I call myself a humorist. I make a piss-poor trade in identifying the funny stuff in the midst of garbage, sadness, strife, etc. I find humor to be life-saving, especially when it bubbles up in the midst of a gender transition, say. So I went into the jury summons process with an eye toward spotting the bits of funny. And somewhat paradoxically, the criminal justice system, even in the tiny universe of Walla Walla, has its side-splitting moments and instances that are absolutely chilling.
It started with a perforated postcard in the mail, back in early April, saying I was on the docket for June 2013. Walla Walla’s Superior Court uses a system in which jurors need to be on call to make an appearance on any given date during the month. Opening up the sealed card, one will find a short questionnaire which is supposed to be mailed back to the court right away. It tells the court if there are dates one can’t serve (I said I’d be out of town after a certain date in June), if one is or is not a United States citizen (Susanne gets out of all her jury duty for being Canadian), a resident of the county, and older than 18. It asks if one can read, speak, and write in English (illiterates need not apply?), and asks things about whether one is currently employed, and if so, what kind of work it is. There were other things on there, but I’ve forgotten them.
We assembled in the hall outside the courtroom on the 3rd floor of the courthouse, a grand building from shortly before The Territory of Washington became the 42nd State in America, back when Walla Walla was still the capitol. Gray marble does a fantastic job of making people look sombre, even if any given person is wearing cowboy boots and a 10-gallon hat. I took a seat on an old church pew in the corner and started reading my book. Carter Sickles’s The Evening Hour, which I’d skimmed through so fast a couple of months ago that I’ve felt guilty ever since. Good thing I started it again, because his use of language deserves a slow mulling. By the middle of the second chapter the woman next to me decided to strike up a conversation. Of the forty or so people called as part of the jury pool, she had three things in common with me—she’d taken a cruise to Alaska for her honeymoon, she was originally from New Jersey, and she had just gone to Hawaii for the first time in her life in the last six months. Not enough to call it a conspiracy, but interesting enough for small talk before the bailiff called us into the courtroom.
We were all given numbers. I was 24. We sat in our seats—the first twelve taking places in the actual jury box next to the judge, the rest of us in the gallery. I read the juror’s pamphlet that explained the types of trials, and looked around at the people who were supposed to represent the defendant’s peers. The tall cowboy in front of me with a gravity-defying moustache that stretched out so far on either side of his face that they were more like cat whiskers. The carefully groomed man who’d brought a small bible along with him. The two older women wearing fluffed white hair and purple paisley shirts, sitting in spots #11 and #12 in the box. Several 30-something white women all looking professional, but whom I’ve never seen around town. In fact in the room of 50 people, I didn’t know a single person. This almost never happens in a town the size of Wallyworld.
We stood as the judge entered the room. We stayed standing to take an oath to provide true answers to the judge, prosecuting attorney, and defense attorney, who would look for reasons to remove us as potential jurors. There are three ways to remove a potential juror from the final jury:
- Show cause—There is a specific reason we may not be able to be impartial on this trial. We may know one of the court’s officers, the defendant, or have a deal of knowledge about the circumstances of the crime (e.g., that was my neighbor’s mailbox that got run over).
- Peremptory challenge—Each side in the case is allowed to reject potential jurors without giving a reason whatsoever. They may not want us on the jury if we’ve experienced something similar to what the case is about. I thought for sure that if I mentioned I’d been an assault survivor and been my own witness, that the defense would toss me, but well, it’s up to each attorney. There may have been even “worse” candidates in the jury box that day.
- Be one of the individuals in the jury pool who are not needed once each side is satisfied with the jury and/or has used all of their challenges. Anyone in the pool #27 or higher didn’t get picked and were allowed to go home.
The judge asked us the same questions we’d answered on the postcard some weeks ago, looking for any raised hands that would disqualify us as jurors. Then he asked which of us had any connections to law enforcement. Cowboy raised his hand, saying he was a retired peace officer from California. Half a dozen people knew folks or themselves worked in the state penitentiary here in town (Walla Walla has one dry cleaners, and one death row). Another six or seven people knew police officers, lawyers, were retired from law enforcement. None of these people were challenged or told they could not serve, but I’ll note that none of them made it to the final jury, either.
The prosecuting attorney, who happened to have the same name as my office’s bookkeeper, stood up and addressed us. It was time for her to get to interact with us. Instead of asking us one at a time questions related to our postcard questionnaires, she asked most of her questions to us more generally, expecting we would pipe up if we felt the need to answer. I wondered how people’s tendencies toward introversion or extroversion or morality (like, will they feel an ethical or moral impulse to answer if they are implicated in a question) would intersect this format of questioning. The prosecuting attorney was tiny, maybe five-one, with flyaway blonde hair, thick glasses, and a haphazardly buttoned shirt. I had the distinct impression that Lisa Simpson had tired of having her own television show and was ready to tackle a career in the law, and here she was, far far from Springfield.
She dropped her pen on the floor, and asked the woman sitting in spot #6 if she saw it happen. Number 6 said yes.
“But that is not direct evidence,” said the prosecutor. “That is your eyewitness experience.” Another nod.
“Yet you are certain about what you saw,” asked the prosecutor. Number 6 agreed. She was certain.
Okay, I thought, so this case is weak on direct evidence, and more about eyewitness testimony.
“Would you be able to decide this case only on eyewitness testimony if it came to that,” asked Lisa Simpson’s Human Counterpart.
Next came a question about how the state needs to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt. She spoke with the man in spot #5.
“I would need it to be beyond a shadow of a doubt,” he said.
“Well, but do you understand that the law only requires it to be beyond a reasonable doubt. A doubt that a reasonable person would have.”
“Yes, but I think it needs to be stronger than that,” he said, his reading glasses perched on the top of his bald head. Juror #5 was the first person removed from the jury pool once the peremptory challenges began.
Next up was the defense attorney—a taller woman with the enjoyable name of Julie Brown. Downtown Julie Brown began by talking about her time in law school when she was in China, evaluating their legal system. The system in the United States is better, she argued, because of our presumption of innocence. One juror toward the back of the gallery raised his hand.
“I don’t understand why you’re talking about this,” he said, apparently frustrated. “Why do we care about any other country’s laws?”
There’s a lot one could say about his statement, I suppose. But Downtown Julie Brown countered with this.
“You’ve just made my point. In this country, the defendant is innocent until proven guilty.”
She moved on by asking the purple paisley woman in spot #11, the following:
“I saw from your questionnaire that you have a lot of children. Did any of them ever lie to you?”
Number 11 nodded.
“Did they ever come to you with two different stories about something? And you had to figure out which one was telling the truth?”
“Sure.” I tried to picture this woman with her dozen kids, all fighting over who ate the last Ho Ho.
“Like multiple times a day, right?” Okay, Downtown Julie Brown, don’t go insinuating it’s a prolific house of liars or anything! Settle down!
Number 11 graciously nodded with a bit of a shoulder shrug.
“So how did you determine who was telling the truth and who was lying,” asked Downtown Julie Brown.
“I just. . . I just listened to them and asked them more questions until we figured it out.”
It’s very challenging for me to write about this in hindsight, because I know so much more now than I did during these exchanges. But at the time I became increasingly concerned that the trial had only eyewitness testimony and that the jury would only get information from people who had potentially good reasons to lie in the case. Judging from the defendant in front of me—early 20s, rail-thin, a hard look on his face, close-cropped orange hair and an unflattering goatee that made his chin look like a hatchet—we were going to see some credibility issues on both sides of the table.
More questions bounced around the room. Could people be impartial if this, if that. The man with the personal bible remarked that he visits prisoners every Sunday, and later in the conversation admitted that he believed in God’s law over man’s law, and could not necessarily follow man’s law if he thought it contradicted God’s law. (I really want to find this guy again and ask if he’s against the death penalty, because I am fascinated by him.) Another woman questioned the prosecutor about what counted as “motive.” I raised my hand when we were asked if we had ever testified in a case. And I realize now that to this day, I feel icky inside when I think about the 60-second beating I took over my then brand-new Gary Fisher bicycle. I tried not to let it show.
The balloting process began. First Lisa Simpson’s Human Counterpart would write down the name of someone to remove from the jury, and then the bailiff brought it to Downtown Julie Brown, who would add her own name. The clerk read the paper, typing in the juror spots to be removed, and then the judge would send the paper back to the attorneys. The bailiff called out the spots:
“Juror number 2, please step down. Juror number 13, please take their place.” Each round it went like that, two jurors getting pulled, some the round after they’d been seated. God’s law, the cowboy, the shadow of a doubt guy, and the woman who argued about eyewitness testimony all were rejected. They crept up toward the high teens, and I counted how many peremptory challenges remained. I could actually be selected, either because no one saw fit to reject me, or because they’d be out of challenges by the time they got to me. And then sure enough, a man whose ex worked at the penitentiary and who had said nothing else during the whole morning, was excused. He had been in spot #10.
“Juror number 24, please take his place.”
And that is how I got on my first jury.