Jury Duty II: Voir Dire

Previously: Summons.

Unlike the first two jury pools, my group of 50 did not immediately tromp off to meet their judge. We were instead asked to fill out a questionnaire and return it to the Courthouse Clerk. I picked up mine, returned to my seat, and felt my zeal for Jury Duty whoosh out of me like oxygen from an open airlock.

Every question had something to do with molestation — or, in legaleese, “sexual misconduct”. “Have you ever been the victim of sexual misconduct?” “Has anyone you know been the victim of sexual misconduct?” “Have you ever been accused of sexual misconduct?” Worse still, tucked away in the middle of these queries, was the unnerving question “Has anyone you known had a child forcibly removed from their home?” Sexual Misconduct + Child = case I did not want to be on.

I checked “no” to every single question, meaning I wouldn’t get tossed out for out-and-out bias. I began mentally reviewing all the Jury Dodging techniques that friends had imparted to me. My wife told me to emphasize my schooling, that they rarely accepted folks with a Bachelors degree. So, in the “years of education” section of the questionnaire, I put “17” instead of “16,” deciding that this would be a good time to start counting kindergarten as a grade. A coworker told me to play up the fact that I was a programmer, because (he claimed) they dismiss analytical types. Under “Occupation” I therefore put “System Anaylst Programmer” — the only time I have ever used my full title on an official document. I was pretty proud of that, until I realized that any advantage I might get by having the word “analyst” in my title would probably be negated by the fact that I misspelled it.

After the questionnaires had been returned we were lined up and marched to the courtroom. As we filed in, the first 13 were told to sit in the Jury Box (12 Jurors + an alternate), while the rest of us sat on the observation benches, ordered by number. That put me three seats away from the Box — two seats, really, because Juror #15 had vanished after turning in her questionnaire. The judge welcomed us and explained a bit about the Voir Dire process. Voir dire, he said, means “to speak the truth,” and that was our job as the lawyers peppered us with questions. Afterwards, each side in the case could dismiss an unlimited number of potential jurors “With Cause” — that is, if they could convince the judge that the person was biased — and a certain number of “peremptory” challenges, which they could use to dismiss anyone for no stated reason.

Another “sure-fire jury duty avoidance technique,” I had been told, was to give long, honest and candid answers during voir dire. I resolved to do so and get me one of them peremptory challenges. I briefly toyed with the idea of acting maniacally eager to be on the jury (“I will do anything to be on this jury, Your Honor! Anything!”), but decided that would be too much work.

I found voir dire to be the most interesting aspect of the whole trial, possibly because it was the most “game-y”. At this point they could not yet tell us the specifics of the case, but the two sides could phrase their questions in such a way as to lay the foundation for later arguments. The defense attorney, for example, prefaced nearly every question with “Given that the defendant is innocent until proven guilty …” In a sense, each councillor was trying to to simultaneously detect and instill bias in the jurors, and every question was masterfully worded to accomplish both objectives.

The prosecution went first, and started by lobbing softballs. She posed some followup questions to those who had provided “yes” answers on the questionnaire. She asked if we understood the concept of “reasonable doubt” (all while subtly redefining the term). She asked if we understood that “direct evident” (i.e. testimony) was given as much weight as “circumstantial evidence” (e.g., smoking guns and DNA) in a court of law. She was very emphatic on this last point, so much so that I began to suspect that she was, in essence, describing her case. When she asked if anyone would have a problem convicting someone based solely on testimony, I raised my hand. “I think I would find it very hard to find someone guilty beyond a reasonable doubt without some physical evidence corroborating the testimony,” I announced. I then did some mental back-patting, certain that I had just earned my dismissal.

Things looked even better for me when the defense started. He asked if anyone had friends or family who worked in law enforcement. “Actually, a good buddy of mine was a Seattle police office,” I told him. “And another friend of mine is a prosecutor in a nearby city.”

He looked profoundly unhappy when I said the word “prosecutor”. “Do you ever discuss cases with your prosecutor friend?” he asked.

“Sure. In some detail,” I replied. “I am interested in law, so when I see her I generally have her give me the full rundown of her recent cases.”

“And does she ever talk about defense attorneys?” he asked.

“Ohhhhhhh yeah,” I crowed. “It is fair to say that, as a prosecutor, she has an adversarial relationship with defense attorneys.” At this moment I was so assured that I was a goner that I had restrain myself from picking up my backpack and strutting out the door with a “See ya!”

We went sent home for the day. The following morning, as we filed back into the courtroom, our numbers were diminished considerably. Apparently all of the “With Cause” dismissals had been made, leaving a jury pool of 35 folks. Some of the newly vacant seats were in the Jury Box, so I was officially at risk of being selected. Still, I was certain that I would be back at work on the following day.

Having concluded voir dire, the lawyers were ready to use their peremptory challenges to select the jury. In this they alternated: first the defense would axe someone, then the prosecution would get a turn. As they began, the Jury Box contained eight men and four women, but that immediately changed as the defense dismissed one of the females and a male took her place.

Then the prosecution dismissed a woman, who was replaced by a man. Then the defense dismissed another woman, who was replaced by a woman — except that the replacement didn’t even get into the Box before she was dismissed by the prosecution and replaced by a man. That left us with 11 men and a single woman. If this was a sexual misconduct case (as it surely was) and the victim was a woman (as it surely was), then I could understand why the defense would want an all-male jury. But what was the prosecution doing? Wouldn’t she want women on the jury for the same reason that the defense didn’t? To this day I still don’t know what her strategy was.

The upshot to this was that I, and all the other men, were ignored. The whole thing reminded me of the days of yore, when kickball players would get picked from all around me while I remained standing on the wall. Finally a male was dismissed but, sadly, it was a non-me male. The prosecution then challenged the one remaining woman, but the chair she vacated was filled by yet another female. Eleven to one again. As the next three jurors-in-waiting were all women, I figured this is where the lawyers would cease the gender Cold War and finally get around to excusing some System Analysts.

Instead, the defense said “Your Honor, we accept this jury.”

And the prosecution said “The state also accepts this jury.”

And I said “Aw, crap.”

Next: The Trial