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Jury Duty

Friday, March 1, 1996 by Dave Winer.

Good Morning!

My friend Sylvia says that DaveNet is my personal journal. How true! When I want to remember what I was doing in a given month I can just open up the DaveNet website and have a look. All the memories come spilling back! It's cooool.

This week I had a personal experience. Called for jury duty. Courtroom, jury box. Judge, clerk, bailiff, stenographer. The People point a finger! The defense rises, the defense rests. We talk, we're locked. We come back. Talk, compromise, decide. Guilty! Return to normal life.

I had been called before, but had never served. This time I had no hardship to argue. My financial future wouldn't be threatened. I'm a writer, my raw material is experience. I was probably the only juror who could stay on the job doing jury duty.

At the end of the trial, the judge lifted our gag order. I told my fellow jurors I'd be writing about this. I'm not sure if any of them will see this report. I hope they will.

Doing my job Permalink to Doing my job

It's a driving-under-the-influence case. A hundred candidates. They interview each of us.

Almost everyone wishes they didn't have to serve. If you insist, they will let you off.

I'm a magazine writer and software developer. I have experience with drunk driving, I was in a horrible car accident as a child. A drunk driver was responsible. Would this interfere with my ability to make a decision? Honest answer: absolutely not.

A doctor's wife, married 55 years. The judge asks what's the secret? One day at a time.

A man who is obviously an alcoholic. He sometimes drives after having a few drinks, but it's not a problem, because he doesn't drink too much. He's excused, immediately.

The trial Permalink to The trial

The trial starts. The courtroom is a respectful place. The judge is our teacher. A deadpan face. No emotion shows. The attorneys treat him with incredible respect. Your honor, may I do this? May I do that?

The job of the court is to teach the jurors how to do their job. It isn't so much about the facts, in the end, it's about impressions. They train us to be jurors. They evoke our emotions, our experiences. They spin us, this way and then that way. Three perspectives offered: pro, con and justice.

Each time we file in and out of the courtroom the district attorney rises to greet each of us. I avoid eye contact. We've been instructed by the judge not to communicate with the attorneys.

Both attorneys lie to us in their opening and closing remarks. I catch them playing with our minds. I wonder if the other jurors catch on. I wonder what tricks I might be missing. I try to make eye contact while they're speaking. Can't do it!

It's like a political debate, with no time limits. They go on and on. My head nods. I wonder if lawyers know that they're such hypnotic speakers? Yes, I believe they know this. I find it ironic that so much of the process is designed to put you to sleep. Could we safely and prudently operate a motor vehicle in this mode? No way.

I have seen so many courtroom dramas on TV. It's startling to realize that I am the jury this time! Have you ever driven an English car? Until you sit on the other side, you don't realize how much you depend on the rear-view mirror. Same in a courtroom. On TV your perspective is inside a camera. I'm watching this case from a different perspective. Where's the jury? Uhhh. Wow! It's inside of me.

Outside the courtroom, family dramas. Parents getting divorced. Lots of yelling. Kids roaming the halls, some playing, some not doing as well. I smile at them. Turn on the high beams! Smile kiddies, there is hope. Please don't give up!

Inside the courtroom I am silent. I never speak or whisper. I feel self-conscious when I look at my watch. It's unusual for me to be silent for so long, but I didn't find it difficult. Surprisingly so.

Until the defendent took the stand I was undecided. The defense attorney examines his client. She's intelligent. I tune into body language. Cold. She's not outraged to be here. She never looks at the jury. I try to make eye contact. She's not even in the neighborhood of eye contact.

She's fearful, that makes sense. But it seems that fear is a comfortable thing for her. Her speech patterns become an issue. She says "I always talk in a deliberate fashion." I agree.

She's lying. She's not subtle. But she falls short of calling the other witnesses liars. Was she weaving? The policeman is exaggerating. Did she hit the center divider? She doesn't recall. Ear infections explain her lack of balance. She was very tired. So many explanations. Her credibility is the only issue. And she can't look at us.

I grew up around alcoholism, I think I can see it.

I believe the woman was intoxicated. Impaired.

We're lucky she didn't kill someone with her car that night.

With all due respect, I am sure she did it.

The deliberation Permalink to The deliberation

The judge reads our instructions. Explains what we have to decide. What we're allowed to consider and not consider. The language is fairly plain, but also well-rehearsed. I try to keep up with him, but find myself slipping. I imagined that court cases were fought over every word. The lawyers read along carefully.

The bailiff leads us to the jury room. We talk. We go around the room. Everyone talks. Some believe her, most don't. Take a vote. Guilty, 8-to-4. We argue. Lots of yelling! Votes change. Within a couple of hours it's 11-to-1. The judge calls. Let's go home and come back tomorrow. We do.

While the trial is going on I barely got to know my fellow jurors. By the time the first two-hour session is over they became my family. Leaving them leaves me with the same sad unresolved emptiness that leaving home, usually in a hailstorm of yelling, used to give me when I was in my teens.

The next morning we go over it and over it. Offer the not-guilty-voter a chance to convince the rest of us. We explain in careful detail how each of us arrived at the guilty decision. Silence. We don't know what to say. Someone notices that her license plate is LOV 2SU. Is it a vanity plate? What goes around comes around. We laugh! Ain't it the truth.

More silence. Take another vote. It's still 11-to-1. We tell the judge. Break for lunch.

As we file out of the courtroom, the door behind the judge's desk is open. He's sitting in a wheelchair! Wow.

When we come back from lunch it's still 11-to-1. We vote on it, we're a hung jury. The foreperson prepares the note to tell the judge we're deadlocked. We call in the bailiff. We look at the one. He says he may change his mind. The bailiff goes out, the door closes. He asks us to tell our stories again. We speak softly this time. No yelling. Our stories have evolved. Lots of eye contact.

The vote changes. It's unanimous now. It's not a cheerful moment. But it's a real moment. We write the note. We wait. We talk.

Now we find out who we are, what we do. Lots of personal stuff came out during the deliberation. Someone calls me a troublemaker. With an affectionate smile. Right on! Yes ma'am. Thanks!

We file back into the courtroom. The verdict doesn't surprise them.

The district attorney stands as we leave, tries to make eye contact.

As I drive home, I'm sorry it's over.

Dave Winer

© Copyright 1994-2004 Dave Winer. Last update: 2/5/07; 10:50:05 AM Pacific. "There's no time like now."