Source: USA Today
By: Paula Carter, Opinion contributor
Jury duty is not a punch line. I helped decide a case about police, a black driver and a traffic stop, and I never felt more significant as a citizen.
The night before I had jury duty, I contemplated searching online for tips on how to get out of it. I knew from pop culture that this was the thing to do.
In “30 Rock,” Liz Lemon dresses up like Princess Leia when called to serve so she will seem insane and be dismissed. In Milton Bradley’s The Game of Life, if you land on jury duty, you lose a turn. Without any reflection, I had come to believe that jury duty was a pain and something most people tried to avoid. It was for suckers.
Then I served on a jury, and my perspective changed.
A quick search on social media for #voting reveals threads about the importance of voting, while searching #juryduty returns posts about the joys of being released from jury duty. As the midterm elections approach, voting is the civic responsibility capturing everyone’s attention and admiration. But jury duty is characterized as something to be avoided at all costs. How is it that we have come to see these two ways of participating in government so differently?
Jury duty shouldn’t be a punch line
When I was called to the criminal court of Cook County, Illinois, I was selected to serve from a group of people looking bored and annoyed and sent to a cramped jury room with a water cooler that was out of water. My fellow jurors were from all over Chicago and the suburbs, from different backgrounds and experiences. Most were as shocked as I was to have been chosen.
We chatted as we waited for paperwork to process and then were summoned to the courtroom. At that point, we didn’t know much about the case, just that the defendant had fled from the scene of a routine traffic stop. Then, we saw the body cam video of one of the police officers, and the mood changed.
You have probably seen a video like this: A traffic stop that escalates quickly. A black man driving. Several police officers surround him. The driver resists the orders he’s given. The officers threaten violence.
The video was 1 minute and 41 seconds long, and the entire time I found myself praying that no one would be shot. No one was. But now it would be our task to decide whether the driver was justified in leaving the scene because he was afraid for his safety.
It was late when we saw the video. Soon we were released for the evening, to return the next day. As we were leaving, our deputy explained that we might want to bring food. She would have lunch for us, but it wouldn’t be good. The state was on a budget.
A younger white man spoke up and said we should do a pot luck. We laughed, imagining bringing Crock-Pots through security. But he was serious. A snack pot luck, he said. I looked at him, wondering just what he had seen in that video, then smiled and nodded.
Later, I looked up those tips on getting out of jury duty. Some advice on the subject includes “have a crappy attitude” and “be a rebel.” Other advice includes saying that you can’t be impartial.
Reading about Jason Van Dyke’s trial and verdict, I couldn’t help but think of the jurors on that case. They showed up at the very same courthouse having no idea what they would be asked to do. Like me, they probably assumed they’d just sit there all day and then go back to their lives. Instead, they ended up deciding one of the most important cases in Chicago’s recent history.
A trial like that shines a spotlight on the significance of the role of jurors. But outside of high-profile cases, the cultural attitude toward this civic responsibility is dismal.
Granted, there are differences. Voting typically takes maybe half an hour, while jury duty can consume days, sometimes weeks. People who freelance, own a small business, or work in positions paid by the hour could suffer financial hardship for taking time off. Caretakers might not be able to get away for even a day, let alone longer. There are good reasons to get out of jury duty.
But it should not be a punch line.
Respect for justice, each other and our task
Annually, state courts conduct more than 148,500 jury trials, while federal courts conduct more than 5,900. In order to ensure there are enough jurors to hear these cases, state courts mail approximately 31.8 million jury summons each year. About 1.5 million people end up serving on a jury — less than 1 percent of the adult population.
According to a Center for Jury Studies report, courts across the country are increasingly challenged by the number of people who fail to return a jury questionnaire or fail to appear for jury service.
The next morning of my own service, as people walked in to the jury room, they dropped Double Stuf Oreos, Nutri-Grain bars and Cheez-Its on the table — every single person offered up something. These small gifts felt like more than food. They felt like an implicit pact to get through this with respect for each other.
After a day of testimony and evidence, we were sent to deliberate. We all had different perspectives. Different questions. Different concerns. It became subtly clear that we had different politics. But to a one, my fellow jurors were kind and considerate and felt the responsibility of our task. In the end, we found the defendant not guilty — meaning he was justified in leaving the scene because of the threatening actions of the police officers.
We are told that there is a great divide in our country, and at the voting booth that is apparent. But in the jury room, we were just 12 random people pulled out of our daily lives and asked to administer the final decision in a case. It felt like our justice system at work.
I’ll vote in November, and it will be important. But I don’t think I’ll ever feel as significant as a citizen as I did in that jury room.
Paula Carter teaches creative writing at Northwestern University and is the author of “No Relation.” Carter’s work has appeared in The New York Times, The Southern Review, Kenyon Review, Salon, Creative Nonfiction and elsewhere.