Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to serve on a jury for the first time. The experience lasted for three full days and I learned a lot about how the process works. Now that the case is closed and I can openly discuss it, I figured I'd write up a little bit about my experience. I'll go through each day's proceedings, the case itself, and the outcome.
Day 1: Wednesday
Court is held in the Durham County Judicial Building, located in downtown Durham. The building itself is fairly old and could really stand to be replaced, something that Durham is currently working on (the new building is currently under construction). Jurors are asked to report the first day at 8:30 AM which, as it turns out, is really when the building opens to the public. Going through security to enter the building was a bother. Men have to remove their belts, and everyone must empty their pockets and pass through a metal detector. All bags are also x-rayed. I lost my pocket knife in the process, as you aren't allowed to take "weapons" into the building. I could have taken my knife back to my car, but it was a good three to four block walk back to the juror parking deck, so I just decided to simply toss it.
Upon reaching the jury pool room on the fifth floor, I checked in and took a seat. Although I didn't count, there were apparently over 100 potential jurors (numbers 1 through 160 had been called to report that day). After everyone was checked in, we all watched a short video about the process of a judicial case. The jury clerk, a very nice lady, then came out and gave us further information and instruction. After that was complete, we sat. And sat. And sat some more. Our lunch break was quite long that day (12:15 to 2:30), which allowed me to kill some time. The day ends at 5:00, so at 4:00 we all figured we were going to get through the day without being called. At 4:10, that all changed. All the jurors were called into the superior court room to be seen by a judge. The judge apologized for the delay (he had been held up by a previous case), and asked us all the report at 9:30 the next morning to be selected for a case involving assault on a female. Before letting us go, he asked if anyone had any reason for which they should be excused. It was interesting to see which reasons he allowed and which he denied. One individual was a convicted felon, which got him off the hook immediately. Two people were excused for either being a current or former corrections officer. Other folks tried to be excused, but the judge only allowed a few to go (most of the excuses were denied). He then released us all for the rest of the day.
Day 2: Thursday
I decided to show up a littler earlier than requested, just to err on the side of caution, so I came back to the courthouse at 8:45 the next morning. After going through security again, those of us from the previous day were seated in a sectioned-off area of the jury pool room. Around 9:45 or so, we were all called back to the court room from the previous day. After being seated, the judge explained to us what the case concerned. We were to be trying a criminal case in which a male was accused of assault on a female. The state was prosecuting the case, as the victim had either chosen not to appear, or was unable to (it was never made clear why she wasn't present).
The court clerk called 12 names, mine being one of those 12. We proceeded one by one to the jury box, and were then questioned by the attorney representing the state. After each being asked a number of questions, the state attorney decided to excuse three jurors. Three more names were called, and those folks were asked the same questions. Once the state was satisfied, the defense attorney then questioned each of us. He was dissatisfied with several jurors, and asked that they be removed. It's interesting to note that each side can choose to excuse 6 jurors for no reason at all. Beyond that, they must have a valid reason for which a juror may not serve. I'm not fully clear on all the rules, but it was very interesting to see how each side handled the selection process. Choosing jurors literally took most of the day, during which I got to hear the same set of questions 7 or 8 times (this got quite boring). At about 2:45 or 3:00 in the afternoon, both sides were finally pleased with the jury, and all other jurors were excused from duty. There were a total of 12 jurors plus 1 alternate.
Once all the other jurors had been excused and left the courtroom, the case started. Since the state attorney had the burden of proof, she got to go first in the opening statements. Once she had completed, the defense attorney gave his opening statement. After he was finished, the state began to offer evidence. Two witnesses were called to the stand: a person who had been in the room at the time of the incident (albeit with her back turned), and one of the responding officers. We heard testimony from both of these witnesses. I found it interesting that, because the victim was not present, no hearsay from her could be entered into evidence. This affected the police officer's testimony, since he was reading from a filed incident report. The jury was asked to step out of the court room on a number of occasions, as the lawyers wrangled with the judge over these sorts of legal matters. At the end of testimony, and after the defense attorney got a chance to cross examine the witnesses, the state essentially rested their case. The day was spent by this point, so we were asked to return at 9:30 again the next morning to hear evidence from the defense. I should point out that jurors may not discuss the case with anyone (even other jurors) while the case is ongoing. This made all of the jury breaks fairly boring, as we could only chit-chat with one another about random stuff.
Day 3: Friday
At about 9:45 or so on Friday morning, the case got underway again. The defendant took the stand and testified on his own behalf, giving his side of the story. We found out during this testimony that he had been previously charged with two offenses: a drug charge with intent to sell and distribute, and assault on a minor under the age of 12. At least one of these charges was dismissed, presumably the assault charge (he had apparently served some time for the drug charge). The judge later told us that we could only use these previous charges to weigh the truthfulness of the defendant's testimony; we could not use it to make a decision on the current charge against him. In other words, we couldn't find him guilty of assault just because he had a prior assault charge brought against him.
Once the defendant had completed his testimony, we were asked to step out of the jury room while he stepped down from the box. I also found this to be interesting. Perhaps the judge deemed it necessary since the witness stand was located on our side of the courtroom. Once we returned, the state recalled the officer to the stand as further evidence. This got thrown out, however, on some technical grounds that we weren't privy to (the jury was again asked to leave the courtroom while the lawyers argued their position). Returning once more, we got to hear closing arguments from both sides, and we were then given the case. The judge instructed us to evaluate three points in the law concerning the active charge against this individual:
- The victim was a female
- The accused was a male
- There was an intent to harm on the part of the accused
Once we were given the case, we then went to the jury room to make our decision. It was clear from testimony that an injury obviously happened (the victim's mouth had been injured to the point of bleeding), but whether or not it was intentional was debatable. The defendant claimed that it had been an accident. According to testimony from all of the witnesses, there had been no arguing beforehand, nor were there any arguments afterward. This, coupled with the fact that no witness really saw what happened, helped us lean towards a "not guilty" verdict, simply because the state attorney had failed to prove that the defendant had intended to do harm. I should point out that this defendant had driven the victim quite a long ways to Duke Hospital to have her son checked out by doctors, going well out of his way to help her. Seeing as he had been friendly enough to do that, and that he had asked about the child's well-being during an interview with police, seemed to indicate to us that there was no intention of harm on his part.
The reading of the verdict was an interesting and tense moment. After the jury was called back in, our foreman handed the verdict to a deputy, who then handed it to the judge. He looked over it, then gave it to the court clerk to read aloud. The defendant was asked to stand, and then the court clerk began to read out her boilerplate statement. She eventually got to the decision itself, the reading of which really reached a crescendo (it read something like "We the twelve members of this jury hereby find the defendant..."). I couldn't imagine being in the defendant's position, waiting for those few words that indicate whether you're free to go, or are on your way to jail. After the verdict was read, the jury was excused and our time was considered completely served. Now that I have served, I cannot be recalled for jury duty for two years.
I'm very glad I got the opportunity to serve on a jury. Although there was a fair share of boring moments, I found the experience quite educational. Plus, I get $52 for my three days served ($12 for the first day, $20 each for days 2 and 3)! This was definitely an experience I'll never forget.