Last week I experienced my first voir dire as a potential juror. This post reports on the experience.
I was summoned to appear in the big courtroom at the Hinds County Courthouse at 8:30 a.m. This was my second jury summons, but the first where I made it onto a panel.
Hinds County Circuit Clerk Zack Wallace initially led the proceeding. He explained how hard it is to get people to show up for jury duty, thanked everyone for being there and told us four times to turn off our cell phones or put them on silent. Having seen how much judges relish seizing ringing cell phones, the emphasis seemed appropriate.
About 150 people (my estimate) showed up out of 500 who were summoned. Only one jury was needed for the week, so it was way more people than needed. I had an inkling that it was for a criminal trial because I couldn’t find a scheduled civil trial on any of the judge’s on-line calendars.
Judge Gowan presided and was all business. Some judges have comedy routines for voir dire. But that seems to occur more in smaller venues. I appreciated the brevity. We were dismissed by 9:30.
Judge Gowan went through the litany of reasons that excuse people from jury duty: age, habitual drunk, common gambler and the like. After Judge Gowan finished, Mr. Wallace drew names for the panels.
Knowing a bit about voir dire, I preferred to either be in panels 1-2 or not invited back for the afternoon. Naturally, I was in panel 4 and had to come back at 1:30. I can’t recall a trial where anyone from panel 4 made it onto the jury, so I figured that I was unlikely to be in play for the lawyers picking the jury.
We reported back at 1:30 p.m. in the jury assembly room. Five panels came back so there were 60-plus people there. No one was talking. A few people read books. Most people played on their phones. I saw one person napping, but most of us were saving our naps for the courtroom.
I recognized a neighbor and an employee at one of the local gyms. My neighbor is handicapped and complained about how poorly handicapped accessible the courthouse is. I’d never thought about it, but he has a point.
Before we were herded to the courtroom, no one explained what was going to happen. I thought this was a mistake.
Bailiffs lined us up and took us into the courtroom at 1:45 p.m. When we entered the courtroom, it was obvious that it was a criminal trial because I didn’t recognize any of the lawyers and there was only 1 person at the prosecutor’s table. Turns out it was a murder case being prosecuted by the Attorney General’s office.
If you’ve ever wondered the percentage of Hinds County residents own guns, it’s close to 100% based on the response to a voir dire question.
A few potential jurors admitted to knowing prospective witnesses in the case. But they said that they could be fair in response to very leading questions.
The defense attorney asked who had been a victim of a violent crime or had a family member who had been a victim of a violent crime, but without defining ‘violent crime.’ I thought that was a mistake.
The defense attorney asked me who I worked for (I put ‘self’ on questionnaire) and what kind of work I do. I did not volunteer responses to any of the other broad questions. The only question I was uncertain on responding to was the one on family members as victims of violent crimes. I have a niece who was almost abducted. The perpetrator was caught and imprisoned. Was that a violent crime? I don’t know.
We breaked between the prosecution and defense voir dire. We returned to the jury assembly room at about 3:45 p.m. Once again, there was little interaction between the prospective jurors, which I found surprising. I guess they don’t start talking until they actually make it onto the jury.
At about 5:00 p.m., the bailiff came back and called out the names of the twelve jurors and three alternates selected and released the rest of us. I did not try to analyze who was left on the jury and why people were struck. I wish I had. But it was late and I was ready to beat it out of there.
I thought the process went about as efficient as it could. I never thought the judge or attorneys were wasting time. One suggestion for improvement is for someone to explain what was happening when we reported back at 1:30 p.m. I knew, but suspect that most people did not.
The longest wait was after voir dire while the judge and attorneys picked the jury in the courtroom. I thought it would have been fine and people would have appreciated it if someone had explained the reason what appeared to jurors to be a delay.
I’ve previously written criticisms about how we pick juries without telling potential jurors anything about the facts or law of the case. Yet we ask them to commit that they can be fair and impartial even though we really haven’t told them anything about the case. There is a lot of room for improvement in this area.
Of course people say they can be fair when we don’t tell them anything about the case. We also let them know that’s the right answer. Most people don’t want the attention of saying they I can’t be fair.
I’ve been in trials where there were mini-openings before voir dire. That along with a brief explanation of the law would be helpful.
Also, this goes against the grain, but I think juries should be instructed on the law before the evidence goes in.
The judicial system is set in its ways on picking juries. It’s not horrible, but it could be improved. The institutional resistance to try to improve the jury system baffles me. We have rules committees for improving pre-trial procedure, but give almost no attention to improving trials.
All in all, my jury duty day was a worthwhile and educational experience. In addition to it being your civic duty, you might learn a thing or two that you can implement in your trial practice when you participate in jury selection from outside the rail.