We The Jury

A couple of summers ago I received a jury duty summons. On the appointed date and time, I reported to the Alameda County Courthouse in downtown Oakland, near Lake Merritt.

I’d reported for jury duty before, but had never been selected. Or the pool of people called in as potential jurors was dismissed because a jury wasn’t needed after all.

Rene C. Davidson Courthouse, Oakland, California

However, on that day, people crowded into the first-floor jury room were summoned to the courtroom in groups. We were informed that this was a murder trial.

That was the reason for the large jury pool of approximately a hundred-fifty citizens. In a series of jury interviews to be held the following week, the pool would be winnowed down to twelve jurors and three alternates.

When we returned to the jury room we were given a long questionnaire to fill out. Those who felt that they had a good reason for not serving on the jury were told they would have the opportunity that afternoon to discuss their situations with the Superior Court judge presiding over the trial.

I have no objection to serving on a jury. I feel it’s my duty as a citizen. But I’d never had the opportunity before. As I filled out the questionnaire, I thought my status as a writer of crime fiction would disqualify me.

But I made the first cut and found myself in the group of approximately seventy-five potential jurors called back the following week for jury interviews.

The judge informed us that this was not a case where the jury would determine who killed the victim. One of the defendants, a young man, had indeed confessed to killing the victim, another young man.

The jury’s job was to determine whether this killing was murder in the first or second degree, or whether it was manslaughter, voluntary or involuntary. The jury would also determine whether the second defendant, an older man, was an accessory to this crime. There were various other charges against both men, involving possession of firearms, since both defendants had prior felony convictions.

Listening to the jury interviews was interesting and revealing. Some people felt that anyone charged with murder must surely be guilty of murder and that was that. Others revealed prejudices and biases that led to their disqualification. Many felt that they could be open and unbiased, making their decision on the basis of the evidence presented during the trial, despite the fact that many of the witnesses, as we were warned, had various misdemeanor and felony convictions.

When my turn came for the interview, the first thing the judge remarked on was my status as mystery writer. He asked questions about my ability to sift fact from fiction and used this as a springboard for comments about how this wasn’t an episode of Law and Order. One of the defense attorneys asked if this case would wind up in one of my books. My answer was frank, and truthful. I told the court that everything that occurs in my life is grist for the mill, and I might very well use my juror experiences in fiction.

That was the point at which I was sure I’d wind up on the jury. I was right. For the next five weeks, three to four days per week depending on the judge’s schedule, I was in that courtroom, listening to witnesses, or in the jury room upstairs with my fellow jurors, where we were under strict orders not to discuss the case.

My stint as a juror made a lasting impression on me. At the start I thought the case was going to be straightforward, another senseless killing in a rough Oakland neighborhood. But it wasn’t that simple.

I listened to the testimony of witnesses who contradicted each other, making an effort to determine who was telling the truth. I got a sobering picture of the aimless lives of many of the people involved in this case.

Then there were the crime scene photos. Those images will stay with me. They showed the damage done to a human body by a semi-automatic weapon fired a close range.

We the jury – we took our job very seriously. We were aware that we held in our hands the fate of these two defendants.

When the case went to the jury, we spent five days deliberating and discussing the evidence. The jury instructions given to us by the judge became our Bible. We figured all the information we needed was there, if only we could parse it out.

In order to come back with a verdict of first-degree murder, we had to answer yes to a set of questions. If one of the answers was no, then we were at a verdict of second-degree murder, which had its own set of questions.

If one of those parameters wasn’t met, we were then to a verdict of voluntary manslaughter. Paramount to all of this was the instruction that if we had any reasonable doubt, the defendant should be considered innocent of that charge.

None of this was easy, or cut-and-dried. That’s why it took us nearly four days to come to agreement on the first count for the first defendant. Once we had that, the other counts fell into place.

The verdict? In the case of the first defendant, guilty of voluntary manslaughter and several other charges. Later that year, he was sentenced to thirty years in prison. The second defendant: not guilty of the accessory to murder charge, guilty of several other charges.

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5 Responses

  1. Very interesting, Janet. I’ve always wanted to be part of a serious deliberation like that, and I appreciate an inside look. I wish more people as smart and grounded as you would accept the summons.

  2. Fascinating, Janet. And such a commitment to thinking clearly and justly.

    I’ve been called only once, back in the late eighties, shortly after I tripped over a neighbor’s curb and broke an ankle. I got a postponement till the cast came off. By then it was winter break at Indiana University, and so the woman who scheduled jurors had slim pickings. When I told her I still had to keep the leg elevated, she said it would be no problem–they could seat me at the end of a row. I should bring a note from my doctor and give it to the bailiff.

    I did all that, promoted a ride to the justice building because I wasn’t up to driving yet, and handed in my note. I’d scarcely sat down in the area for prospective jurors when the judge came over to tell me I was excused. “We can’t accommodate that,” he said. “Don’t worry, you’ll get your $15.”

    Sara Hoskinson Frommer

  3. Oh, I’d kill (well, not quite) for such an opportunity, but have never been called. You sounded so calm and confident, Janet. I was a bit surprised, though, that the authorities didn’t balk when you said you might use your juror experience in fiction. They were not worried that you’d say something to undermine their authority or subvert the process by writing about it? Or perhaps they hoped you would show the world how effectively the law ground its gears in such a trial… Or was it simply your honest answer that made them accept you as an unbiased, trustworthy person?

    • Nancy, after the trial was over, I spoke with one of the defense attorneys and asked him why I wound up on the jury. He said he wanted someone who would look at both sides of the story and weigh the evidence, and he thought I would be such a person. I felt that I had to give an honest answer when queried during the jury interviews. Yes, it’s possible that my experiences might wind up in a book or a story. Overall, it was a sobering experience. Real life is so much messier than fiction.

  4. I love jury duty and I’ve been on several very disparate juries over the years. First time out, in Dallas, I was on a two-day trial for fishing without a license. How could I not love the storytelling potential of jury duty after that intro?

    Nobody’s ever seemed to care that I write crime fiction, either.

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