Friday, December 22, 2017

Our Civic Duty

As Americans, we are granted numerous rights and privileges based on the Constitution.  The Founding Fathers made sure that these rights were protected when drafting the Constitution because of the numerous violations and denials of rights by the British government during their colonial rule.  It took a war with the British to preserve those rights and the Founding Fathers wanted to make sure that our government couldn't/wouldn't do the same (and we were able to mend our relationship with the British, I like to compare it to a family quarrel, you still love each other but you have your differences and sometimes you have to move away in order to preserve that relationship).

Some of the rights and privileges granted by the Constitution are often times referred to as "civic duties."  What comes to my mind when I hear this are things like voting and jury duty.  Voting is a right that too few exercise on Election Day and much more are not informed voters when heading to the polls, which can be just as dangerous as not voting (I vow to not make this political, you can read into the previous line however you wish).  Jury duty, on the other hand, is something that many people have never done, and most people dread the thought of having to report for jury duty.  Recently, I had the opportunity to serve on a jury and the experience was something that I definitely learned a lot from.

I had my preconceived notions about jury duty and the court system, in general, going into duty; after all, I did teach social studies for a long time and watch a lot of Law & Order: SVU.  I knew that Hollywood embellished court proceedings, but how, I wasn't 100% sure.  I had been selected for jury duty twice before:  once in college, but I got out of it because I lived almost 5 hours from home, and once about 7-8 years ago, but I reported to the courthouse and was released a few hours later when they already had enough jurors.  One of the biggest questions I had was, "How do you get selected for a jury?"

I reported early on a Monday morning, checked in, and was instructed to listen for my "juror number" on my badge.  Hundreds of other people were there as well, most of them complaining about having to be there and how they were missing work, had to be somewhere else, etc.  After sitting for a couple of hours, my number was called and I was told, along with about 60 other people, that we would be going to a courtroom to being the jury selection process.  At this point, this is farther than I had ever made it in potentially serving on a jury.

The next step in the process of jury selection was questions and answers from the judge, the prosecution, and the defense.  The judge had a specific set of questions to ask, things like how long we had lived in Clark County, what we did for work, highest level of education, whether or not we could be impartial to testimony and evidence, and whether we would give more or less credence to testimony from officers simply because they were an officer.  The attorneys from both sides went into greater detail in their questions, often times based on answers that were given to questions from the judge.  One of the defense attorneys asked me if I wanted to be there and to not be afraid to say no, but I stated that I was intrigued by the process as a former social studies teacher and was interested in taking a real-life experience back to my students.

The process ended up taking nearly two full days.  Fourteen of us were selected to sit on the jury to hear a case involving armed robbery and illegal use of credit and debit cards and sworn in by the courts' clerk.  We heard the opening statements from the State of Nevada and the defense regarding the case and the first witness was called prior to our release from the first day.  At each break and when the case rested for the day, we were given strict instructions not to speak about the trial, not to do any research on the case or any of the parties, and to avoid any news or websites that may address the case.  We were instructed not to even tell our spouses.

Over the course of nearly two weeks, we heard from 25 witnesses, ranging from victims in the case to arresting officers, to expert witnesses in DNA, fingerprints, the "dumping of phone records", and many more.  Over 200 exhibits were introduced as evidence as well.  It was interesting to see how the prosecution and defense both approached witnesses, evidence, and questioning.  If you didn't know any better, you would have thought the two sides were on the same team; it is not like on TV where the prosecution and defense seem to be at each others' throats.

After closing statements, we were given instructions on jury deliberation and sent to a room where we would be "locked up" until we came out with a decision.  Because the trial ended late in the day, we did not begin to deliberate immediately.  We were asked to select a foreperson for the jury before we left; to my surprise, three of my peers on the jury stated that I should be the foreperson, which I found to be quite the honor.

When we reconvened the next morning over a breakfast of eggs and bacon provided by the court, we began the, what we thought was going to be, long process of picking through the evidence and our notes.  However, it didn't turn out to be nearly as long as we expected.  The State had put together a very solid case against the defendants and the evidence was very strong against them.  After only about 4 hours of deliberation, we summoned the bailiff and told him that we had a verdict.  We returned to the courtroom where the judge asked me if we had reached a verdict.  I turned it over to the bailiff and after the judge read it, the courts' clerk read to the defendants that we had found them guilty of all 25 counts in which they had been accused.  At this point, the judge thanked us for our service but stated that there were additional charges that could not be presented during the trial and that our services were needed further.  He assured us that it would be brief and that we would return to hear the charges and make our decision after lunch, which the court provided.

After lunch, we returned to the courtroom to hear that the additional charges involved illegal possession/ownership of firearms.  Because of the potential toxicity of those charges, they could not present them to us during the trial, hence why we had to spend about 10 minutes hearing the State's arguments; the defense declined to make a statement.  We returned back to the jury deliberation room and emerged less than 10 minutes later with verdicts of guilty on those two additional charges.

Once we were finished, the judge joined us in the deliberation room for a debrief and question and answer session.  He shared his thoughts on the trial, thanked us for our service and answered some of our questions about the process and the trial.  One of the burning questions that we all had was, "Why didn't these guys take a plea deal?"  The judge told us that he was surprised that the trial went through because the case against them was so solid, but that the State had offered a deal to both defendants.  The deal hinged on both taking it.  One of the defendants wanted the deal, but the other defendant counteroffered.  Apparently, this went on, back and forth, between the one defendant and the State.  Finally, the State offered one final deal that the defendant refused, so the case went trial.  The judge also invited us to come see other trials in progress and to come visit to see how the court works behind the scenes; I may take the court up on that offer!

When I am selected for jury duty again, I will be excited to serve again.  It was an amazing experience!  I knew the courts did not work like you see on TV, and it was cool to see the differences.  The experience also makes you be very objective and impartial in your analysis.  I have always felt that I am objective and impartial, but sometimes, even the more impartial can look at something or hear something and make their mind up.  And I think this is something that can be applied to my career as an educator, helping me to better understand my students and colleagues situations.

In closing, whatever you celebrate, or don't celebrate, during this time of year, I wish for the best to you.   2017 is coming to a close, as is the first semester for many of us, and I look forward to further success in the coming year and semester.

Until next time...