CALLED FOR JURY SERVICE
In February I received a summons/order to appear for jury service. My brother, Ron, and a few of the other brothers and sisters from my meeting had been called, but I had previously never given the subject much thought. I found myself unable to think of anything else as I placed this official looking document on my desk. I opened my file cabinet and dug around until I found the folder that said "Jury Duty" on it. Over the years, I had collected odds and ends on the subject. After my brother Ron was summoned, he gave a class on the subject and I had saved a handout from it. Now I felt a sense of urgency to prepare myself to appear before a judge in a court of man. I was afraid.
I began reading, then making phone calls to anyone who had been there before. I took notes on what they said. I wrote a detailed letter (along with one from the recording brother of our meeting) asking to be excused for religious reasons. The court sent me a letter back stating that my request was DENIED. This is usually the case. Previously, only people that were registered voters were called, but now it's anyone with a driver's license. In my heart, I knew that this was an opportunity to declare my faith, and that I should welcome it. The fear of the unknown heightened my anxiety, so I decided that when it was over, I would commit to paper my thoughts and observations of jury service.
These jury specifics apply to Michigan and although the requirements vary from state to state (and country to country), many are similar.
Who Serves? Anyone over 18 years of age with a driver's license or state-issued ID card may be considered for jury service in a local, circuit or federal court. You must live within the jurisdiction of the court calling.
Who Can't Serve? In a state court, noncitizens, people who do not speak or understand English, anyone who has been on a jury within the past year or is under a felony sentence at the time the jury is needed.
Who Gets Out? People over 70 can get an exemption if they request it. Depending on the court, lawyers for either side may be able to reject up to 15 prospective jurors without stating a reason. In federal court, anyone who has been on a federal jury within the past two years may be excused.
What Happens? If you ignore a summons: You will get a follow-up notice or phone call, and could be found in contempt of court and penalized. In Wayne County, punishment can be 30 days in jail and a $250.00 fine.
The California State Bar Juror's Handbook reads:
"You have been summoned to render interesting and important service as a juror. When you are chosen as a juror, for a short time you are a part of the governmental machinery of this state for the judicial determination of a lawsuit. Your services as a juror are as important as those of the judge . . ."
The court system and "governmental machinery" had escaped me for all of my 42 years until now. Now, I would be swept away by an environment that was totally foreign, unknown and uncomfortable for me. The summons/order to appear for jury service came by U.S. mail and I became known as "Juror Number 42." Included was a map to the courthouse, instructions on the proper attire and the phone number to call to find out which day (of the two listed,) that I should report for service. The two dates listed were Thursday, May 13, and Friday, May 14. I followed the instructions and called after 5:00 p.m. on Wednesday evening. The recording told me to report to the "Jury Room" at the Oakland County Courthouse by 8:30 a.m. Thursday morning.
While driving to the courthouse Thursday morning, I was trying to remember the last time I had felt this nervous. It seemed that I got stuck behind every pokey driver and dump truck. There was roadwork going on everywhere! Even the red lights seemed longer than usual. I found myself praying out loud as I drove along; my emotions were running high.
After I missed my turn, I doubled back and finally found the courthouse. It was big and I wasn't sure where to park. I was running close on time. When I walked through the doors, three Oakland County Sheriffs and metal detectors greeted me. I put my purse on the belt to be X-rayed, along with my bag containing enough reading materials for a week. (I never even opened one book, since I found it difficult to concentrate. I was up and down a lot too as you'll learn later.)
After clearing security, I followed the sign that said, "Jury Room." I walked down a long hallway and checked in at the desk. I could see the room full of people from the counter, as they asked me what Juror number I was, crossed my name off the list and handed me a large white badge with "Juror" printed in large, black ink. They told me to clip it onto my dress and leave it there all day. I felt weak in the knees as I made my way into a large room filled with tables and chairs. There were very few seats left, and a jury clerk had already begun opening remarks. I hurried to the closest empty seat. I sat listening to the introductory instructions and I studied the room. There were several snack and coke machines, a water cooler and hot coffee. Then I looked closely at all the individuals assembled there who all had big white "Juror" badges clipped to their clothes, too. I kept trying to take deep breaths like we were taught in Lamaze classes, but I just couldn't get enough air!
After the opening remarks, we watched a 20 minute video (there were three TVs mounted in three corners of the room) explaining to us our responsibilities as a juror. When the video was over, the jury clerk made a few more comments and at 9:00 a.m. we were left to wait until our number was called. Silly me, I thought that maybe my number wouldn't get called!
At 9:10 a.m. the call came over the PA system that jurors with numbers 1-86 should line up. I was stunned and my legs felt weak. We assembled in the hallway outside the room to hear where we were going and then it was a case of follow the leader. We rode three elevators in several waves, until all of us were on the 5th floor. I was trembling, but struggled to keep my composure, all the while dragging along my book bag. It was a comfort to me, knowing that my wide margin Bible was in the bag and close by.
9:20 a.m. - We are herded into the court of Judge Rudy J. Nichols. Straight ahead there were several rows of wood benches and we were told to sit there as a group. These benches are similar to church pews and they are all at the back of the room. In front is the judge's bench and between the judge and these jury benches are the prosecuting attorney on one side and the defense on the other. Then there is the jury "box." It is located directly to the left of the judge. The jury box consists of two rows, seven chairs in back and seven in front. The jury box is cramped. The mood is serious in this room.
The defendant is seated next to his attorney, and we are told a little about this case and what will be expected of us. The judge told us he expected this trial to take one day. The man was charged with larceny in a building. Then we were asked to raise our right hand and swear or affirm that we'll answer truthfully all questions that will be asked about our qualifications to serve as trial jurors in the pending case. The court clerk then proceeds to draw numbers out of a wooden box, and as the numbers are called out, the juror gets up and takes a seat in the jury box. My number is the third one called. After fourteen numbers are called, the judge begins to ask questions. Do you own a business? Two people did and were sole proprietors, so they were excused. GULP. I need air and wait patiently. I do not know when it is polite to speak. I don't want to be hair trigger, but I also don't want to wait too long and risk getting the judge mad. Another number is called to replace the juror that has just been excused because he had a business. A very crude man replaces him. Even before he sits down, he blurts out that he doesn't agree with anything about the court system. (Here, here!) The judge looks disgusted. He asks him if he will follow instructions and he states loud and clear that he WILL NOT! The judge tells him to leave and looks away in disgust as he gets up to exit the courtroom. I raise my hand with caution and say, "Your honor, if it please the court, I would like to speak." He nods. "Your honor, my religious beliefs place me in conflict with imposing judgment or penalties on others. May I please be excused?" He asks the defense attorney if he objects. No. I am excused. I am shaking all over as I stumble past several seats in the cramped jury box to get out. I avoid looking at anyone and keep my eyes fixed on the double doors. Those wonderful, glorious doors!!
What's important to know is that this DID NOT excuse me for the rest of the day. I had to return to the jury room and wait for my number to be called again. I will have to repeat this same process if my number is called again to another courtroom.
9:20 a.m. - Ladies room. Sit, sit, sit. Maybe if I sit here long enough, they'll forget about me.
10:00 a.m. - Back to Jury Room. It's almost empty. Some relief, but adrenaline is still coursing through my veins. Other jurors have been dismissed too and are trickling into the jury room. I dare to look around to see if anyone is staring at me. No one seems to notice. I hear that there were some jurors dismissed without even being asked one question or making one statement. One older man has a long ponytail that went up with my "group" but returned shortly after me. People have made "friends" and are chatting amiably. Many are reading.
10:30 a.m. - Called again. Up two flights of stairs to Judge Jessica R. Cooper's Court on the third floor. She is the judge that has been in the newspapers a LOT lately. She is a no-nonsense judge. I think she handled the Jack Kevorkian trial that recently landed him in jail for assisted suicide. I try to take a deep breath. The air comes in choppy and I'm trying to control the trembling.
Judge Cooper is steely-eyed and terse. Not a soft cell in her body! She opens by saying that all the "excuses" we gave the jury clerk for reasons not to serve didn't work there and won't work in her courtroom either. GULP! This is an assault case (with a weapon) for food stamps. HUH? I couldn't believe someone tried to steal food stamps, of all things! Again, each juror number is called one by one. I wait and strain to hear my number. There's so many potential jurors seated, maybe I won't get called. My number is the tenth called! I feel weak again. My reading bag is heavy as I lift it, along with my purse, to enter the jury box.
I sit quietly and wait for an opportunity to declare my faith. I still do not know when it is appropriate to speak. Finally, the question comes. Is there anything that would cause us to not render a fair and impartial verdict. Four of us raise our hands. When it is my turn to speak, I am so worked up; I can hardly get the words out. As I spoke (or rather, tried to speak) I didn't even recognize my own voice. I am choking the words out. My voice is so quiet; I can hardly hear myself. The words don't flow like I want them too. Every eye is watching me and I fix my gaze on the judge. I stumble through the opening words, and finally repeat that my religious beliefs put me in conflict with imposing judgment or penalties on others. May I please be excused? (I later wonder what the court reporter recorded, since the first several words out of my mouth were unintelligible.)
Judge Cooper addresses the defense attorney to ask if he has any objections. No. I am dismissed and run for the door!
11:00 a.m. - No door ever looked better! I try to open one door, then the other. I push one, then the other. Please, open! Am I locked inside? Is this a trick? Finally, another juror sitting in the pews tells me to p-u-l-l the left door open. Whew! The door opens and I step into the hallway. (This, by the way, happened to me in every courtroom! I had the irresistible urge to push, push, push! Each time, I felt every eye upon me as I struggled to get out of there!) My head is pounding and I can feel the heat in my cheeks. The elevator is my escape, but I take it to the wrong floor. DAH!
11:05 a.m. - Back in the jury room. Someone has turned on one of the three TVs and it's a blur of white spots. This jury room was packed at 9:00 a.m. this morning and now the crowd has thinned to less than a third. The crude man was sitting in back of Judge Cooper's courtroom when I left. He is not back. Boy, she'll tear him up if he says to her what he said to Judge Nichols! She is strictly business!!
11:45 a.m. - Juror numbers 42-266 are called. Why me? There is a muffled complaint or two in the crowd about it being close to lunch. My legs feel like rubber and my breathing is in short gasps. We are led up a flight of stairs to the courtroom of Judge Deborah Tyner. The crowd files in and fills the pew-like benches. This is getting old. Breathe, Debi, just breathe. Judge Tyner makes a few opening remarks and dismisses us for lunch. It is 12:00 p.m. and we must return by 1:30 p.m. She warns us "don't be late!"
We file out of the courtroom. I make my way to the cafeteria in the basement. As I traverse the long hallways, I make a mental note of where I've been so I won't get lost and be late coming back from lunch. I don't know if I feel hungry, but decide I might feel better if I eat. The good thing is that no one talks to me since I wear a "Juror" badge and no one wants to "tamper with the jury." I fix a large salad (and get a few compliments on it) as I find a seat by myself. There are ample opportunities to think and pray.
1:30 p.m. - There are 36 jurors seated in the pews in Judge Tyner's court. Can you guess who is late?
1:35 p.m. - We are waiting for the judge. I avoid any contact or chitchat with the other jurors. I'm trying to remember the last time I felt this nervous. Everyone around me appears so calm. The judge is late, even after instructing us to be on time! Attendance is taken. One by one, we answer that we are present. Finally, the judge appears and tells us that she is NOT going to seat a jury. Oh, good! I'll be glad to leave and put this whole thing behind me! NOT! We are instructed to return to this same courtroom the following day at 11:00 a.m. What? I want a refund! What kind of a bad joke is THAT!? The thought of coming back is overwhelming, but at least I've honed my request to be excused and they tell me that this is the only courtroom I'll have to report to the next day.
THE NEXT DAY:
11:00 a.m. - This case is an older man that has been accused of criminal sexual conduct with a young girl. I feel sick. Real sick. Again, we go through the whole process of the judge's instructions, etc. Again, I am called on the first pass. I am the fifth juror seated and as I sit in the box, the defendant stares at me. It sends a chill down my back. Did he do it? What if he is innocent and has been falsely accused? His name will be tarnished and his reputation ruined. His wife and children are seated in the courtroom. Again, I try to avoid eye contact with anyone but the judge. The judge made it easier for me this time. She asked several questions and was the only judge to specifically ask if anyone has any philosophical or religious beliefs that would make it difficult for them to render a fair and impartial verdict. Again, I was dismissed. Again, my legs were shaky. Again, I had trouble getting the door open. Outside, I sailed through the hallways and returned to the jury room for one final visit. I returned the "Juror" badge, signed out, picked up my check and headed for the door. (Jurors are paid $15.00/day plus gas mileage. Don't spend it all in one place!)
Another giant conquered with the help of a Loving Heavenly Father! Since jury selection has changed from anyone that votes to anyone that has a driver's license, I knew that some day I might be called. Other Christadelphians had been called and had related their experiences over the years. I hadn't paid much attention to them until now. Now, I was scrambling for any piece of information, any tidbit, which might help me get through it. So the idea was born that I would commit my reflections to paper to help others that might someday be faced with a summons to appear for jury service.
-Submitted by Sis. Debi Wilhoit
Royal Oak Ecclesia, Michigan, U.S.A.
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