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Jury Duty…or Privilege?

Living and practicing law in Louisville, Kentucky probably isn’t a lot different than practicing law in a lot of other states. And, trial lawyers here and elsewhere are always concerned about the animosity and resentment people display when called on to do their civic duty by serving on a jury. 

A while back I wrote about what a misnomer the term “jury selection” is. Lawyers don’t get to select a single person to be on the jury, much less select the entire jury.  That is why lawyers are so concerned that well educated and thoughtful people don’t try to get out of jury service.  We need a broad cross section of society to ensure fair trials.  When people shirk their responsibility, we are left with something less than a cross-section.

Recently, Ms. Betty Baye wrote about here experience on a jury here in Jefferson County, Kentucky and she laments what trial lawyers have known for years. People should be more engaged in the process and thankful for the opportunity to play a party in the judicial system.  After all, whether its a car wreck or a DUI charge, one day you may be the one hoping someone thoughtful and involved will be on your jury.  Here is Ms. Baye’s article:

“I could have come up with plenty of good reasons to finagle my way out of jury duty, but claiming I couldn’t be spared at work wasn’t an option, my supervisor made patently clear.

Plus, several friends implied that they wouldn’t speak to me again if I didn’t serve.

So I did, but I must admit that I’ve done my share of complaining that the criminal justice system isn’t fair and yet may find occasion to do so again. And I know on good authority that many African Americans, regardless of station, are leery of “the system” simply because far too often, it seems less about justice than “just us.”Yet, that’s even more reason to jump into the jury pool; it’s the hope of making it, if not all fair, at least more fair.

Frankly, if a day ever comes when I’m the criminal defendant or a party in a civil suit, I hope that there will be jurors who will give me a fair hearing.

Meanwhile, a word of thanks to the Jefferson County jury pool administrators and the sheriffs, who, knowing full well that some of us were disgruntled about being there, nevertheless, were respectful of us and the service we were being asked to render for the princely sum of $5 a day.

No, that’s not a typographical error.

But the paltry pay (no doubt an impediment to some who might otherwise serve) in no way diminishes the gravity of the juror’s task.

And, yes, since most cases are settled, jurors may spend hours of the usual two-week commitment waiting to be called, or being made to sit through a tedious voir dire (that’s French for “speak the truth”) only to be dismissed and thrown back into the jury pool.

My jury pool was more than 300 strong, and it was interesting how people, from the length and breath of this community, and who might not ever otherwise cross paths, quickly bond as if they’ve known one another for years.

There’s a rare egalitarianism in a jury pool. Those who have the longest titles and are the highest paid professionals, in their other lives, carry no more weight than the least educated and lowest paid laborers in the jury pool. On a jury, what everybody thinks matters, and any juror can slow or stop the process if they feel unready to agree with the majority.

When I finally did get to sit on a jury, a baby-faced lawyer made a yeoman’s effort to sell a far-fetched explanation for his client’s speeding and DUI charges. His client was found guilty, but that lawyer raised sufficient doubts to keep the defendant from being jailed. And behind the scenes, armed with the judge’s instructions, six jurors labored over our verdict as if we’d be asked to decide a death penalty case.

If you need reason to take jury duty seriously, think about the fact that today, in the “land of the free,” more than 2.3 million people were incarcerated at the start of this year, according to a Pew Center study. That’s 800,000 more than in China, which has four times our population.

Or sitting in the jury pool, one might wish to contemplate that, collectively, states spent more than $49 billion to fund their corrections systems last year.

One might even be more humbled by the awesome task of judging others after learning that, just since 1989, 215 people (131 African Americans, 59 Caucasians, 19 Latinos, one Asian-American and five of unknown race) were exonerated in 32 states thanks to DNA testing not available years ago. Of the 215, fully 16 had served time on death row.

My point in writing this column is simply to say that when your “invitation” to jury duty arrives in the mail, try thinking of your service in a larger context than simply as a disruption to your daily routines.

Think of jury duty as a debt one owes in a society that aspires to be free, but never will be, if too many citizens decide that they can’t be bothered with the work of being their sisters’ and brothers’ keepers.”

Betty Winston Bayé’s column appears Thursdays; her e-mail address is bbaye@courier-journal.com.

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