If I’ve been incognito this week, my apologies. I was called for jury duty and, somewhat to my surprise, actually chosen to serve. I’ve had a couple of close calls over the years, but this was a first. It turned out to be a fascinating experience, one that gave me a rare opportunity to play a key role in the American judicial system. I enjoyed it far more than anticipated. I thought I’d share my story through the eyes of a first-timer, for those who are interested in learning what it’s like to spend three days in a jury box.
Like the majority of Americans, when I received my jury summons in the mail, I felt my stomach turn with dread. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say most people aren’t exactly eager to receive that piece of paper in the mail. Even the judge acknowledged this. My first instinct was to try to figure out how to get out of serving, and I turned to the internet for suggestions. As usual, Reddit was a great source of information, though the advice people had posted (pretend you never received the summons and ignore it, show up wearing a JURY NULLIFICATION t-shirt, act like a racist, etc.) just didn’t sit well with me. Honesty is, and always will be, the best policy. I decided to show up as instructed and answer all questions honestly while hoping I wouldn’t be one of the 12 people ultimately selected.
I had no legitimate excuse not to attend, anyway. Yes, it’s stressful to be away from the office for days on end, especially when you work for a publishing company and there are deadlines. But my supervisor was completely understanding and encouraged me to “have fun.” Fat chance, I thought. I was still grumbling over the inconvenience of it all as I headed out the door that first day.
I was instructed to show up at the Federal courthouse in Rapid City Tuesday morning at 8:00 a.m. After passing through a metal detector—the process reminded me of the TSA experience, only I got to keep my shoes on this time—I made my way to the third floor, checked in with the clerk’s office, and took a seat on a hard wooden bench in the courtroom.
First impression: the courtroom was enormous. Federal courts are much larger than state courts, it turns out. It was also very bright, with rows of overhead fluorescent lights. I’d brought along a book and read a little of it while stealing glances at the other prospective jurors as they filed in, wondering which of the poor suckers would end up being selected. There were 42 of us and they were choosing 12 jurors and an alternate, which meant I had about a 70 percent chance of walking out of there a free man. I liked those odds.
The clerk came in and showed us a 20-minute video titled “Serving on a Jury” narrated by Chief Justice of the Supreme Court John Roberts. Typical propaganda, I thought. Afterward, the judge and lawyers entered the courtroom. His Honor talked a little bit about what to expect. One of the things he said was, “The people who are chosen today are actually the lucky ones.” Per the jury summons, we were on call for a two-month period. The clerk said the court docket for February and March was pretty full, which meant that many—if not most—of the people not chosen that day could expect to end up back in that very courtroom to go through the process all over again at some point before March 31. Around this time, my attitude began to change. I figured, this was expected to be a three-day trial. There was no guarantee the next one would be as short. Plus, the atmosphere felt charged-up, almost electric with anticipation. Maybe being chosen wouldn’t be so bad after all, I thought.
The clerk called names at random to fill the 31 seats in front of the bench: the jury box plus two makeshift rows. I was about the 23rd person called. The 11 not initially called were instructed to remain in the courtroom, as some would likely be needed as people were excused. Sure enough, this happened.
Voir dire is the legal phrase for the jury selection process. It was a little bit intimidating, but also, very interesting. Both attorneys asked questions of everybody, and we had to pass around microphones when answering. I found myself trying to figure out the intent behind each question in order to determine what the lawyers were looking for. Some questions were pretty obvious, while the intent of others is only clear now that the trial is over. I was asked, for example, whether I’d ever bought a house, and if so, did I buy the first house I looked at. If I had children, did I ever have to mediate an argument between them, and whether the child I assumed had been the victim had actually turned out to be the instigator. Whether I thought a witness who appeared nervous while testifying might be hiding something. When I answered honestly that it could lead me to perceive guilt, I was asked whether I was nervous answering questions in court and had to admit that I was.
Touché. Message received.
Let me make one thing clear here: anybody who truly wanted to get out of jury service at this point could have done so very easily. The judge, who exuded fairness at all turns, made it clear that if you had a prior commitment or were morally opposed to the jury system or were simply uncomfortable being given the burden of deciding another person’s fate could speak up and he would excuse them without prejudice. Nobody did so, though a couple of people had legitimate health concerns and were dismissed.
I will say, it was pretty obvious to me who would not be chosen. There were a few pretty vocal people who you just knew would cause trouble in the jury room. There was also a 78-year-old woman with concentration difficulties and a 19-year-old college student who had never heard the phrase “reasonable doubt” before.
We were excused for lunch at 12:00 and asked to return at 1:30, at which time, the jury would be seated.
I went home, called Tara, and said I kind of hoped they would choose me. Quite a change in attitude from just a few hours earlier.
I returned to the courthouse as instructed, and the lawyers were tasked with eliminating 18 of the 31 people in order to arrive at their jury. We were told their decisions weren’t personal and we shouldn’t feel badly if we weren’t selected. They then passed a sheet back and forth for about 15 minutes, deciding on peremptory challenges, which allow them to strike potential jurors without reason. Of course, there are reasons on both sides, though I’m sure those vary based on any number of circumstances.
They began calling names and asking those people to stand. I had just started to think I wasn’t going to be selected, and actually felt a pang of remorse about this, when they called my name. I was about the ninth person chosen. It appears that the people selected for jury duty were mostly those who had flown under the radar, hadn’t rocked the boat, and were neither young nor old. There were seven men and six women. All white, but this being South Dakota, that’s not exactly surprising.
Everybody else was excused and we were sworn in. The judge gave us instructions, we were shown the jury room, led back to the jury box, and the trial started immediately. It took about 15 minutes for me to get over my disbelief. It felt very surreal to be seated on a jury hearing a federal case…one that turned out to be very exciting.
I am allowed to talk about the case now that the verdict has been delivered, but at the time, we were instructed not to discuss it with anybody, including family members, coworkers, and the other jurors. I won’t go into a lot of detail, but it was a criminal case in which the defendant was charged with five counts involving possession of guns and distribution of methamphetamine. Over the course of a day and a half, the prosecution called 10 witnesses, ranging from the arresting officers to drug analysis experts; an agent with the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ Alcohol, Tobocco, and Firearms Agency; a cellphone data extraction specialist; and a shackled inmate transported by a Federal Marshal. We watched body cam and dashboard videos from tribal police officers and I learned more than I ever imagined I would about Glock 9 mm semi-automatic handguns. These firearms made it a federal case; Glocks are manufactured in Austria and shipped to Smyrna, Georgia; the only way they can possibly reach South Dakota is by crossing state lines. The defense offered up plenty of rebuttals and cross-examination, but didn’t call any witnesses. We never even heard the defendant speak, except briefly on video during the police search.
The judge has a rule in which everybody in his courtroom stands up and stretches every 45 minutes. I cannot stress how much I liked him. He was personable and polite, the epitome of fairness. Judges sometimes come across as stern and intimidating, but he was anything but. He treated us with respect at all times, stating that in his courtroom, people don’t just rise when he enters the room, they also stand for the jurors. Sure enough, they did so every time we entered and exited. He also made occasional lighthearted comments throughout the trial, and even joked at one point that he had an extra robe if his clerk wanted to play judge. All of this served to humanize him. At the same time, when somebody stepped out of line, he was quick to admonish them and keep order in the court. This only happened once or twice.
We were given frequent breaks, including 90 minutes for lunch, and released both days a few minutes before 5:00. I was home, sipping a glass of wine 15 minutes after listening to testimony in a federal criminal case. This made the whole experience palatable.
On Wednesday afternoon, the prosecution and defense rested.
Thursday morning, both attorneys gave their closing arguments. The prosecutor went first, speaking for about 25 minutes. He went over each count against the defendant, explaining how the burden of proof had been met by the government, as required. The defense attorney was up next; he spoke for about 15 minutes, followed by a 10-minute rebuttal from the prosecution. After that, the alternate juror was dismissed. Sucks to be her; I’d hate to get that far without being able to see the whole thing through. The case was officially handed over to we, the jury. It was almost an emotional moment for me. I felt in awe of my own responsibility as we adjourned to the jury room for deliberation.
Our cellphones were confiscated, the door was closed, and we elected a foreman. Then we discussed each count in detail and took votes by raising our hands. This, at least, was pretty much like you’d see in any John Grisham book or legal thriller. Pizza was brought in for lunch as we talked our way through the case.
The evidence was also brought into the courtroom (minus the bullets, wisely). It isn’t every day that you can say you held a Glock semi-automatic handgun, a bag of meth, and $2,500 cash in your hands, but today I did just that.
For me, the decision was easy. I was convinced beyond a reasonable doubt as to the defendant’s guilt on all five charges. We were unanimous on three of the five counts pretty much right off the bat, but really had to discuss and (politely) argue a little bit about factors like possession, intent, consistency of testimony, and character before everybody was on the same page on the other two. We could have found him guilty on some of the charges and not guilty on others, but in the end, we came to a unanimous decision across the board: guilty on all five counts.
I was nervous when we filed back into the courtroom and the judge read our verdicts. I’m not sure why; maybe I was expecting some last-minute courtroom dramatics, perhaps an angry outburst from the defendant or somebody in the audience, but none of those things occurred.
A few minutes later, the judge came into the jury room to chat with us and answer questions. Again, this is testament to his personability. He speaks to every jury after every trial to gain their feedback, explaining that he is appointed for life and will never do anything else, so he wants to make sure he gets it right. Somebody asked whether he thought we’d made the right decision, and he assured us that, based on the evidence, we had.
Sentencing takes place in 4-5 months. The judge said anybody interested in attending could let the clerk’s office know on our way out, so I did just that. I think I was the only one, actually. Call me a completist, but I really want to see this through and am curious what sentence the defendant ends up receiving. I know it will be significant given some of the mandatory sentencing guidelines that must run consecutively.
Yes, this is a very long post. I’m almost done—I promise!
This whole experience was nothing short of incredible. It may be a cliche, but serving on a jury is a rare opportunity to not only witness democracy in action, but to play an active role in the process. I’ve never been the type to wear my patriotism on my sleeve, but it really is a privilege to serve and makes me proud to be an American. Just witnessing the dynamic between opposing lawyers, hearing from expert witnesses, and learning how to dissect and apply law is exhilarating.
I’m off the hook now for two years and won’t be called for jury duty again in that time, but should I receive a summons in the mail at some future point, I won’t be nearly so opposed.
Doing your civic duty kinda rocks!