Long-form blog posts and editorials. Topics cover both personal and the world at large. 

Thoughts on doing jury duty

Nothing like starting off 2012 with a glorious two weeks of jury duty. Yes, unlike most of my peers, my first work day of the new year did not occur until the third week January - all thanks to that little piece of paper that comes once in awhile in the mail to remind you of your civic duty as a United States citizen. The timing of it all perhaps could have been better (my boss was certainly not a fan of seeing his employee not show up for work post Christmas break for another two weeks), but of course my usual nonchalance failed to notice on the jury summon just how awkward the date turned out to be.

For it was not until that first Sunday of 2012 that I remembered I had jury duty that week, and as fate would have it, I had to report on in person on that Monday (I was desperately hoping for one of those chances where I wouldn't have to show up at all the whole week.) In hindsight I really should have requested for an alternate date because I was all ready to go back to work and other stuff with the kind of renewed rigor that comes with the turn of a calendar year. Instead I was stuck in a room with the same people for two straight weeks listening to the same story, while getting "paid" a pittance.


Of course I have been summoned before - and narrowly escaped serving the duration. It still amazes me the level of efficiency the State has in processing the sheer number of people each day going through the gates (so to speak) and sitting through the selection process. Makes me wonder just how on earth they managed such a feat before the days of computers and databases. Judging by the state of the jury reception room at the Hall of Justice where I went to serve, that place was definitely in use before the digital revolution. Must be just insufferable back then.  

Before we even get to that, I must direct your attention at the front door of the building. Being a public building of significance, of source the Hall of Justice would have the robust kind of security checkpoint with the common scanners and metal detectors, not unlike those at Airports these days (except they haven't got full body x-ray scanners - yet). Obviously getting hundres of people into one building but having the need to check everybody for dangerous materials created a natural choke point. For the first couple of mornings I was actually late even though I was on time (?) because I had waited a good 15 minutes to go through security. 

I did however find it amusing each morning seeing people who sag there pants take off their belts so not to trip up the metal detectors. It is like really, what are the belts for? Clearly not holding up your pants because after all they have been down to your knees ever since I started noticing you walking along with me to enter the building. So is it all in ironic fashion then? A fashion statement? Because clearly that belt serve no practical function. Now I am certainly not against the aesthetics of sagging pants as a subset of the greater fashion culture (I have certain done it myself in my previous ages), but to then wear a belt at the same time just screams stupidity. It appears to the outsider that the person sagging his pants does not have the cognitive ability to use a belt (and these are adults!)


It really is an interesting dynamic that goes on at the jury reception room - the room where everybody that is summoned on that day for that time slot get packed in together to await for their call to specific court rooms. Now on the positive the room is big, airy, and has comfortable tables and chairs. It even has lavatories and vending machine should you fancy some snacks.

The positives ends there of course, because there nothing quite like the mood a room full of people who really can't be bothered to be there in the first place. You can sense it and see it in everybody's face. They are all projecting the same message: I have got better things to do than to sit here (potentially all day) and waste my time. Small talk is virtually non existent, because everybody is just trying to get it over with and get out of that place with as little mental and physical exertion as possible. Is this the kind of attitude the Justice Department wants for something as important as determining another person's destiny? Well too bad, because that is exactly what they get when you pluck normal citizens out of their busy lives and routines. 

I would hate to imagine the time before we all got smartphones, laptops, and mobile internet. How did we survive the long agony of waiting? Thank heavens I live in such an age of interconnectivity. My iPhone certainly made the wait for my name to be called a much less painful process. And probably for the lot of people in that reception room, mobile broadband alleviated much of the pain of the jury selection process (one can conceivably even get work done.) 

Of course they would then show us the motivational video on why it is so important to perform jury duty. The Hall of Justice really need to upgrade their AV equipment because the television they used to show the video is so old and small that in the large room that is the jury reception, me sitting in the back could barely see anything (which ended up being a good thing.) Perhaps they realize no one pays attention to the video anyways (and the showing of it is just part of the process to just say they did it) so it makes no point to upgrade the television to something bigger. 

I would however welcome the option for those who have seen the video already (meaning have been summoned before) to just skip it. Sadly, there wasn't. 


My name gets called along with something like 30 other name, and we were then directed to go to courtroom number 13. This is of course the heart and meat of the selection process. Upon walking into the courtroom one thing was immediately clear to me - the counsel the District Attorney's office has sent is brand spanking new straight out of the bar exam (turns out I was right - not even a year this guy has worked in the DA office.) I give him kudos though, as he exuded confidence, and not of the arrogant quality either. Though my advice to him is please don't stand right in the sight line of the court room door and stare right at the lot of people that was coming in for jury selection - it just makes them uncomfortable. 

The case at hand was 14 misdemeanor counts (a mix of disturbing the peace, trespassing, and resisting arrest) against the defendant, who is being represented by a public defender (He haven't even got enough cash to post bail - he stayed upstairs in jail for the duration of the trial.) Now typically for a case like this, the counsels are looking for juries who haven't got any police biases, whether it be in a positive or negative light. Sure enough, during the questioning process, anybody that revealed any strong opinions about police ended up getting excused (lucky!). 

They also excused those that formed conclusions too quickly and would not budge. Before the questioning of potential jurors, the judge read out all counts and charges - so we were all cognizant of just some of the details. It is all too easy then to formulate in our mind, applying ingrained prejudices, a sort of vague conclusion of just went on with the defendant and the charges. It is not wrong of course, just human nature. One does not need to be Sherlock Holmes to begin deducing from the facts (however little it might be) and form some conclusions. However there was those amongst us that kept to those conclusions, which is also not wrong, just not the correct fit for a jury trial. They were dismissed.

I was amongst the first 12 that got to sit on the "jury chairs" - meaning if I was not dismissed by either counsel for being unfit, I would serve for the entire duration of the trial as a member of the jury. My feelings about this was ambivalent: sure I wanted to get out of there as fast I as humanly possible, but I was not about to lie to do it (many casual discussion I have had with people about how get out of jury duty - consensus was lie about your police affiliations because more often than not a case would involve them.) I got one question asked of me, and it was whether or not a man raising his voice and cursing in public is reasonable. I answered that it of course depends on the situation, but if under the right circumstances I don't see how anyone can expect anything different. 

And that was satisfactory enough for both counsels to not kick me out of the jury lot. And so begins the two weeks of listening to evidence and deliberating. 


Nothing shows the beauty of the "innocent until proven guilty" idiom quite like an actual trial. And thank the heavens that I live in a country where such as concept is so. I cannot imagine or even want to know what it is like in countries where it was the opposite. Sure it may ultimately let some that are guilty fall through the cracks (looking at you Casey Anthony), but the main point it to prevent the innocent from being wrongfully charged. After sitting through the trial I came to have a newfound appreciation for the concept. 

Not to disrespect the what has to an enormous workload of the defense attorney, but having the single burden to prove all the charges meant the prosecution had to cover everything, from all angles. I know I am diminishing the task the defense has, but sitting there as a jury made it pretty obvious to me - all the defense have to do is to poke little holes in the prosecution's arguments. It was up to the DA to construct and describe in minute detail exactly what the defendant allegedly did, with witnesses and evidence to support. Cross examination by the defense was brieft and to the point, for all he had to do was introduce doubt about what the DA had just presented. 

Of couse the DA would do well not to torpedo his own arguments. Now I did mention the DA for the trial I sat in was new, barely a year on the job. In one particular witness presentation, he asked a cop on the stand whether or not he thought a crime was committed. The cop said no. That right there completely wiped out any chance of a guilty verdict on the count that it pertained to. During deliberations, almost all the jurors agreed that as soon as the cop said a crime has not been committed, a not guilty verdict popped into our heads. After the trial when speaking to the counsels, the DA lamented and agreed that it was the wrong question to ask. 

Speaking of questions, the most common objection heard from the counsels regarding each other's line of questioning is hearsay, and speculation. Hearsay is when a witness presents testimony in which he or she has no first hand contact or knowledge of, and relied only on what he or she had heard from other parties. For example one of the cops on the witness stand was giving testimony based on a report written by his partner, and not himself. The defense naturally did well to point out this fact and to us, the jury, practically everything the cop said turned to nothing. 

Speculation is when a witness gives testimony on what he or she thinks another person thought about a situation - even if it seems like a reasonable deduction. One cannot speak for what another person thought or felt. Anyways, objections of hearsay and speculation came up so many times throughout the trial that by the second week of testimony, I was able to anticipate the objection even before the counsel spoke up.

I can see why trials can take such a long time now that I have served on a jury: lining up witnesses and asking questions takes a tremendous amount of time. Like jurors, witness have their own lives and work to attend to, and often times have trouble showing up to court to testify at moments notice. If they can't make it to a specific time slot, the trial will just have to be adjourned until a time they can. Questioning takes a long time because while tedious, the prosecution (and the defense for that matter) must be meticulous so not to leave anything out. Something as blatantly obvious as the occupation and duty of a witness must be clearly spelt out - not only to create a clearer picture for the jury, but for the record.


Anything and everything about a trial: procedures, instructions, questioning, testimony, cross examination, etc must be recorded on paper. Every little detail has to be recorded. That burden falls upon the court recorder, who types on what I would like to call a Stephen Hawking machine. The machine allows the recorder to type way faster than any human can with an ordinary keyboard because a few keystrokes on the it will spell out the entire word.

That being said, it is still a lot of stuff to record, and often times the recorder had to ask people to talk slower so that she has time to write down everything. It does get tedious too because paper hand outs such as instructions to the jury by the judge must be entered into the record. The judge had to read every instruction out loud, and the recorder must enter it all (I guess they could not just copy paste.) At one point there was 20 pages of words that the judge read out loud even when half of it was just repeats of the same; all for the sake of entering it into the record.

Which brings me to my point - with all the video recording technology that is available to us, why not film the court sessions instead of typing it down the old fashion way? To think that before the Stephen Hawking machine was invented, people had to type on typewriters and traditional keyboards! I don't think anything will capture the entirely of a trial quite like a video camera. Sure people may worry about the the authenticity and the security of such medium, but if court house are as secure and safe as we like to think it is, then it should be no problem right?

Perhaps clarity of the video and audio may be the concern, but in this golden age of high definition recording, those concerns are unfounded. Now I am not trying to bust court recorders across the nation out of their jobs (though it will probably save them from the displeasure of carpal tunnel syndrome), they certainly have my respects, having to type ceaselessly with such detail. But it would certainly make reviewing records easier. During deliberation when we wanted to hear testimony again, the court recorder comes in and READS it to us out loud. A video footage of the same testimony given would be so much more interactive and easier to view, not to mention you can see the actual emotion of the witness as he or she answers the questions (something you just cannot get from a person reading off a manuscript.) 


I have gotten plenty of questions about how much do they pay you for jury duty (the stipend, if you will.) Unfortunately, it is not a lot. 17 dollars a day is what the State of California pays its jurors. For me, it ends up breaking even. Parking everyday near the Hall of Justice cost 10 dollars, and the rest of that $7 pays for lunch at the local fast food joint of choice. We do get an hour and a half for lunch, but when you car is impounded at the lot with no in and out privileges, my food options amounted to how far I am willing walk.

Consider yourself tremendously lucky if your employer will pay your salary while you are on jury duty. I am not one of those people.


Jury deliberation process is another marvel to itself. Keep in mind that in a criminal trial, in order to pronounce a verdict (does not matter if it is guilty or not guilty), agreement amongst the jury must unanimous. Otherwise the jury is hung. In my case, we had 12 jurors and 14 counts to all agree on. That task was not easy to say the least.

If you heard they lock the jurors in a room until they come up with a verdict, you would be right. The room is tiny enough just to fit all 12 jurors, with a sink, fridge, microwave, water, and restroom access. Basically no one should have  the need to venture out of that room lest breaking for lunch. A sheriff deputy is on the watch the whole time outside so there is no funny business. Of course this is done to prevent outside tampering, but being inside that room for myself, I think it is also incentive to just get on with it.  

Remember earlier when I said that all the defense had to do was poke holes in the prosecution's case? That concept comes to light in the deliberation process. In order to come up with a guilty verdict, there must be zero doubts that the defendant did that crime. if there is even an inkling of doubt, you the jury must find him or her not guilty of that charge. More often then not the doubt is introduced by the defense; but sometimes doubt also shows up if the prosecution did a poor job of coming up with enough evidence. The often heard "guilty beyond a reasonable doubt" sums up this important point.

It is an important point because it made things so much easier during the deliberation process. The judge gives the jury a packet of instructions outlining each count and what points must be satisfied before you can give a guilty verdict. The evidence presented by the prosecution must prove ALL the points as outlined - if anyone one is not proven (or there is doubt that it might not be true), then you must return a not guilty verdict. This material that helps the jury deliberation was a bit of a surprise to me because, and I am sure all the other jurors also (speculation!), I thought we just have a grand old chat about everything based on our notes!

I am glad there is such a system in place, because it really forces the jury to think about everything and not leave anything out. We took a vote before any deliberation had started on the verdicts of all the counts; needless to say after going through the process, practically all the opinions have changed. The process really impose upon the fact that there must be zero doubt for there to be a guilty verdict. 

Now trying to get all 12 jurors to have consensus on all counts took quite the effort. It got to a point where one side had to convince the other side (based on logic and evidence of course) to see it their way. Sometimes in the process of doing that those on one side will switch to the other! Even on counts where it seems as clear cut as day to you, someone will have a differing opinion. By laying out the facts, and carefully thinking it through logically, our jury returned verdicts on 11 our of the 14 counts. We hung on 3 of them because there was one person (the SAME person on all three) who just would not budge on their stance, even though it became blatantly obvious to the rest of us that we were correct on our stance. Oh yeah, things did get a bit heated because the rest of could not fathom just how on earth that one person can see it the other way. But it the end we just let it go because at the end of the day it does not really effect us, whatever the verdict may be.


While I do lament the time taken away from my real life, I think serving on a jury duty is something everyone should do once in their lifetime (granted you wouldn't ever want to do it again) It really shows you just how our judicial process works, and gives you a newfound appreciation for it. Consider ourselves lucky that we live in such a country where we get due process (lest you have terroristic aspirations, then you can throw due process out the window!), considered innocent until proven otherwise, and get judged by our peers, not some high reaching overlord.

For sure there has been times I have complained about just slow our judicial process is and how wasteful it is our taxpayers' money. I still stand by it to a degree (looking at you the entire appeals process), but I think ultimately it is worth the time and effort to get things right.