What I Learned as a Juror… Twice

I get the privilege of saying I have served on not one, but two juries. I have been part of two groups of 12 who rendered two verdicts. There were only a few angry men (and a couple of women)… not 12.

I have served for a criminal trial and a civil trial.

I guess you could say I’m a seasoned juror.

I am not going to lie to you.  The first time I received  a summons (in Georgia), I was extremely bummed. Just like you, I had a life that would be put on hold. I had a 24/7 demanding job, two itty bitties, two separate schools, a hubby, some pets… life was full.

I showed up that first time, hoping… PLEASE! Do not choose me.

Within hundreds of names to go into voir dire (jury questioning from attorneys and judge for selection in a trial), my name was called.  Surely, I won’t be called.

I was.

The case was a criminal one, and among the two pages of charges, the defendant faced home invasion, attempted murder, and kidnapping charges.

Seven years later, very close to the same time of year, I was called to be a juror on another trial.  When the judge asked us if we’d served on a jury before and what the charges were, I, of course told him about the first one. He answered, “Well. (eye brows raise up) This is not going to be like that one.”

It wasn’t. It was a car accident where we had to find if there was fault, find percentage of any fault, and find out how much the plaintiff deserved in a list of 7 different categories.

I learned so much. If you’ve served on a jury, you know what I mean. The legal system is multi-faceted and it has many players. You learn right away that Law and Order taught you some things, but the drama is mostly left on the TV screen.

While the lessons in the legal system were many, what I really learned about was human nature. The second trial highlighted it even more for me, partly because of the nature of the case, but also because of the current way society is operating. “I will pick up my stuff and go in this corner and … huff!”

Each case taught me something different about people. Both taught me the same thing about myself.

First… those other people.

In the criminal case, we were in the courtroom for 6 days. It was intense. There were tears shed by witnesses, and alone in my van… by me. The case was serious and touched on many fears we all have: someone breaking into our home, someone holding a weapon to our face, someone bounding us up, this time with duct tape, and someone pointing a gun at a child and making her go with him.

After all the testimony, and all the evidence, we went back to the room. I, for no explainable reason, was named foreperson. I asked if everyone wanted to enter, secretly, what their own verdict was. I collected them.

All 12: Guilty!

This couldn’t end so soon. I knew this man would spend a considerable amount of time in prison. I needed to get everyone who had any doubts to speak up about those doubts.

I didn’t just make two gentlemen in the back mad. They were pissed. (sorry, needed that word there) They were verbally threatening, saying things about needing to get on with their lives, who did I think I was to hold them hostage.

I said, very slowly and carefully, that I did not feel comfortable rushing this case. Did anyone have any questions or doubts?  Slowly, hands began to go up. Quickly, those gentlemen attacked them verbally. We asked the bailiff for evidence that pertained to the questions.

We wrote on the dry erase board.  We deliberated the case.

We took another secret vote.

All 12: Guilty!

Grumble, grumble from the back.  “See! Told you!”

I went to the door, and told the bailiff we were ready.  We waited about a half hour, and then were escorted back into the jury box.

I kid you not… lawyers were putting on their suit jackets, straightening ties. People seemed unready for us. The judge asked for our verdict. He read it. He then said something like:

We did not expect you to come back so quickly, as it hasn’t even been an hour and a half.

The defense’s attorney wanted a roll call: a call where each of us stands up, says our name and tells them what our individual verdict was.

All 12: Guilty!

Then, the judge talked about how we weren’t going to hear witness testimony for the sentencing, because they hadn’t expected us to return so quickly. Then, he hands down the sentencing:

125 years in prison

That was the moment I knew I made the correct call. I forced us to be really sure, to discuss the case and give this man the deliberation he had a legal right to have.

In less than an hour and a half, we made a decision that sent a man to prison for 125 years.

You may have a life you two brutes in the back, but we needed to be measured and sure that we were ok sending a man to prison for his entire life.

Human nature for those two was to worry about themselves and their lives. Thankfully, for 10 other people, human nature was to be careful and deliberate when deciding the fate of another’s life.

So, what about that other case? A car wreck…. that had to be an easier decision.

Haha! No. It took more than 5 hours of deliberation to decide this one. Now, in our defense, we had to do a lot of math when it came to damages, medical, and lost wages.

However, the reason it took so long?   Two women decided they knew the facts… which were not in the trail… because they drove and they know how everyone drives.

It was awful to listen to them say what they KNEW happened. Barely anything they said was in evidence, part of testimony, or true.

When we broke for the day, we had reached a compromise on one part of the verdict that made my stomach sick.  We were going to lay a percentage of the blame on a worker who was parked in the right hand lane, working on a manhole. Both people who were part of the accident, and testified, said they say the guy in more than enough time.

The compromise also placed a big chunk of blame on a guy who merged in front of the guy who applied his brake to slow down. Even though that guy merged in plenty of time, and both the guy who applied his break and the plaintiff who rammed into the back of the plaintiff say they saw the guy speeding up, and it looked like he was going to merge.

I came in the next day, and said I was so sorry but the compromise was not sitting well with me. My gut was telling me the parked worker was not at fault at all. I also didn’t think the merging guy deserved any blame but was willing to do a smaller percentage. I read the laws we were supposed to consider… twice. Nine jurors agreed the law led to a different distribution of blame.

The two women who disagreed went into an argument about how all the drivers in our area cut each other off and it’s not fair. Some personal stuff, some stuff that had nothing to do with the case…

I held my ground. Eight other jurors stood up for me. They agreed. We fought. Later, the attorneys and judge said they could hear us, and began to worry about us.

Compromise: Parked worker 0% blame, Merging driver 10% blame, Plaintiff who slammed into the rear of the defendant 90%.

The two women were not completely happy, but I kept reading the law. They couldn’t argue the law. Not that they didn’t try.

Then damages. I could go on and on and on…. but I will just give you a glimpse by saying one of those two women thought the defendant (who had life-long injuries, lost the ability to do the job he had…) only deserved $400 for 4 years of loss of enjoyment of life and $400 for an expected 24 years of future loss.

So, we fought some more. We asked the women what their enjoyment was worth. What was loving their job worth to them? At one point, anytime you would speak, one of the women said, “No!”  “No!”  “No!” over and over and over. She was incredibly rude and wouldn’t let anyone speak.

After I politely shut that down, we were able to deliberate more and we compromised.

We did it!  About 8 of them broke out in cheers so loud, the judge told us later they knew we were done!

Later, after the verdict was read, roll was called, and the judge gave us certificates for serving… we were able to ask the judge questions about the case.

The two women asked him if he thought the guy that was parked deserved any blame. He had a surprised look on his face, and then said, “No. Not at all. If you would have come back with any blame for him, I would have had questions for you.”

Then, they asked him, “What about the merging driver?”

He closed his eyes, and with a very measured tone, said, “I don’t think he deserved any blame, but felt you all had to compromise on that one. Maybe you feel if he didn’t merge, none of it would have happened. Ten percent was reasonable for that. I wouldn’t have given him any more than that.”

Sure, I feel good that 10 of us were correct in our arguments. However, us being right isn’t the point for me.

The point is human nature tends to be that we bring our own experiences into arguments instead of facts, or in this case: law.  Human nature is having your opinion, and not listening to the others’.  In our current climate, human nature is to avoid compromise or hearing another side… at all costs.

However, the great news in all of this is that both times, in both trials, a majority of the people in the room fought against that nature. They had open minds, discussed the facts, and made reasoned decisions. Most of the jurors on both trials kept the people involved in the case in mind and thought of them more than themselves during deliberation. In both cases, 10 out of 12 jurors stuck to the facts.

I learned so much about the legal system.  Some of those lessons are for another blog.

I learned even more about human nature. In a time where everyone is picking sides and not listening, the lessons I learned solidified for me that where we need to meet is in the facts… sometimes in the law… and in listening to one another.

Oh, and what did I learn about myself? I was given a pretty good gut. I learned that I need to listen to it more.

Well, except when it tells me I need ice cream….

 

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