Initiation Into The Jury System (February 2016)

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Suffolk County Courthouse Boston MA | Jenny SW Lee on Jury Duty
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons User Daderot

Initiation Into The Jury System – My Civic Obligation

A juror’s process of initiation begins with surrendering to the legal system and exercising its standard of reasonable certainty. During my civic obligation of jury duty on Friday, I was equipped with a clear conscience and reading material covering “Science & Spirit – exploring things that matter” and “Tikkun – to mend, repair, and transform the world”. While going through the extensive selection process of voir dire, I questioned and examined more deeply the randomness of jurors picked as part of the justice system. I would call this, “calculated randomness”, where there is a level of organization to the selection similar to perhaps the laws of nature in the cosmos. We were shepherded from one assembly room to another, our identities defined by the numbers we were handed.

I am once again reminded of the ecclesiastical atmosphere of jury trials—the silence instilled by obedience, wooden benches facing the podium (or altar) and pure light shining through tall windows. “All rise!” The judge entered the room and summoned us to raise our hands to swear oath to telling the truth as we do in prayer to God. I realized that this entire process was not included in the black-and-white, 1957 film, “12 Angry Men”, which I watched a week before. The movie stressed the importance of observation, analysis, clarity of thought free from prejudice, collaboration, responsibility and self-belief. Twelve strangers were fortuitously brought together as a single unit at that moment in time to judge the course of another’s life in a criminal trial, and then freed as separate entities. Several of the jurors seemed to have strong temperaments or be coping with personal issues especially in the case of the last opposing juror. One by one, and frame by frame, each juror revealed some level of insecurity, but once they were made aware of their problems, this gave them a new perspective into the court case. 12AngryMen Film | Initiation Into The Jury SystemBased on my experience so far in the jury selection system, it appeared that the process of voir dire was to eliminate potential jurors who may have any suspicion of bias towards any aspect of the trial, unlike the jurors featured in the movie. It also appeared that jurors were chosen despite their uniqueness or experience, which was contrary to the jury duty video orientation that was played for us.

Break Free Thinking – Art In The Courtroom

As prospective jurors (or actors, depending on what value the role meant to each person), we were allowed a 1-hour lunch break, but otherwise we had to remain in the courthouse unless dismissed from duty. The calm and controlled court atmosphere rebounded me to a state of artistic inquiry and self awareness. In this state, it allowed me to bring art into the courtroom by thinking more critically about a question a fellow scientist once asked me about creation (my art) and its destruction. You can read my response to this question in my essay, “Do Justice On Art”.

Voir Dire – outlandish and suspenseful

Alas, being the second to last jury group to reach the next stage of voir dire, my jury number was called. I was ushered into another courtroom and was requested to sit in a black, cushioned seat surrounded by the defense attorney, suspect, prosecutor and judge all sitting within a few feet from me, behind rectangular tables. It was a new experience that seemed outlandish and suspenseful at once. It was like being on a random interview, one which you could not quite prepare for. My voice sounded foreign in this place as I responded to questions posed in a robotic manner where there was no hint of human emotion. It took a bit of extra effort to comprehend what was being asked because of this. After spending the preceding hours of the day ruminating over the vast universe and keeping an open mind, it seemed as if every question they asked me was narrow and undeveloped. I felt I needed clarity on their every question. Capping with the fact that I was a biology major after being asked, it probably was convincing evidence that I tend to have difficulty reaching conclusions beyond reasonable doubt. From that point, I was escorted out of the room and was asked to stand in the pass through vestibule with the next juror in line. He looked up at me from his chair and inquired with anticipation, “Were you picked?”. At that point, I said, “I hope not” even though I would have probably been fine with serving on the jury to further experience the whole jury duty process and learn more about the trial.

Is Jury Duty a Hardship or an Honor?

I was dismissed from jury duty along with all the others who came in that day and were not chosen. I was surprised by the vetting process. I wondered if perhaps there was a more efficient way of making the day more worthwhile for each potential juror called in. There were two Asian students who sat right beside me at one point with their college textbooks and conversed briefly with one another. They were frustrated that they were picked for jury duty and believed that students’ priorities should be school and their studies. There was even a student I recall who frantically worked on schoolwork or appeared to be prepping for an exam. She sat in practically the same spot as the suspect in the prior assembly room. It became clear that judging the course of another’s life was not at the forefront of her mind at this time. I do see this as a valuable opportunity for any student to experience; however, I also can relate from once being in their same shoes. My thought process was more along the lines of confinement in a course curriculum that students are assigned to once they declared a major, and the other thought was being confined within classroom cells, similar to courtrooms of a courthouse. The first question asked of me by the judge was whether serving as a juror for a two-weeks span would be a hardship for me. My first thought were the students and parents with young children and people with jobs that were less forgiving. Relieved, my priorities and circumstances are different, so my answer was apparent and not difficult.

We Are Human

My gaze rested upon the suspect in the assembly room, which was filled with jurors summoned for the day. She looked familiar, but then again, we often subconsciously find similarities between strangers and people we know. As my eyes circled around the room to look at the potential jurors, I thought about how we all could have been that suspect and our fate governed by strangers. My experience as a juror concludes with this—a contemplative chronicle of my experience of today’s American Judicial system.

Follow Jenny S.W. Lee:

Greater Boston, Seattle and Vancouver (BC) based artist & photographer exhibiting internationally.

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