Courtroom dramas are big on television. I’m not sure if the genre started with Perry Mason or Law and Order or what, but everybody seems to have some passionate interest in watching shows about judges and juries and lawyers. When I was younger, I loved a television show called JAG, which was short for Judge Advocate General. It was about how the legal system worked in the military. But, frankly, I wasn’t sure what it would be like in a courtroom during an actual trial.
I remember vividly in ninth grade, my government teacher was talking about jury duty. Yes, we were home schooled, but we did a curriculum on video tape for high school. That meant we had a teacher. Mr. McBride was one of my favorites. And I’ll never forget him talking about our responsibilities as American citizens–to vote, to pay taxes, and to serve on a jury. Even though he said the coffee was stale, he said it was worth it, because how many countries give the citizens a voice in the legal system? From that moment on, I wondered what it would be like.
Well, this past week, I got the chance to see for myself.
I’ve posted on a few other occasions this past week about why I didn’t want to go. I kind of have a few things going on in my life right now, but I honestly don’t think that a jury summons comes at a convenient time.
I actually received the summons in January, and I filled it out and returned it. The official letter stated when I needed to call in to find out when I would need to come to the Reno County Courthouse. The first week of February, I discovered that only jurors 1 through 111 needed to come in. I was Juror 326. My instructions were to call back the following Monday to hear my assignment.
I did. Jurors 112 through 415, I think, were to come in this week. I suspected the numbering wasn’t sequential, mostly because I’ve been in the Reno County Courthouse, and I’m fairly sure they don’t have a room big enough to put 300 people. But when I arrived, there were probably at least a hundred there. Lots of people.
About 50 of us were directed into the second courtroom, and all the others filed into the first courtroom. From what I have been told now, the case in Courtroom No. 1 was a child molestation case of some kind. I’m thankful that the case I was assigned to wasn’t nearly that serious. But more on my case later.
We all filed in and crammed into the seats provided for us in sight of the judge, the two attorneys, the defendant, the court reporter, the bailiff, and two secretary-looking ladies. We had to take an oath and such, and then the judge went into an orientation of sorts. I really appreciated it because it explained a lot of the things I didn’t understand.
The judge was pretty much hilarious. He had a bit of southern twang, even though I’m certain he’s native Kansan. He was very nice. Very pleasant and approachable. But stern. One of those people you really want to be friends with, but someone you never ever want to be angry at you.
He very helpfully explained the whole process and assured us that we were a vital part of the system. Then, half of us were called forward to sit on what they were calling a venire jury. It’s part of the first step of selecting a jury–voir dire. That’s French for: To speak the truth. Basically, 24 of us sat, and the judge, the prosecuting attorney, and the defense attorney asked us a series of questions and made notes about our answers.
By the time they got through with their notes and questions, some of us were still there. Others had been excused and replaced with the other jurors who had not been asked up at first. We all took a break and came back, and the judge told us who had been selected. Out of the top 12 jurors, I was number 10.
Everyone else was excused and told to call back on the following Monday. The twelve of us who were selected were allowed to go to lunch, but we were to come back in an hour and a half to start the trial.
I’ll talk about the trial some other time, but it was a criminal trial. A minor one, though. The thefts amounted to less than $250. But the process of examining witnesses and cross-examining and then having to take all the evidence at the end was fascinating. It was an interesting mental exercise because the defense kept using irrelevant information to distract from the actual charges.
The jury was a fun bunch, actually. Mostly pretty quiet. I suspect we were all introverts. But everybody was pleasant, and it was pretty cool because after all the testimonies had been taken (the trial took two days), we all sat down at our gigantic round table and discovered we all were on the same page. Each one of us agreed 100% about the case before we even started talking. Deliberations only took 45 minutes.
At the end, when the trial was over, the judge came into the jury chambers and asked us if we had questions about the legal process. Some of us did, and he answered them. Then, he asked if we’d be willing to talk to the attorneys, since they were both fairly young and enjoyed receiving feedback. So we agreed–and we had a very pleasant talk after the trial was over.
All in all, the entire experience was really nothing like what they portray on television. That doesn’t mean it’s any less fascinating, but it’s certainly different from what people are led to believe. I learned so much, and I definitely plan to work a courtroom scene into some novel in the future!
Mr. McBride was right. The coffee was stale, but it was totally worth it.