Real, Actual Jury Duty

I reported for Jury Duty at the Criminal Justice Building this morning at 8:15am, my second time doing so since moving to Philadelphia in the fall of 2003. Last time I was juror #18 in a panel of 20 for a civil trial, but after a LOT of sitting around in the courtroom, eight jurors were chosen from among the first 16, and I was sent home.

This time I was juror #8 out of a panel of 40, so I knew that chances were good that unless one of the attorneys had a specific issue with me, I was likely to be chosen to hear the trial. I was indeed, though only two of the first 10 of us were chosen this time. I'm not allowed to talk about the case at all, so I won't, but I will say a couple words about voir dire. First, I was surprised how many people answered Yes to the question "Have you or anyone close to you been the victim of a crime?" I checked Yes because I've had two bicycles and a camera stolen, among other things, and Al had his car broken into outside my apartment in San Francisco. I was horrified to hear several of the other potential jurors report that they or their family members had been robbed at gunpoint, been the victims of home invasions or assaults, or had had friends or relatives who were murdered.

To the question "Have you or someone close to you ever been charged with a crime?", I again had to answer Yes, thanks to that underage possession of alcohol charge when I was 20, to which I pled NoLo and paid a fine. Stupidest thing ever, since the charges would have been dropped had I fought them at all, but I suspect I would have had to check Yes even so. (A couple other jurors reported being charged with possession of marijuana and having had the charges dropped.) I think the record of that "conviction" was expunged after five years—and it's now been nearly 19—so it's not something I mention on applications anymore (unless it's like a serious criminal background check kind of thing).

I kind of expected that there might be others in my situation, so I wasn't surprised to hear about the marijuana possessions of 1977 and "when I was 17". I was surprised, however, to hear one woman say that practically her entire family was currently encarcerated, and several others report that brothers or sisters had been convicted of felonies. One juror checked Yes for "Is there any other reason that you might not be able to serve as a juror?" and said when questioned about it that he was on probation. Another had a pending drug charge, the status of which he was unsure.

Here's what crossed my mind during voir dire: Is this what voir dire is like in all cities? Does everyone (or nearly everyone) check Yes when they're asked if they've been a victim of a crime or been charged with a crime? I have nothing to which I can compare this experience, given that I've only ever been through the voir dire process in one other city (San Francisco), and that was for a civil case. (That one was a whole 'nother kind of weird, since there were like 80 of us being questioned as a group by like 6 different lawyers who wanted to know stuff like "Have you ever been exposed to asbestos?" and "Have you seen the movie 'A Civil Action'?") It did make me feel like perhaps Philadelphia isn't very safe... or at least, parts of it aren't.

All in all, though, I'm excited about being picked for the jury. The case is only expected to last a couple days, so it's not too inconvenient, and I like the idea of doing my part *and* learning a bit about the workings criminal justice system firsthand. I'm a little bummed that one of my fellow panelists wasn't chosen (she was really cool), and that a couple people who were a little too chatty during voir dire were (dude, we don't need to hear the whole story of that time you were robbed at gunpoint; the judge just asked "what kind of crime was it?"), but in any case, it should be interesting...

Posted by Lori in civics at 5:44 PM on January 24, 2007


Congratulations! The court is lucky to have an intelligent and fair-minded person like you on a jury. Sounds like you're already learning a lot. (And were you able to bring the laptop in?)

Posted by: juliloquy [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 25, 2007 10:22 AM

Weirdly, I just did voir dire for jury duty yesterday, here in Marin County CA. Don't know which number I was (out of 75!) but wasn't even voired. The reason I'm delurking is because I'm surprised you were asked about your criminal record. Relevance? Beeswax? We weren't asked that, only employment and whether we had been victims of thefts, specifically, ourselves. This was a criminal case. Also whether we had ever been involved with felonious assault.
Congratulations on getting in--I was disappointed not to be included. This would have been a convenient time for me and there were plenty of people loudly bitching about it.
I'm curious at what point you can say none of your beeswax without getting called off--probably never. Enjoy!

Posted by: eleanor martineau at January 25, 2007 2:58 PM

I've had several experiences sitting on a jury. They made me, if I wasn't before, totally law-abiding: the idea of my life being in the hands of some of the people I've served with is petrifying. I think we should have professional jurors.

Posted by: byjane at January 25, 2007 3:10 PM

Thanks for delurking, Eleanor -- it's fun to see who's reading! Were you given a questionnaire that was specific to the case, or was it a generic one? The 20-page questionnaire we got for the asbestos case was specific, but the one I filled out here in Philly was generic -- everyone answers the same questions. My fellow jurors and I discussed the voir dire process today while we were waiting for the judge to call us in, and all of us were surprised that the questioning was conducted in open court (and by the judge). Apparently the process wasn't so much unique to Philly as unique to this specific judge/case.

Posted by: Lori [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 25, 2007 6:40 PM

i've never been called in for jury duty. i keep waiting because i think it would be an interesting experience.

Posted by: leahpeah [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 25, 2007 7:49 PM

Ah ha! I was wringing my hands in glee reading this post and the comments! Finally, something to which I can provide an intelligent comment.

The specific, and many times to us weird, questions the attorneys or judges ask tells you something about the case itself. They most likely asked about being a crime victim or "criminal" yourself to determine if you might vote either way on the defendant's guilt. If you had been a victim of a crime they would figure that you would vote guilty. If you had been convicted of any crime, no matter how small, they would figure that you would vote innocent because the person may just be getting a bad rap. I knew someone who was asked if they were covered by State Farm insurance, which seemed completely out of left field. It turned out that the case was about someone suing State Farm.

It is fascinating! I've only been able to participate once, and I wasn't chosen to serve. I'm now a person who can't wait to be called again...sick!

Posted by: Josie [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 26, 2007 1:23 PM

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