Jury Duty: A Crash Course on Judging Others

Photo by Steve*

For the first time in my life, I was summoned to serve as a juror in the local court.  When my students (high schoolers) learned why I would be out of school, many of them encouraged me to “hang ‘em high” and I even jokingly told a few, “I’ll find them guilty just for you!

The jury selection process came and went and as the lawyers peppered us with questions, it became clear that the case was not civil in nature, but criminal.  Out of the first 14 possible jurors, three of us were picked, largely because neither we nor a member of our immediate families had been victim to a violent crime.  Hearing explanations from the 11 people who were excused was the beginning of my recognizing that trials are not games in which there is simply a winner and loser, but that the stakes are real dollars, real lives, real years in jail, real justice.

The victim and a witness took the stand, indicating with varying amounts of certainty that the defendant was, in fact, the man who committed the crime.  After presenting evidence and police testimony, the prosecution rested and the defense attorney called the defendant to the stand who immediately started trying to explain himself without having been asked a question.  The judge silenced him and as the questions were asked, his answers became gradually became a ramble; revealing that he was homeless, that he’s been addicted to crack cocaine for 17 years, that he was nervous and scared.  He was in the middle of explaining how he felt like nobody would listen to him when the lawyer stated that he had no more questions and the defendant was ordered off the stand.

Once both sides were finished, we were dismissed to the jury room to deliberate the case.  After a brief discussion, we took a secret ballot vote.  In this particular case, 10 of the 12 jurors had to agree whether guilty or not guilty.  Eleven of the slips read guilty.  Having been elected the foreman, I asked if there was anything that anybody had to say and a woman took the opportunity to express that she believed the defendant to be guilty, but still felt some sort of interior conflict with the evidence that she believed.  A few jurors offered reminders that the prosecution was to prove their case beyond a “reasonable doubt” rather than “the shadow of a doubt,” but the woman still seemed unconvinced.

I happened to be feeling a similar conflict within myself.  Admittedly, any case where the defendant pleads not-guilty will be void of 100% certainty as to the guilt of the accused.  So, doubt will exist and while it may be difficult to weigh a doubt against a certainty, that interior disagreement is not what I was experiencing.  I spoke up and explained that what I felt was not a significant doubt, but a conflict between what I reasonably believed to be the truth and what I wanted.  It was reasonable to judge the defendant as guilty, which required 17 years minimum sentence before eligibility for parole; yet what I wanted was for the man to not have to go to prison, for him to have not committed the crime, for no crimes to have been committed.  St. Augustine’s famous statement, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee” illustrates that we have an inherent desire for Him, Heaven, paradise.  It seems that almost all of our day-to-day decisions are, essentially, making the best of a bad situation, but the scale of judgement and punishment at hand required an unflinching acknowledgement of the true fallenness of our world – and the recognition that we are left wanting.

Though one of the jurors had voted “not-guilty,” no other issues were brought to discussion.  My duty as the foreman required me to fully write out the verdict for each of the crimes with which he had been charged: We, the jury, find the defendant… guilty of… Signed, Andrew Sciba, Foreman.  I imagine that it’s one thing to make a guilty vote and go along for the ride, but being the person whose name and signature validate the verdict brought a lot of emotional weight to each word I etched out in my blue-ink chicken scratch.  One of the other jurors, with tears in her eyes, expressed a hope that the previously homeless defendant might find some type of sobriety and solid spirituality – she then asked that we might all pray for him.  And so, in an event that would probably only occur in the South, we, the jury, bowed our heads and prayed that he might find safety and fulfillment from God’s grace and that we might find consolation.  The verdict was read in the courtroom and the jury was subsequently dismissed.  Though we were run through the same emotional wringer, we became strangers the moment each of us set foot in the lobby.

18 Comments

  1. Kevin Walsh /

    Thank you for a sensitive and sober reflection on the gravity of being a judge of another “fallen” human being.

    I am puzzled. Where and how could it be possible to convict someone of a crime on less than a unanimous vote? Did I understand this right?

    • Yeah – I’m not sure about the details, but here in Louisiana the conviction only needed 10 of 12 votes. Perhaps worse crimes would need unanimous agreement.

      Incidentally, I have a friend who was a juror on a civil medical malpractice trial and, again, only 10 of 12 were needed for a decision.

      • Thank you for clarifying that! I served as juror on a civil trial in California 12 years ago. It was interesting in that guilt had already been determined related to an automobile accident, and our job was to determine the amount of financial compensation; this required a unanimous agreement based on a preponderance of the evidence.

        The plaintiff wanted hundreds of thousands of dollars, and it became obvious to us that he was using the system to sqeeze money out of the guilty party, who was definitely not a person of means (a factor we could not consider in our deliberations). At any rate, we agreed that it was reasonable to cover medical fees in addition to a little extra. Even a case like that made me realize how serious this was and how people’s lives are impacted.

      • Gary /

        Mr. Sciba: Thank you for writing this article. La. is one of a few states that does not require unanimity for convictions. Due process (US Const.) does not require that all 12 jurors agree. The “supremes” would likely not find due process for fewer than 9 of 12 jurors finding guilt. In fact, Fla. uses 6 person juries in most criminal cases and that is constitutional.

    • Nathaniel /

      I’m not a legal expert but as I understand Louisiana’s legal system is very different from the rest of the US. It is not a Common Law state. Due to its French heritage it bases its law on Civil Law, which comes from Roman Law.

  2. Bender /

    A “brief discussion” does not constitute deliberation. Moreover, the standard is not whether it is reasonable to find the defendant guilty. Nor is the standard one that quibbles over whether one’s doubt is unreasonable or not.

    And then there is this — “any case where the defendant pleads not-guilty will be void of 100% certainty as to the guilt of the accused.” In other words, even when someone insists they are innocent, in your mind, there is still a suspicion of guilt. In this, you’ve already taken the first step toward conviction without a shred of evidence being presented.

    Of course, the big question is this — Did you inform the court or the attorneys trying the case about your classroom discussion? Did you tell them that your students encouraged you to “hang ‘em high”? Did you tell them that you responded with, “I’ll find them guilty just for you!”????? Did you make full and complete disclosure, or did you hide that information?

    You should have been bounced from that jury from the first moment. There is absolutely ZERO chance that any competent defense counsel or judge would simply let that slide. You entered the case with pre-judged statements indicating a bias, even if you insist that you were merely “joking.”

    You made a travesty of justice.

    • James /

      Looks like Bender’s god a beef. Let’s dissect his little vendetta.

      “A “brief discussion” does not constitute deliberation.”

      Well, too bad for your fake moral superiority, because not only did they have a brief discussion, the foreman (our writer here) brought up additional discusssion AFTER a sufficient vote. In other words, our foreman here went ABOVE AND BEYOND the amount needed toconvict to make sure everyone was in accord.

      “Moreover, the standard is not whether it is reasonable to find the defendant guilty.”

      And just because our foreman here said it was reasonable to find the defendant guilty doesn’t mean they didn’t apply the correct standard. Your quibble is over his choice of words, out-of-context.

      “Nor is the standard one that quibbles over whether one’s doubt is unreasonable or not.”

      Actually, that it pretty close to the standard.

      “And then there is this — “any case where the defendant pleads not-guilty will be void of 100% certainty as to the guilt of the accused.” In other words, even when someone insists they are innocent, in your mind, there is still a suspicion of guilt. In this, you’ve already taken the first step toward conviction without a shred of evidence being presented.”

      No. The issue is your utter lack of reading comprehension. Our foreman says the opposite of what you posit. He says that you can never find 100% assurance of GUILT wherein the defendant pleads not guilty. Not that you can never find 100% assurance of innocence.

      “Of course, the big question is this — Did you inform the court or the attorneys trying the case about your classroom discussion? Did you tell them that your students encouraged you to “hang ‘em high”? Did you tell them that you responded with, “I’ll find them guilty just for you!”????? Did you make full and complete disclosure, or did you hide that information?”

      You mean, did he tell them about jokes he made?

      “You made a travesty of justice.”

      And you have deliberately distorted what he has written, to the point of making lies.

      Why do you have to lie to make your point? Do you fully disclose to all that you meet that you are such a liar?

    • A travesty indeed! Goodness gracious… sounds like my innocence wasn’t presumed in this case.

      If I was unable to be objective, I would have spoken up when asked. Given that the joking – which is substantially different than a definitive statement – occurred before even visiting the courthouse, before joining the jury pool, before picking the jury, before learning any details of the case, it should then, according to your reason, disqualify me from any future jury duty. Don’t tell the 99% of Americans that hate jury duty that joking about finding an unknown defendant in an unknown case as guilty will disqualify them from future service. Was I serious when I said it? No. Did I know that I wasn’t serious? Yes. By not volunteering information that wasn’t asked of me nor did I find relevant to my own objectivity, you assert that I am, therefore, hiding it. That was not the case.

      You tell me: Did the drug-addict defendant admit his own guilt of the crime while on the stand? Did the prosecuting attorney even make an argument for the man’s guilt or whether or not cheeseburgers are better than hot dogs? Was I actually called to jury duty or is this blog post a work of fiction? The fact of the matter is, you have no idea as to anything involved in this case outside of what I’ve written in the post. In light of this, I wonder how it is that you might conclude that anything more than a brief discussion was necessary?

      The defendant claimed innocence, the evidence proved otherwise. Thus, we found him guilty. That’s how it works. It’s natural for a person to question the level of doubt that they may be feeling when the stakes are so high. The alternative is that they may call a reasonable doubt unreasonable (which is bad for the defendant) or an unreasonable doubt reasonable (which is bad for society). It’s also reasonable for someone under such interior questioning to ask others in the same situation about their quandary. If someone has doubts as to whether or not their doubt is reasonable, is the jury room an appropriate place to have this discussion? I think it’s one of the most appropriate places to have the discussion.

    • Nathaniel /

      It seems you are advocating the modern notion that the jury must be comprised of people so detached from society that they have heard nothing about the case before them. They must be so dull that they have formed no opinions and given no thought to any of the issues before them. This does seem to be a popular view of justice but is very detached from past views. It is a recent development that having a mind and employing it made you incompetent to be a juror. If you think that leads to more justice I think you are very mistaken.

  3. Dave in NC /

    Please, please, PLEASE disqualify yourself from any further possibility of serving on any jury; thank you.

  4. Andrew is my coworker, one of my best friends, and the godfather of my third child. I see him frequently in the context of his classes, where he instructs the same students I taught last year. I can guarantee you that the entire conversation was in jest and that Andrew’s humorous response was a symphony of flippant sarcasm.

    Also, he’s a teacher of moral theology. Frankly, his work involves so much rational thought, philosophy, and detachment from unreasonable emotion that I’m shocked he was selected for jury duty at all, since they tend to prefer people who are easily molded by emotional appeals. If he wasn’t disqualified for his career choice, I find it difficult to believe he would have been for his sense of humor.

  5. Bender /

    Any defense counsel who did not at least exercise one of his peremptory challenges to remove any person who has said this would be guilty of malpractice if he knows of it.

    This is not an occasion for “jokes.” And because it would have been so highly relevant to the jury selection process, especially since you served as foreman, it was grossly unfair to not disclose it.

    You had an affirmative duty to disclose it even if not asked. Even now you have a duty to disclose by reporting it to the judge and defense counsel.

    • Seeing as that I was joking about no specific case, since I had not been selected as a juror, the comment seems like it could be applied to any case – should I also disclose the single joke for all future instances that I receive a jury summons?

  6. Bender /

    Since you are rather obstinate in your self-righteousness here — YES.

    As a criminal defense attorney, I am telling you that it was highly relevant. And if I were representing this guy, I would move for a new trial based on this.

    And it is hardly a good example to set for your students.

  7. I find Bender’s comments rather astonishing.

  8. Greg /

    When one encounters a position as unreasonable as most people in most wholesome contexts would find Bender’s to be, it becomes meaningful to step back and consider what sense to make of it. Whether there is any merit is his claim of the foreman’s legal duty I cannot say; I would be interested in the trial judge’s reflection on the matter. James’ incomplete but admirable and sufficient analysis of Bender’s original post reveals the inadquacy of Bender’s assessment. Three possibilities, or two with a subdivision, come to mind. The first I would tend to express with derogatory remarks about Bender’s intelligence, the second I would tend to express with derogatory remarks about Bender’s honesty, and the third I would express by dismissal of Bender’s participation as the work of a prankster with an internet connection. If this is a sample of a criminal defense attorney, we have another incentive to pray for our society.

    God bless you,
    Greg

  9. HuffnPuff /

    The commentary criticizing Mr. Sciba for his off the cuff remarks are ridiculous but predictable. Bender, although you don’t recognize it, your attitude and logic is a textbook example of why most of the general public distrust/loathe and virulently despise lawyers.

    Mr. Sciba’s POINT was that while it was easy to make jokes before he even knew if he would sit in a jury (or for what sort of case), it was terribly difficult to actually render a judgement, even despite his deeply honored religious beliefs. And yet, he found a way to do so, and with grace.

    Does this mean you prefer jurists unable to think independently, without a sense of humor, the self-awareness to examine personal struggle, and lacking a code of ethics?

    His attempt at humor did not prevent him from making a carefully considered judgement, nor making an effort to help his fellow jurors do the same. He was elected foreman, which speaks to the others’ impression of him.

    Alas, your protests only confirm my own personal experience of litigators — that you are taught so well to debate any side of any arguement, that you have lost the ability to think rationally, objectively, and without the need to prevail.

    Thank you, Mr. Sciba, for your fine essay regarding the gifts of God’s grace found in every day life and circumstances.

  10. “Getting out of jury duty is easy. The trick is to say you’re prejudiced against all races.” -Homer Simpson

    Well, I made a joke about jury duty. Guess I’m off the hook!