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- The Bridge of Snow updated
“I’m going to assume that you didn’t hit your head on the ceiling jumping for joy when you received your summons in the mail.”
My personal favorite is “My Polish friend’s mom said I should tell them I don’t speak English.”
I am sitting toward the back between an annoyed young mother and a bored businessman. We had been told to arrive at 7:45, but here it was 9:30 and we are still waiting for something to happen. Many people had the foresight to bring books; the rest of us play on our phones or complain to our neighbors about having to be here. Judge Trusock’s address was a welcome relief of the growing tension.
He proceeds to tell us the history of jury duty, and why we are doing it in the first place. I know how typical and boring that must sound, but it quickly puts me at ease and even instills in me a bit of patriotic pride. Basically, when the constitution was written, no one trusted government. (Can we blame them?) The idea of jury duty is to give us all the right to be judged by our impartial peers, and reduce the number of innocents in jail. We do this to protect ourselves from the possibility of a corrupt government.
I am sold.
Following Judge Trusock’s short speech, there is significantly more waiting. One group of about 40 are eventually called up to a case, but the majority of them come back down about an hour later. Finally, at around 1:30 p.m., we are told that three judges did in fact need juries, but not until tomorrow. We have to return the next day.
Tuesday morning begins with more waiting. I manage to remember a book this time, so time seems to go by a bit faster. At around 10 a.m., 40-50 of us are called up to a courtroom. We exit the elevator in a single file line onto the tenth floor, and one side of the hallway is entirely made up of glass. Through it we can see that there is an extraordinary view of Grand Rapids, including the Calder Roof Painting . Unable to contain my delight, I exclaim “Nice! We can see the painting!” Everyone seems to be looking toward the painting, but no one replies. Clearly, this is not the appropriate time for exclaiming anything.
We all pack into what feels shockingly reminiscent of church pews, tightly enough to where we can’t help but brush elbows. The judge is at the front of the room next to the court clerk. Between all of us potential jurors at the back and the judge at the front are the defendant and the prosecution, along with their attorneys.
The jury selection process begins with the judge giving detailed instructions of what will happen, what will be required of us, and then asking if any of us have any reason that we feel will prevent us from fully performing the duty of a juror.
Here we go.
One gentleman says he works 12 hour days, during which his job is to direct crews of laborers around the state and that they would not be able to do their job if he were not there to answer his phone, and somehow in his free time he also takes care of his sick and dying father. Someone else has a daughter playing in a basketball championship downstate, and he has to drive her there. One woman is narcoleptic, another is a judge at the Ionia Free Fair, and the woman to my right has trouble hearing (which explains what appeared to be her lack of enthusiasm about the Calder painting. More than likely she just didn’t hear me). The judge tells all of them that under Michigan law, none of these things will get them excused, but he will keep their requests in mind. We then stand with our right arm raised and swear an oath to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
The Court Clerk reaches into what appears to be a small fish bowl, extracts 14 “capsules” (their word, not mine) from it, and reads the names inside each capsule. One by one, those whose names are called take their seats in the jury box. I am slightly relieved that I am not one of the chosen.
Let me be clear. At no point during this process did I feel confused, or unsure of what was expected of me, or of what would happen next. The judge is very good about giving us thorough instructions through every single step of the process.
Next, the prosecuting attorney goes into great detail about the difference between “beyond reasonable doubt” and being 100% sure of someone’s guilt, and how one can never be 100% sure unless they actually saw the crime committed. The defense attorney’s questions are equally as slanted, such as “Do you think your memory of an event is better the day it happens, or now, years later?” Basically, the prosecution calls witnesses to incriminate the defendant beyond reasonable doubt, and the defense systematically attempts to poke holes in each witness’s story.
Two potential jurors are dismissed from the jury box: a bank manager that isn’t comfortable with making such decisions about strangers, and a woman whose personal life is too similar to the case at hand. Two new potential jurors are called from the church pews.
The selection process continues, with four being dismissed, then three. While names are being called, most of those that raised their hands earlier on because of conflicts were actually excused before even being questioned. It seems the judge was truthful about taking their issues into consideration. I am struck by the fact that all but one of the other people in my “pew” have been called up at some point while most other rows still seem full. Finally my capsule is pulled and I take my seat in the jury box.
“My name is Lorena Slager, I own The Sparrows Coffee Tea & Newsstand. I am not married, and I have no children.”
“Ms. Slager, have you ever been to a jail or prison for any reason at all, even just to visit?”
“Do you have any problem making a decision about another person’s life?”
“Well, as long as it’s a consensus made by the group, and not just myself making the decision, then yes. I can do that.”
“You do realize that you may have a different opinion than the rest of the jury, and you may have to defend that. Are you willing to do so?”
The judge and two attorneys ask the other new potentials the same questions, and then briefly consult amongst themselves.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, we have our jury.”
We are told that Wednesday would be a full day of trial, and Thursday a half day followed by our deliberation. I’m pretty sure I feel butterflies every time they said the word “deliberation.” The judge tells us how important it is that we do not Google anything related to the case.
Wednesday morning we arrive at the courthouse and trial begins. No matter how many times during the trial the other jurors would say “This is so not like TV,” I would think to myself “This is so just like TV.”
It feels like I have a front row seat to a taping of Law & Order which would occasionally even cause me to neglect my note-taking of the witness statements and evidence. There seems to be an unending supply of objecting, sustaining, and suspense as to how the judge would respond. The biggest surprise is how often the judge would escort us out of the courtroom and into the jury room across the hall so he and the attorneys could discuss the case without us hearing. If I had to estimate, I’d say we left the room about four or five times on Wednesday, and about five times on Thursday. All of the ups and downs end up helping us stay nicely focused and awake, with the exception of one juror who shamelessly sleeps through most of the trial.
Every time we re-enter the courtroom, the judge says “All rise for the jury,” which surprisingly really does make me feel like a big deal. We, the jury, are important, like kings and queens of the courtroom.
Finally, on Thursday afternoon at about 4 p.m., it is time for our deliberation. We are reminded that the defendant is innocent until proven guilty, and that we can take as much time as we need. Since there are 14 of us and the jury only needs 12, two of us are randomly selected to be excused before deliberation. Lucky for us (but mostly lucky for the defendant), the sleeping juror is chosen, but so is another juror that seemed to be genuinely interested in performing his job of a juror as best he could. Those of us left admit our relief at not being excused, since at this point we all want to see the case through to the end.
I obviously can’t speak for every jury, but ours is an incredibly polite and jovial group. During trial, we are not allowed to discuss the case at all, so there is a constant joking and camaraderie that seems to naturally occur when were are outside of the courtroom. During deliberation, the only aspect of that relationship that changed was the lightheartedness of the conversation. Everyone seems to take the task at hand very seriously, and politely allow each other an opportunity to speak.
During deliberation, I actually do end up having an opposing view of all but one other juror, and confidently defend it. After which, I talk out all of the facts and asked questions, and change my opinion on my own accord. The other juror that is holding out considers my reason for changing my mind, and changes hers as well. Everyone in the room has nothing but patience for the two of us that had disagreed, and they even offer to return the next morning if we feel like we need more time to think about it.
But there is no need for that; we have our verdict. Our “jury leader” actually has to stand and read the verdict in the courtroom in front of the defendant. This particular part of jury duty is gut wrenching, to say the least.
After the verdict is read, the judge brings us back to the jury room to thank us for our service, and explain to us how we had indeed made the correct decision, and that he would have ruled in the same way. He gives us all of the incriminating information about the defendant that we were not allowed to know during the case; facts that would have prevented it from being a fair trial. This is incredibly reassuring because although I had felt confident in our decision as a jury, like the prosecuting attorney had said early on, you can’t be 100% sure unless you actually saw the crime committed.
When I received my summons in the mail, I admittedly was not looking forward to taking a week off from work and rearranging my entire schedule for jury duty. As the selection process began though, I discovered myslef viewing it more as an educational life experience rather than a burden. After having completed jury duty, I have to say it was a worthwhile experience, if not for the educational aspects and building of my appreciation for our judicial system, then at least for the chance to get out of my comfort zone and challenge myself with difficult decisions. The pay wasn't so bad either.
I have been the owner/operator of The Sparrows Coffee Tea & Newsstand since it opened in November of 2007. I am also on the board for ArtPeers, a local nonprofit that supports Grand Rapids artists, and the founder of the Grand Rapids Creative Youth Center.
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