Law and order in Middlesex County — maybe

BY LIZA BRANN

October 2000

Not wanting to deal with the absentee-voting process in my home state of Illinois, I register to vote in Cambridge.

July 20010

I see the first effect of my Massachusetts voter registration — a summons for jury duty! I groan and accept my fate.

September 20, 2001

7:55 a.m.: I show up at the Middlesex County Courthouse. I give my card to the police officer behind the counter, receive another card with a juror number and go for coffee downstairs in the courthouse.

8:15 a.m.,: I take a seat with the other prospective jurors. On first glance, I notice that they are truly a cross-section of society. I have never seen such a large group of completely average-looking people.

8:20 a.m.,: The rumpled man to my left starts using his cell phone as a two-way radio to talk to his coworkers back at “the plant.” We get to hear about the machine that’s broken on the floor and how to fix it. My fellow jurors give him the evil eye.

8:30 a.m.: We are called in to watch a video on jury service, which focuses on the role of juries in democracy and tells us what we will be required to do. The orientation has a humorous focus on what will happen to us if we decide to leave before they dismiss us for the day. A judge visits with us and tells us about the significance of jury service. He and the entire staff of the courthouse are rather enthusiastic about their jobs, which somehow makes the day go much more quickly.

9:15 a.m.: After completing our orientation, we are sent for a blissful break.

9:50 a.m.: Back to the waiting room. I read and listen to the guy next to me, still talking to his coworkers about the problems back at the plant. It seems that someone needs an extension cord.

10:30 a.m.: We are called! They call six panels (about 90 people) to the hallway to be taken up to a courtroom. Excited to actually see some action, everyone hurries out. When I walk into the courtroom, I notice that the defendant looks a lot like an old friend of mine, which immediately sparks my sympathy. I sit down next to an older man, who is complaining that jury duty is like prison.

The judge reads the charge against the defendant — first-degree murder! Some in the crowd gasp, and my heart sinks. The judge describes the case to us — a stabbing early one morning last year in Lowell. The case should take a week.

The judge begins to ask us questions and tells us to raise our juror cards to respond. Do we know the defendant? Do we know the attorneys? Has anyone heard reports of the case? (Many had.) Do we feel bias? Do we have a hardship? (I answer yes. One week without class could be a blessing, but I wouldn’t want to be out of commission for that long.)

10:50 a.m.: All of us except for one panel are herded up to another courtroom to wait to be questioned.

11:30 a.m.: My panel is called.

11:40 a.m.: They call me to the stand. For some reason, I get really nervous. I feel a mixture of horror at what the defendant has possibly done and a desire to exonerate him if he is actually innocent. The judge asks me about being a law student and asks me whether I want to serve on the jury. I tell him that I would like to serve, but that a week would be a long time for me to be out. He excuses me for cause.

As I walk back to the waiting room, I start to feel guilt for wanting to get out of the trial. Who am I to feel inconvenienced by one week of jury duty when the defendant could spend the rest of his life in prison? Now that I’ve gotten myself out of the trial, I wonder who will have the job of deciding his fate.

Later: I am called for another trial. I am seated on a jury for a trial for DUI. Throughout the trial, which spanned two days, I struggle to listen to the evidence and avoid critiquing the attorneys.

September 21, 20010

After the jury deliberations, as we wait to be led back into the courtroom to declare the defendant guilty, we discuss our impressions of the attorneys and the witnesses, which we had not discussed while we were deciding on a verdict. We question whether we could assume that the defendant, who had a very glazed look in his eyes, was sober as he sat in the courtroom that day! While the prosecution certainly presented sufficient evidence to convict, the jurors seem more comfortable finding the defendant guilty because of their impressions of him.

Once we read the verdict, the bailiff takes us back to the deliberation room. The judge commends us for our close attention to the testimony and invites us to watch the sentencing. She does not know what the state may ask for, and none of us on the jury decide to find out. The defendant’s friends had glared at us as we exited the courtroom, and we don’t want to walk out of the courthouse with them after the sentencing.

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