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1.24.2012

Herein Do Not Fail

Those words in the title of this post appeared on the jury summons I received in the mail two weeks ago. Pretty impressive phrase, and it certainly worked yesterday, as over two hundred citizens showed up for jury selection at Jacksonville's sizable courthouse.

They were selecting fifty-three juries for twenty-five judges. We were herded into a huge room and shown a video that stated that America is one of only a handful of countries in the world that allows for citizen-judged decisions in both criminal and civil trials. We've been conducting such trials for over two hundred years, and that's a pretty impressive legacy.

I learned a lot about the justice system yesterday. It was actually kind of strange, as a I felt like I'd hooked a left right into a Perry Mason episode. We had a folksy, Southern judge who regaled us with little anecdotes throughout his lengthy instructions and (I kid you not) nodded off occasionally during voir dire (speaking the truth).

We had a long-winded session with the plaintiff's attorneys. They were roundly ridiculed for taking too long by the judge. We had a short session with the defendant's attorneys. The arguments, even during jury selection, were taking shape right before us.

Eighteen citizens were selected for questioning, and from that pool, seven would form the jury. We provided our biographies, discussed our beliefs and backgrounds, and then we were dismissed while both sides made their challenges.

I was not selected for jury duty, and I'm actually thankful for that. This trial was going to be an emotional one, and there was a lot at stake. I have no problem doing my civic duty in the interest of fairness, but the subject of this particular trial was one that would be hard for me to wrestle with objectively. We were charged with using our "intellect and conscience" in our stewardship of the verdict. Those are fine standards to apply in a case like the one were being considered for, and I'm confident that the citizens that were selected to serve throughout the rest of the week will be fair in their deliberations.

One of the most shocking aspects of the experience was the infrequent parade of prisoners, shackled together, that walked through the halls of the courthouse. I think they were being arraigned in batches. The hallway in front of the jury waiting area would periodically fill up with folks, and the prisoners would march by, shouting curse words and other affectionate greetings at their loved ones. Some folks would hold up toddlers, presumably for a glimpse at their brothers or fathers (I saw only a total of three female prisoners the whole day, and only a single woman with tears in her eyes showed up for that group).

One vocal fellow f-bombed his fellow prisoners about a dozen times, and I watched the sixty-plus-year-old woman next to me look about ready to faint. She'd been reading her Bible at the time.

One thing that became glaringly apparent was the caste system (developed out of the social elements of a culture over time) at work in the courthouse. I can't imagine a more important social institution that could (based on my tiny sample size, admittedly--it was my first time as a potential juror) be more segregated.

Perhaps it's just Duval County, but it's eye opening to see so many black defendants being represented by so many white attorneys, in front of white judges, while being escorted by black jailers.

Jury duty, on the whole, was a big, long wait. Our group watched as, over and over, juries were dismissed as the parties settled. The jurors slapped five and laughed in the hallways, thankful to be free for the afternoon.

But there was a bit of a cloud that hung over our little group. Even when they dismissed eleven of us, those sent home were subdued in the hallway. We all just left, knowing that the hardest part for those selected was still ahead, and that they had a very important responsibility in front of them for the rest of the week...

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