A day of jury duty

I had a summons to jury duty yesterday and it was a day of such ranging emotions and experiences that I thought I would share the experience, even though it’s not tech related.  I live in Houston which is in Harris County and my summons was to the Harris County Judicial system.  I must say the organization of the jury system was very good and they ran it like clockwork.  Jurors must arrive at 8 am to the Jury Room in downtown Houston which turned out to be a room of theater like proportions.  There must have been 3,000 prospective jurors summoned for that particular day and the stadium seating was completely full with dozens of late-comers having to stand until called.  At precisely 9 am the clerks started doling out jurors for the various courts by empaneling groups of jurors depending on the type of case each court was handling that day.  This jury pool was supplying jurors for all civil and criminal courts in Harris County which accounted for the large pool.  This early in the day I would never have guessed how upsetting my day was destined to be.

Jurors were assigned to different courts one court at a time and the number of people called depended on the type of court and case.  It was quickly apparent that if they called a pool of 20 people to a panel it was likely a civil case with criminal courts requiring a larger pool from which the lawyers could pick and choose for the trial.  The juror numbers started at 2000 and since my number was over 3200 I knew it would be a while before I was assigned to a case.  After an hour of calling jurors to different courts my number came up and I was assigned to a jury panel of 65 people.  This told us it was a criminal case of some kind and not a normal one since most panels were 40 people or so.

We were lined up at the front of the room and then marched downstairs to the staging area.  The court bailiff took a roll  to make sure we were all accounted for and since one person was AWOL we had to wait about 15 minutes for a replacement to be assigned and sent downstairs.  The bailiff then told us which court we would be going to and how to find it in case we got lost.  He then marched us in a double file the two blocks to the courthouse in which we would be spending at least the next few hours.  It was a good thing it was not raining.

Once we got to the courthouse we spent another 15 minutes going through stringent security screening just like at the airport.  Belts and shoes off, pat down if the metal detector still went off.  Once through security we headed up to the 15th floor and lined up again in the hallway outside the court.  Each of us had been assigned a number back at the staging room and we were required to line up and sit in court in numerical order.  It would quickly be apparent why that was required.

When we were finally called into the courtroom the judge, attorneys and the defendant were already seated and waiting for us.  We filed in order and sat in the pews supplied for trial witnesses and then the interrogation began.  The judge spoke to us for over an hour telling us vague details about the case we would be hearing if selected for the jury.  He told us what was expected from the jury and it was a very interesting speech he gave.  When he finished up we were then interrogated by the district attorney who gave us further details about the case and read the indictments to us.  The defendant was indicted on two charges of aggravated sexual assault of a minor, relating to two different incidents happening a month apart.  They were very young girls we were told and the fact one of the charges was aggravated sexual assault meant that a weapon was involved.

Members of the jury panel were visibly upset by this point and I certainly was among them.  If the defendant did what they indicted him for he was a very bad person and it felt very unsettling being in the same room with him.  He looked to be about 20 years old to me.  As the district attorney questioned us to try and determine who he wanted on the jury it was apparent he was constrained in what he could divulge about the case lest he violate the defendant’s right to a fair trial.  He was obviously bending over backwards to not say the wrong thing to us that might prejudice us in any way.  It was still obvious what his case was going to be through his hypothetical questions he was asking. 

When he was finished the judge told us to go to lunch for an hour as it was already early afternoon and we were instructed to be back promptly in one hour.  He told us we would then be asked a bunch of questions by the defense attorney when we returned.  Needless to say the entire group was not really in much of a mood for lunch and everyone went their own way when leaving the courthouse for the hour.  It was interesting to see that everyone was so visibly shaken to be a part of such a heinous crime that no one wanted to hang out with other members on the panel.  I went outside and bought a sandwich and drink from a street vendor and sat down for an hour in the sunshine and just tried to relax for a bit.  It didn’t work and while I usually don’t let things get to me I have to admit I was wound up like a spring at the prospect of having to sit through this trial and listen to the evidence of this crime.  I suspect I was not the only one on the panel feeling that way as everyone looked nervous as can be as they filed back up to the hallway outside the courtroom.

My back was really hurting me due to all the standing we had to do earlier in the day so I went to the waiting area at the end of the hall outside the courtroom so I could sit down until they would let us back in the courtroom.  I sat down on one of the benches provided for visitors to the court proceedings and looked at the people all around me sitting there.  It was obvious that the 8 people were all family members and were there for some trial or another.  There was a grandmother, a couple of other adults and some children all spread out among the various benches.  Sitting next to me was a teenage girl who I estimated was about 13 or so.  She was sitting quietly and braiding the hair of one of the younger girls sitting next to her. 

After a brief time she asked me if the jury had been selected yet.  The question surprised me because it meant she was watching the particular courtroom I had exited when going to lunch an hour before.  I told her that the jury selection wasn’t finished yet and that the judge said they would finish selecting the jury around 3 in the afternoon.  She then told me that they (the family group) were there for her uncle who was the defendant.  She said it so matter of factly that I was taken aback a little and didn’t know how to respond.  I knew I shouldn’t be talking to her so I was framing a way to say that without appearing rude since she was so sincere and I was so totally unprepared that her next statement floored me.

"We’re here to support my uncle for his trial because he told us he did it and he’s really, really sorry."  When I was able to pick my jaw up off the floor I said I had to go and went into the courtroom.  I went straight to the bailiff and told him I needed to speak privately to the judge but was told that was not possible.  If I needed to say something during the selection period I had to say it in the open session.  So I told him exactly what had happened and the next thing I know I’m escorted into the judge’s chamber behind the courtroom and repeat the story word for word.  The judge told me he’d never seen this happen in all the years he’d been presiding over courts.  Since his concern was that an open admission of this statement the defendant’s niece had made to me would contaminate the jury selection process he asked me to return as if nothing happened and not say a word.

So that’s what I did, and sat there as the defense attorney went through his interrogation of the jurors.  It was interesting to hear his interrogation as the rules under which the defense attorney must operate are very different from those of the district attorney.  Where the DA was very careful how he worded his questions the defense attorney was not.  He talked a lot about how the rape of a little girl was a terrible thing and wanted to make sure that the jurors they selected for trial would not be prejudiced against the defendant because of the nature of the case.  It was a very interesting session while also unsettling for all of us on the panel.

When it was over they sent us out for 10 minutes and then brought us back in and the 13 jurors were announced.  I was probably the only one of those excused who was not surprised and I must say those of us who left the courtroom at that point were still pretty unnerved at the inhumanity we had just experienced.  It was certainly an experience I will never forget, and I didn’t even sit through the trial.


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