.
President Judge Kistler welcomed us and indicated we would be in jury selection for the better part of the day. Through the use of humor, a bit of Centre County history, and clear instructions, he told us what to expect. He said that we needed to listen carefully to each case, even if we weren't immediately called, because we could potentially be a fill-in if another potential juror was dismissed. With butterflies in my stomach, I tucked my book back in my bag and sat back to listen.
Centre County Prothonotary Debra Immel, read the first set of names that had been randomly drawn using the new computer system. One by one, those people walked down and were then seated in the jury box and in a row of chairs inside the court area. After several were excused because of a conflict with the date of the case, the 26 or so potential jurors were selected.
A representative from the prosecutor's office then gave a brief summary of the case and the defendant was asked to stand up so that the full courtroom could see him. Lawyers from each side then took turns asking that jury pool if they knew the defendant or any of the lawyers, police, witnesses or other characters in the case.
The lawyers asked questions about the charges; for example if the case was an assault case, the jurors were asked if anyone had been or knew of someone who had been a victim of the crime. Potential jurors who did know someone or had experience with the type of case were then asked if they could be impartial. Potential jurors were also given the opportunity to speak privately with the judge and the lawyers if they had information that might potentially influence their participation in the case.
At the conclusion of the questions, the potential jurors were then taken to another room where the attorneys began the process of striking jury candidates from the small group that had been selected. Based on our answers in the questionnaires that we had mailed in, our answers in person and, most likely, how we presented ourselves in court, the attorneys passed the list back and forth, crossing out potential jurors. Those eventually selected were given a card with the date and time of the pending trial and then all were sent back into courtroom No. 1 to start the process all over.
That process was repeated 10 or 11 times that day for criminal trials and a couple of times for civil trials.
It was fascinating. I noted that people of all ages and what seemed like all walks of life were represented in the potential pool. Centre County isn't that big so there were people who obviously knew each other and sat together chatting quietly in between cases.
Ironically, only one lawyer in one case asked if any of the people selected knew each other. Across the courtroom, I saw a high school classmate, a fellow sports team parent and one of my former students. The large group started out the day pretty stiff and awkward but seemed to collectively relax as we became more comfortable with the process.
Hearing one's name called and walking down to sit in the jury box can be a bit unnerving.
As the larger group became more comfortable, we began to form smaller groups in the crowd. Someone even said "We are starting to know each others' names by hearing the names being called." Some people were called -- and selected -- more often than others.
One guy said he was unavailable every day he was called. One woman seemed to be called for every case but wasn't selected for any. Another emphatically said he could not be impartial on at least two of the cases for which he was called. Several jurors had personal connections with key people in the cases. An older gentleman was excused when he shared that he lives out of state for six months of the year.
Over our hour lunch break, I walked down to The Governor's Pub to grab a sandwich and saw several others also wearing the "Juror" button. Sitting alone at our tables, we struck up a conversation and after lunch walked back to the courthouse together. Judge Lunsford took over for the afternoon session and started off with a lawyer joke. We learned that the "next step" of jury selection had motivated one side in one case to agree to settle whatever it was, out of court.
Of the three cases for which I was called, I was selected to sit for one case later this spring. I was relieved that my name wasn't called for some of the cases that I've read about in the news. The prospect of having to decide the fate of another person's life based on testimony and facts presented is pretty daunting. The human experience seemingly makes the role of juror much more complicated than we see on TV.
It was and will be a privilege to be a part of our American justice system.
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