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February 08, 2007

Truth, Justice, and the American Way

I was on jury duty yesterday.  It’s an encouraging experience, at least here in Vermont.

First thing that’s impressive is people’s willingness to do this.  In theory it’s not voluntary; you get a summons and you can be fined if you don’t show up. In practice, it’s obvious to everyone in the selection pool for each jury that the “wrong” answer to a screening question’ll get you thrown off the panel in a New York minute.

“Does anyone know Officer Smith?”  Of course everyone from her home town knows her plus the people she went to high school with and the people whose kids are on the same hockey team as her kids.  Moreover, this being rural Vermont, there’s a good chance that at least one member of the jury pool is a cousin by blood or marriage.

“Do you think your having gone to the senior prom with Officer Smith will make you treat her testimony any differently than you would the testimony of say the defendant here who is accused domestic violence?”

“No.”  Only lawyers and bloggers use a lot of words in Vermont. Some people struggle with themselves and then say “yes, I think I would be influenced” but it’s clear most people are trying NOT to be disqualified most of the time. It’s certainly not for the $15 - $30 day you can get if you ask for it and if your employer doesn’t pay you for time away.

Another impressive thing was the definition of “reasonable doubt” the judge gave us in our briefing: “a reasonable doubt is one you can articulate, at least to yourself.” That works for me.

Never realized it but the court INCLUDING THE JUDGE stand for the jury.  That’s a nice tradition.  Helps make up for a lot of boring waiting while the lawyers debate this or that in chambers and the court (there’s only one judge sitting in the county) issues warrants and other stuff unrelated to the case at hand.

Case I was on yesterday was just a civil case and no great sums or obvious principles at stake.  In fact, New York lawyers bill more per hour than the $12 thousand plus at issue in this whole one-day case (which obviously had lawyer time before). We listened attentively to more detail than we thought we needed. You can’t say that, of course, and you can’t ask the questions YOU want answers to (that part’s hard, especially for an ex-CEO). 

Every witness contradicted himself to some extent (good lessons in there for a mystery writer) and two of three witnesses contradicted their own depositions. You quickly learn that probably doesn’t mean that they’re lying, just that they’re human and also that there’s some tendency to put yourself in a good light and give the answers you think are wanted.  It was also almost three years since the accident at issue happened.

It was getting to be supper time when we were finally “given the case” and sent to the jury room with fairly explicit instructions on what questions we had to answer and how we were to apply the law in determining the facts. A few people needed to have the clerk make quick calls to arrange for kids to be fed and dogs to be let out.

After about half an hour of discussion of the evidence, eleven of twelve jurors were in agreement.  The twelfth disagreed on principle although not on fact.  The parties in our case had agreed to require a unanimous verdict which is not always the procedure in a civil case. Ominously, the judge’s instructions didn’t say what would happen if weren’t unanimous. I assume we would have been able to leave at some point put we were trying hard to reach agreement.

People got a little testy with the holdout but not so rude that positions became impossibly entrenched.  The resolution was to send a note to the judge asking whether we were allowed to consider the principle espoused by the holdout.  The holdout seemed as relieved as everyone else that the answer was “no”.

We were out of there feeling we’d done a good day’s work.  Next week I’m on the jury for a criminal case but not allowed to talk about that one yet.

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