Until this week, my knowledge of what it’s like to serve on a jury was limited to two things:
One was watching the classic movie “Twelve Angry Men” and the second was “Aunt Bee, the Juror,” an episode of “The Andy Griffith Show.” I guess the O.J. trial in the 1990s also could qualify.
But I learned this week that as advanced as those preparations might seem, I had no idea of what it was like to serve on a jury in real life.
There were no courtroom dramatics — nobody standing up during a tense moment to shout “I did it!” — no spirited confrontations between lawyers and witnesses, attorneys locking horns with judges, etc.
In fact, the most exciting thing that happened was a bat getting loose in a lobby area outside the courtroom. Other than that, it was just a lot of sitting and waiting.
I must say up-front that I’m a great believer in the role juries play in our justice system. Putting 12 people in a room to hear evidence in a particular case and then letting them collectively make a decision is the most effective, and fairest, way to operate. Certainly it is better than the alternatives available, including a ruling from a judge whose personal bias could affect the outcome.
All that being said, I think there are ways the jury system could be streamlined.
One centers on the force and coercion involved, which automatically rubs me the wrong way. This starts that fateful day when you get the letter from the Surry County Sheriff’s Office. It orders you to appear in Dobson for jury duty on a certain date (in my case, Superior Civil Court).
And if you know what’s good for you, you better show up or else, the letter basically says, which I’m sure could mean all sorts of indignities including but not limited to being held in contempt, jailed or forced to watch episodes of “The Kardashians” non-stop.
Not wanting to risk any of that, me and about 100 other poor souls dutifully showed up at the courthouse bright and early one morning this week and immediately were told to go into a small room that didn’t have enough chairs for everyone at first.
Then in the presence of uniformed and armed bailiffs, we watched a 15-minute video entitled “You, the Juror.” It actually was quite informative, right up there with the films they used to show junior high school students such as “Your Changing Bodies.”
After that, we were advised that when court started at 9:30 a.m., we would all be herded into the room in a group and must sit on the same side. But that time came and went, and we continued to wait and wait and wait.
When we finally reached that great hall of justice, much more sitting was in store as potential jurors were called up and directed to chairs with numbers. Although my name thankfully wasn’t uttered by the clerk, I and the others not picked had to listen to the judge and attorneys for both sides intensely quiz those who were on the panel.
They were asked questions such as “do you know anyone involved in the case?” and since it was a personal-injury trial, “have you had a bad outcome with a workplace injury or a medical procedure?” These were, of course, designed to make sure the jurors harbored no prejudices that might affect their decision.
Some jurors were disqualified on such grounds and others called to replace them, and fortunately I still was overlooked. We all got to leave later that afternoon from our trap that even included asking permission from the bailiff to visit the restroom.
And though I did not come away as “one angry man” as the title of today’s column suggests, I do have some ideas for improvement — starting with not forcing people to be there.
I think a better way would be to somehow build up a directory of jurors who could be pressed into service at any time, much like foster parents are relied on by social services. This also is reminiscent of the paid mourners mentioned in the Bible.
Rather than forcing people to serve who’d rather be somewhere else — a fact even admitted by the judge in my case this week — the county could put out a call for citizens to serve voluntarily.
It could screen people to develop a sizable database of reliable jurors, who would not have to go through a vetting process each time they appeared.
And no one would feel trapped.
Tom Joyce is a staff writer for The Mount Airy News. He may be reached at 336-415-4693.