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Tuesday, January 9, 2007

Honorable discharge

It took the better part of two days, but the Multnomah County Circuit Court has finally determined that my services as a juror weren't required. The large crowd of prospective jurors of which I was a part has been whittled down to the requisite 12, plus one alternate, and the rest of us have gone home.

By my count, there were a total of 55 people brought in as possible jurors in our case -- some yesterday, some this morning. I wonder why they needed to see so many of us. Maybe it was because there are two co-defendants, and they each got to ding a certain number of panelists. Anyway, we all had to answer a stock list of questions, which were designed to help the lawyers figure out which of us to keep and which to bounce, and we sat around the courtroom as we listened to each other's responses.

One of the questions was, "Have you ever been the victim of a crime?" I was surprised that the vast majority of us said yes. I had never stopped to think about how it happens to most people at some point or another.

The other thing that I wasn't prepared for was the content of the dialogue between the attorneys and the prospective jurors. After we all answered the stock questions, it seemed that the lawyers were mostly starting to argue their cases, rather than finding out more about us as individuals. They were clearly sending messages -- as much as, if not more than, they were obtaining information.

The judge read us the charges -- attempted murder and assault with a gun. But from the statements the lawyers were making, it sounds as though the two accused guys may have been accomplices, rather than the actual triggerman. Both defendants and the victim are Hispanic; one defendant had interpreters, and we were told that some of the testimony would be in Spanish. We were to accept the official translation we were to be provided, rather than using our own knowledge of Spanish.

I saw a lot of lawyers I know around the courthouse. But given that I was there as a juror, I didn't think I should talk to them beyond saying hello. Instead, I chatted with some of my fellow panel members, two of whom I knew well but several others whom I had just met. A nice slice of Portland, and a fine way to touch base with people from walks of life that aren't familiar to me.

I'm glad I went on jury duty, even though I didn't actually sit on a case. And it's a good thing I liked the experience, because I have no doubt that my name will be called again a few years down the road. One of the questions we all answered was whether we had ever appeared in a court proceeding. Quite a few people had -- on other juries.

Comments (16)

You are exactly right about the attorney's using jury selection for more of an opportunity to state their case than to merely select jurors. All of the jury pool is privy to the 'questioning'...and excellent forum for an attorney to state the one side of his case to the prospective jury pool without worry of opposing counsel's objection.

Jack: would you feel your jury duty had been more worthwhile if you had been seated on a jury?

I doubt that any criminal defense attorney (with any remaining peremptory challenges) would want you on their jury. I know they don't want me, not unless their client is truly innocent.

You would be a perfect juror for a complex business trial (like the recent blockbuster verdict against Freightliner).

IMHO, there should be some kind of educational requirement depending on the level of complexity (i.e. high school grads on DUI's, college grads on homicides, CPAs or PhDs on $100MM tax cases. Too elitist?

It would be a mistake not to be open to evidence to the contrary, but I am fairly certain that Niccolo Machiavelli is the only writer or political philospher in history to extoll the virtues of sex with a one-legged woman.

I don't know if the potential juror numbers cited (55 examined to seat 12) are typical, but there was a time in Multnomah County when jurors were forced to sit all week long in the waiting room, even if they had never even been called upstairs for examination. I guess they needed the numbers to meet some minimum quota for the random selection process such that there couldn't be an accusation of bias. There was such a howl about this that they got better organized and now only need to keep you around for the day if you aren't examined.

Actually, that's not exactly the case now. You are required to hang around for one full day, even if you're called to a courtroom and not selected for a particular trial.

For example, when they weeded us out on Tuesday afternoon, those of us who were there all day Monday got to go home, but those who had only arrived Tuesday morning had to stay in the assembly room and remain in the pool.

On Monday, there were several folks who were examined in two different cases. And then there were some whose name was not called at all.

My advice: Bring a laptop.

Just be glad you didn't get "pre-selected" for Grand Jury duty like I did first week of Dec. Then you are obligated for the whole month. Of course, you can get out of it with a pretty easy excuse (work, travel, domestic obligations, etc.) but THAT's a commitment. I work for a very small company, so my boss called the judge and got me off the hook claiming I am too indispensable to the business to not have around for four weeks.

Glad to know you're needed :)

A few of my compatriots yesterday got roped into grand jury for the rest of the current grand jury term. As fill-ins, they would not have to do the whole month.

My advice: Bring a laptop.

Mmmm..... free wi-fi.

Provided by the county. There was a MetroFi signal coming in as well, but I went with the faster, ad-free option. Sort of like Personal TelCo.

Darn, I hope hoping to see your smiling face at my grand jury this week.

If the County or State I/T staff installed it, you can bet it is not "free wi-fi". If it works well, it may have been outsourced.

Even the guy who resets passwords is accruing PERS bennies. That ain't free.

Perhaps "without additional charge to third-party users" would be more accurate?

It was free to me. Like the heat in the building, which also came at taxpayer expense.

I attended a CLE on voir dire once, and I found it interesting that the older lawyers were consistently the ones who were the most insistent on using voir dire to argue their case to the jury, even though there's no real support for the notion that that helps. They've done it before, they've won their trials; post hoc, ergo propter hoc. The younger lawyers, with less idea of what the hell we're doing, were a little more open to the idea of letting opposing counsel argue away, and trusting that the jurors won't be contaminated before the trial begins.

To some extent, you do need to see how the jurors react to and understand the reasonable-doubt standard, and if you can get them comfortable with it in the process, well, so much the better. And the lawyers need to know whether any jurors are going to be simply unwilling to accept your client's theory of the case due to their own biases, and trotting out the theory and getting reactions is one way to do that. But it's pretty frustrating to sit through an hour of lawyers pretending not to argue their case when that's all they're really doing.

And the lawyers need to know whether any jurors are going to be simply unwilling to accept your client's theory of the case due to their own biases, and trotting out the theory and getting reactions is one way to do that.

In our case, the lawyers didn't seem to care much about the reactions, and once the prospective jurors noticed that, they didn't get much by way of reactions.

Another thing that was interesting to me was that while on the surface the judge and lawyers were asking "Can you be fair?" they were actually asserting "You must be fair." When a venireperson said "I think I could be biased," the response from the lawyers and the judge was always along the lines of "You can separate your bias from the facts of this case, can't you? You can be fair, can't you?" And the way that followup "question" was couched, no juror could say "No, I don't think I could" without feeling like a bad person.

Of course, many (if not all) of the jurors who confessed to some potential bias were eventually sent home, with no reason given, and so maybe the lawyers got the message and challenged them. But everyone in the box who expressed a personal concern was pretty much forced to at least say "I can try to be fair." Only one guy who had several immediate family members who were police officers was excused expressly for cause.

BTW, for you nonlawyer readers who might actually be following this thread, "CLE" means "continuing legal education," and lawyers often refer to a CLE session as simply "a CLE."

Jack, the jury selection system you are referring to is called the "struck method", and was introduced in Oregon by Gerry Spence when he tried a case here way back when in the late 80's or early 90's I believe. Mr. Spence is a very firm proponent of the concept that a trial lawyer can and should use his/her powers of persuasion at every opporunity possible. Voire dire is the trial lawyer's first opportunity to persuade the prospective jurors, and picking a good jury is essential to a good outcome. Some do it well and flourish, others do it not so well and flounder. I love this method because it gets the jurors talking about what they think about the case beyond their name, rank and serial number. Some really interesting things come out of prospective juror's mouths if lawyers ask the right questions. I ask questions like "If your family members and close friends had to use one word to describe you what would it be?" (credit to Jane Paulson for that one). I think it's fake when lawyers fail to confront obnoxious jurors who say things that are really bad for your client...being too polite to an ass who is obviously already against you makes you look like you don't care about your case. BTW Sheila, NEVER trust a jury to "do the right thing" on their own, you do everything in your power to make them do them do the right thing without being as obvious or obnoxious about it as possible. Having a good client and strong evidence in your favor doesn't hurt either.

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