A jury of eleven

Recently, I engaged in one of the most important civic duties of every American: jury duty. Although I had been summoned a few times in the past, each time it merely amounted to a few hours of waiting before being told I was not chosen. Once before, I had even made it as far as voir dire; the preliminaries, as I refer to it, before being told I had been rejected again.

This time, after being selected for the first round, I, and about 40 others sat in a courtroom, as members of the prosecution and the defense took turns asking us questions regarding any preconceived biases we may have concerning the type of crime we might be judging. Without getting into the specifics of the case, I'll only say it was a felony that, upon conviction, carried up to ten years incarceration.

After whittling the 40 down to 12, those of us chosen found ourselves sitting in the jury box that same afternoon. During my police career, I had testified in front of numerous juries, but this was the first time I sat across a courtroom from a defendant I had not personally arrested. The judge briefed us on the rules of law, such as what constitutes reasonable doubt versus other possibilities that don't reach the level of culpability needed to bring in a guilty verdict. The prosecution began its opening statement with an impressive display of verbal passion and the promise of evidence that would include a video of the crime. The defense countered with some compassionate comments about the victim, while insinuating that he was partly at fault for the end result.

The next morning, when we assembled in the private jury room, we were advised that one of the jurors was called out of town suddenly for a family emergency; hence the verdict would be decided by only eleven of us. (Up to this time, I didn't know less than 12 jurors were allowed to agree on a verdict).

Soon thereafter, we began hearing from witnesses for the prosecution and we watched a video that we would see many times during the remainder of the trial. The defense didn't have much to work with, but they did as much as possible against overwhelming odds.

There was the inevitable "expert witness," testifying about the unlikelihood of the defendant being responsible for the alleged offense. However, the prosecution pointed out how much the expert was being paid to come to the court to render his "opinion."

Relatives of the defendant told us what a nice man he had always been and how he had merely made some mistakes that messed up his life.

In my opinion, the tearful moments coming from his loved ones had a lot of impact on some of my fellow jurors; perhaps on all of us. We can all feel the tugging at our heartstrings when, for example, a mother cries for a son that has gone astray. Such manifestations of love and affection make it much more difficult to be objective. Nevertheless, as the prosecution pointed out very clearly and forcefully in its summation, we must make our decision based on the evidence, personal feelings notwithstanding.

On the third day of the trial, after both sides had done what they do best, it was our turn to pass judgment on a man's life. It didn't take long to decide on a guilty verdict, but then we were told we'd be there for another day to decide on punishment. When the jury room door closed after that fourth day, each of us looked around the room, probably wondering who was going to make the first move. A motion was made and a vote was called for. Most of us agreed on a term of imprisonment, but one juror felt that a period of probation might be a better solution. After about an hour of discussion that included the defendant's arrest for a similar offense while awaiting trial for this one (something we were not allowed to know during the first phase), the lone holdout was convinced that time should be served.

After delivering the second judgment in the courtroom we assembled once more in our little conference area to await dismissal. A bit later, the judge stopped in, thanked us for our service and engaged us in humorous repartee, abandoning the stoic countenance we had observed all week from the soft-spoken, black-robed figure sitting solemnly on a lofty perch in front of the room.

We often hear about the flaws in the justice system, but, to paraphrase Winston Churchill in his reference to democracy, "it's the worst system, except for all the others."  

Bob Weir is a former detective sergeant in the New York City Police Department. He is the executive editor of The News Connection in Highland Village, Texas.  Email Bob.
Recently, I engaged in one of the most important civic duties of every American: jury duty. Although I had been summoned a few times in the past, each time it merely amounted to a few hours of waiting before being told I was not chosen. Once before, I had even made it as far as voir dire; the preliminaries, as I refer to it, before being told I had been rejected again.

This time, after being selected for the first round, I, and about 40 others sat in a courtroom, as members of the prosecution and the defense took turns asking us questions regarding any preconceived biases we may have concerning the type of crime we might be judging. Without getting into the specifics of the case, I'll only say it was a felony that, upon conviction, carried up to ten years incarceration.

After whittling the 40 down to 12, those of us chosen found ourselves sitting in the jury box that same afternoon. During my police career, I had testified in front of numerous juries, but this was the first time I sat across a courtroom from a defendant I had not personally arrested. The judge briefed us on the rules of law, such as what constitutes reasonable doubt versus other possibilities that don't reach the level of culpability needed to bring in a guilty verdict. The prosecution began its opening statement with an impressive display of verbal passion and the promise of evidence that would include a video of the crime. The defense countered with some compassionate comments about the victim, while insinuating that he was partly at fault for the end result.

The next morning, when we assembled in the private jury room, we were advised that one of the jurors was called out of town suddenly for a family emergency; hence the verdict would be decided by only eleven of us. (Up to this time, I didn't know less than 12 jurors were allowed to agree on a verdict).

Soon thereafter, we began hearing from witnesses for the prosecution and we watched a video that we would see many times during the remainder of the trial. The defense didn't have much to work with, but they did as much as possible against overwhelming odds.

There was the inevitable "expert witness," testifying about the unlikelihood of the defendant being responsible for the alleged offense. However, the prosecution pointed out how much the expert was being paid to come to the court to render his "opinion."

Relatives of the defendant told us what a nice man he had always been and how he had merely made some mistakes that messed up his life.

In my opinion, the tearful moments coming from his loved ones had a lot of impact on some of my fellow jurors; perhaps on all of us. We can all feel the tugging at our heartstrings when, for example, a mother cries for a son that has gone astray. Such manifestations of love and affection make it much more difficult to be objective. Nevertheless, as the prosecution pointed out very clearly and forcefully in its summation, we must make our decision based on the evidence, personal feelings notwithstanding.

On the third day of the trial, after both sides had done what they do best, it was our turn to pass judgment on a man's life. It didn't take long to decide on a guilty verdict, but then we were told we'd be there for another day to decide on punishment. When the jury room door closed after that fourth day, each of us looked around the room, probably wondering who was going to make the first move. A motion was made and a vote was called for. Most of us agreed on a term of imprisonment, but one juror felt that a period of probation might be a better solution. After about an hour of discussion that included the defendant's arrest for a similar offense while awaiting trial for this one (something we were not allowed to know during the first phase), the lone holdout was convinced that time should be served.

After delivering the second judgment in the courtroom we assembled once more in our little conference area to await dismissal. A bit later, the judge stopped in, thanked us for our service and engaged us in humorous repartee, abandoning the stoic countenance we had observed all week from the soft-spoken, black-robed figure sitting solemnly on a lofty perch in front of the room.

We often hear about the flaws in the justice system, but, to paraphrase Winston Churchill in his reference to democracy, "it's the worst system, except for all the others."  

Bob Weir is a former detective sergeant in the New York City Police Department. He is the executive editor of The News Connection in Highland Village, Texas.  Email Bob.