by Kassandra Lamb ~ First, Happy Martin Luther King, Jr. Day! A day late, I know, but in his honor, I’ve put a related book, Police Protection on sale for $0.99. (See below.) Second, today’s blog post, also somewhat relevant as it’s about justice, or rather the justice system ~ 10 Surprises I Didn’t Expect on Jury Duty.
In early December, I was tapped for jury duty. This is something most people try to get out of, but I was delighted. And I was also a little surprised by several things I didn’t expect.
Why was I delighted? Because I’m a mystery writer, so this was an excellent chance to research the court system and perhaps garner some fodder for future stories. And I was not disappointed.
Surprise #1 I Didn’t Expect on Jury Duty
I didn’t expect on jury duty that the atmosphere would be relatively informal and relaxed. Perhaps this is because the judge who oversees the jury selection process in my county is obviously an extrovert.
Surprise #2 I Didn’t Expect on Jury Duty
They had a specific procedure for efficiently handling people’s requests to be excused. The judge quickly outlined what issues might get one excused, and which would not. Then he asked anyone who had one of the issues from the first list to line up along one wall.
One at a time, each juror in the line came up and quietly chatted with the judge. He excused very few people, which did not surprise me, but…
Surprise #3 I Didn’t Expect on Jury Duty
Allowances were made for people who would suffer great hardship if they were on a longer trial. There were three jury trials scheduled that week, two expected to only last a day or two, and one that would probably be a week or more. Several times, the judge, after speaking with a potential juror, would whisper to his assistant next to him. She would then type something into her computer. I realized that she was designating those who needed to be on a short trial, due to child care problems or other issues, for the jury pools of the two shorter trials.
Not surprisingly, since I had raised no objections to serving and had indicated on my questionnaire beforehand that I was retired, I ended up in the pool for the longer trial—a murder case, as it turned out. Indeed, I was selected to be on the first “jury panel” to go through the voir dire process.
I was quite excited; I might end up seeing a murder trial up close! And the panel sat in the jury box during the process, which was kinda cool.
Surprise #4 I Didn’t Expect on Jury Duty
The voir dire (French for to see and to say) process was conducted primarily by the prosecuting attorney. None of the lengthy back and forth with the defense attorney that one sees on TV shows. The defense attorney is expected to take notes and is given the opportunity to question jurors at the end of the process.
Unfortunately for the young man on trial in this case, the defense attorney took crappy notes. More on that later.
The prosecutor would direct a question to all of us at the same time, asking for nods, head shakes or raised hands by way of an answer. Then he would zero in on those folks who answered a certain way and ask them follow-up questions.
Surprise #5 I Didn’t Expect on Jury Duty
The young prosecutor questioning us, again relaxed and pleasant, did not ask directly if any of us were opposed to the death penalty. Instead, he asked if anyone would feel “morally uncomfortable” serving on a jury for first-degree murder.
I did not raise my hand, even though I have mixed emotions about the death penalty (for a succinct explanation of those mixed emotions, see the final confrontation scene of Lethal Assumptions; I share Judith Anderson’s reservations). But a couple people did raise their hands and cited religious issues with the death penalty.
Surprise #6 I Didn’t Expect on Jury Duty
The prosecuting attorney then asked, if it came down to following the law (which required them to find the defendant guilty of murder if the evidence so indicated) or following their conscience (which objected to the idea that such a verdict might lead to the defendant’s death), would they follow the law?
Wow! This shook me a little. I definitely didn’t expect this on jury duty. In other words, to serve on a jury, one was expected to put one’s own conscience aside and only follow the law.
My excitement was shifting somewhat toward mixed emotions.
Surprise #7 I Didn’t Expect on Jury Duty
I did not know that in some states, including Florida, there is this thing called “felony murder.” Basically, if someone commits a felony, such as robbery, and someone else is killed during that robbery, the felon is responsible for that death and can be charged with first-degree murder, even though that person was not the direct cause of the death and there was no intention that anyone would die.
Turns out that this particular case was a felony murder situation. And when asked how I felt about felony murder, I had to admit that, while I understood the reasoning behind it, I was not totally comfortable with it. My bottom-line answer was, “It depends.”
Because, of course, my creative mind could think of a dozen scenarios. Maybe the defendant didn’t know that his accomplice even had a gun. Maybe he’d been told that the gun wasn’t loaded… (for more on the felony murder charge, check this link out.)
And, of course, I was asked the would-you-follow-your-conscience-or-the-law question. My honest answer was, again, “It depends.”
This is, I believe, the primary reason why I was not picked for the jury—although there were other strikes against me.
Surprise #8 I Didn’t Expect on Jury Duty
I absolutely didn’t expect on jury duty that the voir dire process would reveal so many details of the case. One of the questions asked was whether we would fairly consider the testimony of a “convicted felon” who might or might not have been given certain considerations for their testimony.
By the time the process was over, I could pretty much tell the story of the crime. Two or more young men, one of whom was the defendant, robbed another man. Drugs were involved in some way. And the robbery victim was killed in the process, but the defendant in this case was not the one who actually directly caused the death.
AND other “convicted felons” involved in the robbery may have gotten reduced sentences because they ratted out the current defendant.
In other words, the guy who actually pulled the trigger may have gotten a plea deal for a lesser sentence by fingering this young man as an accomplice, even though he did not actually kill the victim.
And now this young man might face the death penalty for felony murder, while the other guy gets a lighter sentence.
At this point, I wasn’t sure if I should hope I was picked or that I wasn’t, because “Yeah, IT DEPENDS!!”
Surprise #9 I Didn’t Expect on Jury Duty
When you mark “retired” on their handy-dandy questionnaire, they follow up by asking what you did before you retired.
So I had to admit that I was a psychotherapist in another lifetime, something I knew would probably get me eliminated. Prosecutors don’t want jurors who might over analyze people’s motives.
And then he asked what we were doing in retirement, and I had to admit I was a writer, although I didn’t say what kind of writer.
But, at the end of his part of the voir dire, the prosecutor asked, “Is there anything else that I might not have asked about that might influence your evaluation of the evidence in this case?”
I meekly raised my hand. “Um, I write murder mysteries.”
The entire courtroom cracked up, including the judge!
The prosecutor chuckled. “Guess I should have followed up on that.” He then asked more questions about the research I did on guns and police procedure.
Sadly, the experience did not end on that comedic note. The defense attorney proceeded to ask vague questions of several people, including myself. Apparently, he hadn’t noted WHY I had objected to the law at some point. He just kept asking me if I had reconsidered and would now follow the law.
I was confused as to what he was even talking about. But I realized later he was referring to my “it depends” answer regarding felony murder. And I thought, You idiot, I’m the very person you wanted on the jury. I might have hung it for you. And you just reminded the prosecutors of that possibility.
But of course it didn’t matter, because the prosecuting attorneys would have had several other reasons for eliminating me at that point.
(A side note: the defendant himself was taking copious notes. I hope he can use them to file for appeal on the premise of incompetent legal representation. Because he was convicted.)
Surprise #10 I Didn’t Expect on Jury Duty
The judge did offer some mood relief. First, he named the eight people who had been chosen as jurors so far (no surprise that I was not one of them), and sent them to lunch, with instructions to return at 2 p.m. Then he told the rest of the juror pool to go to lunch and return at 2 p.m. for the seating of another panel to pick more jurors.
Then he waited, with a small smile on his face and a twinkle in his eye, until all of those folks had filed out of the courtroom.
When the door closed behind the last one, the judge, now grinning, turned to those of us remaining in the jury panel. “I didn’t want the others to hear this. They’d be jealous. You folks can go home. You have fulfilled your duty.” Then he thanked us warmly for our service.
So the final thing I didn’t expect on jury duty—how grateful those involved in the judicial system are when citizens do their duty and serve on jury panels, even if they aren’t picked.
And yes, I have gleaned much fodder for future stories. Plus the young prosecutor, as I left the courtroom, wished me luck with my new police procedural!
Have you ever been called for jury duty? Been on a jury?
And here’s my book that’s on sale for $0.99, for just this week!
POLICE PROTECTION, A Kate Huntington Mystery #10
A story ripped from real-life headlines.
A police detective is found in an alley, standing over the body of an unarmed African-American boy. Groggy from a concussion, he has no memory of what happened, and he is literally holding the smoking gun.
To the Baltimore County Internal Affairs division, it’s a slam-dunk. But various forces push psychotherapist Kate Huntington and her P.I. husband to investigate behind the scenes, and what they find doesn’t add up. Why did the boy’s oldest brother disappear on the same day? And did the third brother, who’s on the autism spectrum and nonverbal, witness something relevant?
Bottom line: what happened in that alley was more than just a bad shoot by a stressed-out cop. The answers may come from unexpected sources, but Kate and Skip better find them soon… before another life is lost.
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Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She is the author of the Kate Huntington psychological mysteries, set in her native Maryland, and the Marcia Banks and Buddy cozy mysteries, set in Central Florida. Plus she has started a new police procedural series, also set in Florida—The C.o.P. on the Scene mysteries. And she writes romantic suspense under the pen name of Jessica Dale.
Misterio press produces an array of quality crime fiction. We post here twice a month, usually on Tuesdays, to alert you to new releases, to entertain, and to inform.
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Cheryl ArcemontJanuary 18, 2022 at 6:52 am
I have been picked as an alternative to a jury for a murder case. Alternatives have to sit through the whole trial in case a regular juror should need to be excused. This was many years ago and, thankfully, the accomplice was not deemed responsible for the murder charge. (The accomplice was a very young gentleman who had great remorse for someone dying in the process of simple robbery.) I have also been called many times for what I consider as simple disagreements but ended up in court. Luckily, I did not need to serve as a juror for any of those.
Kassandra LambJanuary 18, 2022 at 12:52 pm
Oh, if only they had made me an alternate! Then I could have watched the trial up close but wouldn’t have to make the final decision, hopefully. Because that was exactly one of the scenarios I was imagining, that the young man would seem genuinely remorseful and horrified that someone had bee killed.
Karen W JohnstonJanuary 18, 2022 at 10:09 am
Yes, I served on a capital murder trial in Louisiana. The barely 5 foot defendant was accused of stabbing a 6.5 ft man in the neck. What I found fascinating was the Prosecutor’s definition of Self Defense. In La., if you are in a life threatening situation and you have a way to run, then you must run. If you don’t, and YOU actually kill the attacker, then you become the attacker and not the other way around.
In the trial I sat on, there were many questions that should have been asked by the defense attorney and wasn’t. In fact, the man actually called his names in the opening statement. That shocked me. In the end, the defendant was found guilty of manslaughter not first degree murder. It was very interesting and to this day, I still feel that every high school senior should have to sit on a jury of some kind before graduation. As for myself, I would love to sit on either a grand jury or a federal jury. My Dad sat on the latter and what he could tell us about sounded fascinating.
Kassandra LambJanuary 18, 2022 at 12:56 pm
Oh that is a great idea, Karen! What a different view of the legal system people would have if they had to sit on a jury in high school.
And it’s so confusing how different states have different definitions of self-defense, and some don’t define it at all. It’s determined on a case-by-case basis by the DA’s office.
CrystalJanuary 18, 2022 at 12:32 pm
I have been called for Jury duty once a long, long time ago. The paper said something to the effect if for any reason you can’t show or think you should be exempt call us at this number. Well, I called them and told them I should be exempt because I don’t drive and getting there would be a hardship. After hearing and listening to me, they told me how to get exempt and what I had to do then a few later there was a flood and had to do everything all over again.
So never been to Jury Duty.
Kassandra LambJanuary 18, 2022 at 12:59 pm
I’m glad they let you out of it, Crystal. In our state, if you are over 70, you are automatically exempt if you want to be.
My husband got called for the week after his 70th birthday and he was so glad to be able to say no. He thought I was nuts that I wanted to do it! But hey, for a mystery writer, what an opportunity.
Still, considering the case, I was happy not to be on the eventual jury. It would have been such a hard choice to make.
K.B. OwenJanuary 18, 2022 at 1:46 pm
What an interesting story, Kass! I’ve gotten the notification for jury duty 2 or 3 times, I think. There’s a phone number you call the night before to find out if your group has to show up the next day. Only once did I have to show up, but it was pretty boring. I sat with a bunch of other people (pre-Covid, thank goodness) in a large waiting area to see if our group would even be called to go into the courtroom. I knitted while I waited. Took half a day. We were never called in, so we were dismissed with a parking voucher and a thank-you.
Kassandra LambJanuary 18, 2022 at 2:15 pm
That is more what I expected to have happen. I had my kindle with me and a back-up battery pack. As it turned out, a bit more exciting than expected!
Erin LynnJanuary 19, 2022 at 11:31 am
I have only had it once even though I’ve always wanted to do it–and hopefully get picked for a murder trial! Lo and behold, I ended up in selection for one, and was also chosen to go through voir dire. We were given a list of multiple choice and short answer questions, which were similarly telling and painted a fairly accurate picture of the crime. It was a drug-related murder with some sort of racial aspect; they asked a lot of questions about whether race would affect our decision-making. After that, another chunk of people were released and those of us who had passed the “test” waited to be interviewed in a separate room. Unfortunately for me, they finished choosing before they got to me (I believe my day was the second day for that trial and they had picked most of the jury the day before). I was then dismissed, and told I had fulfilled my requirement. I’m in rural Maine, and while the process was professional it was also fairly informal. Most people seemed happy to serve, though of course many were quite vocal about being inconvenienced. Those people were not well-tolerated! Anyone legitimately facing significant ramifications was put in a group for short-term trials. I felt that everyone involved was very sensitive to the participants’ needs and also appreciative of our time. It made me think more highly of my state’s judicial system. However, I used to live in Syracuse and when my ex-husband had jury duty he was there for two weeks and said it was the most miserable experience of his life!
Kassandra LambJanuary 19, 2022 at 2:24 pm
Your experience sounds very similar to mine, Erin. And your ex-husband’s sounds similar to what friends have experienced in the past. I wonder if the courts have learned and changed their approach to jury pools in more recent times.
Leslie BudewitzJanuary 19, 2022 at 3:55 pm
Kass, fun post. Those “other convicted felons” could have been the shooter, as you note, OR other accomplices. Criminal defendants are rarely if ever tried together, for just the reason you suspected — if one blames another, the case becomes a circus and it’s very difficult for the jury to parse out the details.
As a long time trial lawyer, I’ve never been picked for a trial jury, although I did serve a year as a federal grand juror, during the pandemic. Talk about surprises!
Kassandra LambJanuary 19, 2022 at 5:46 pm
Oh wow, bet that was fascinating. I’d love to be on a grand jury!
Glad to hear that my suspicions were correct. The young man was convicted, and I’m not sure how to feel about that, since I don’t know what the actual evidence was. But I’m glad I didn’t have to make that tough decision.
Michele DrierJanuary 19, 2022 at 6:40 pm
Whew, I’ve served on several juries over the years, including drunk driving, an aggravated assault and two murders. I was chosen the foreperson on two of them. The process in California is somewhat different. The judge, the DA and the defense attorney all have dismissals and voir dire. Usually some 50 or so people (depending on the type of case) will be called by name to assemble in a courtroom and then 15 names are called. Twelve of those people take a seat in the jury box with three alternates. One by one, the judge asks if anyone has a reason to be excuses, the excused are then thanked and another name called. The judge and attorneys then go through voir dire, sometime for all day, until 12 people and three alternates are sworn in. The most recent trial, the judge asked what I do and I said “Murder mystery author,” expecting to be dismissed. He asked who mu favorite author was! Instead of dismissal, I was the first person seated and made it all the way to foreperson, even after I mentioned that I was also getting hard of hearing. Being on a jury is a wonderful way to see how our justice system works and also gives a great insight into peoples’ motives and actions..
Kassandra LambJanuary 19, 2022 at 7:50 pm
That is very true, Michele. You definitely get some interesting insights into people’s motives, as well as the justice system. I’m amazed that they didn’t eliminate you when you said mystery writer. The prosecutor asked me a bunch of questions about guns and police procedure and what research I had done. I think they decided I knew just enough to be dangerous…lol
Pam ManleyJanuary 21, 2022 at 9:15 pm
I was called for jury duty years ago and was picked in the first round. It was a case of “she tried to run me over with her car.” So there was a plaintiff and a defendant, and I think the charge was “attempt with a deadly weapon.” I ended up serving as the alternate, basically by my name being drawn from a hat. Throughout the trial, which took maybe an hour or so, I felt like I was in People’s Court. While the jury deliberated, I waited in the cafeteria. The entire process was over by lunchtime. Then about 15 years ago, I was called again (in a different state) but got an exemption due to my job. It was an interesting experience. The funniest story I have about jury duty, though, was my dad received a notice to report – after he had passed away!
Kassandra LambJanuary 21, 2022 at 11:23 pm
The case you were on sounds interesting, Pam. Did it bother you to be cooling your heels in the cafeteria while the others deliberated, or were you just as happy to be off the hook for having to make the decision?
And your dad… yeah, I guess having passed would give one a pass!
Nichelle seelyJanuary 24, 2022 at 11:39 am
Fascinating post, to hear your experiences and everyone else’s. I ended up on a jury as an alternate for a child abuse case. During the voir dire they asked us if our parents had ever spanked us, how we felt about punishing our own children, and things of that nature. My parents did occasionally spank us, and I don’t have any children. I think I was chosen because at the time I didn’t have a television and didn’t know anything about the case, which had been covered on the news. It turned out to be very high profile, as the defendant had adopted some children from Russia, and the Russian media was hanging out in front of the courthouse. The jurors had to be sneaked in and out through a back alley entrance while the trial was going on. After the second day the press was banned from the courtroom as one reporter was taking pictures of the jury with her cell phone. I found the whole process to be fascinating. The judge warned us at the beginning that this was not an open and shut case, which is why it had come to trial in the first place. The trial lasted five days and the jury deliberated for two. I only had to sit in a conference room for the first day with the other alternate juror. The defendant was ultimately convicted, but the judge did not sentence them to any jail time, rather community service and parenting classes, with a pending sentence to make sure they complied and no other complaints were made. Given the circumstances, I thought it was a very fair sentence. One of the other jurors even wrote to the judge to express her approval of the sentence, and the difficulty the jury had had in their deliberations. He wrote back to thank her, and said the hardest thing about being a judge was to follow the law while also balancing the mitigating circumstances of the people involved. Another side note, I was in an MFA program at the time and we were supposed to be writing an essay analyzing two books. When I explained about my jury duty taking up all my time (plus work!) my instructor allowed me to write about the arguments. He said it was perfect, because a trial is about two competing stories, and the jurors had to choose which one they found more compelling.
Kassandra LambJanuary 24, 2022 at 11:51 am
Wow! Child abuse cases can be very complicated. It does sound like a fair sentence, and one that can be increased if the parent doesn’t do what they’re supposed to do. And glad you got a paper out of it as well!!
VinnieJanuary 25, 2022 at 7:46 pm
Very interesting and informative. The last time I was called for jury duty, the case involved pedophilia/sexual molestation. There came a point in the process where each jury candidate was called into the courtroom individually. Some were in the courtroom for several minutes; others walked in and walked right back out. Without going into detail, I came to realize that every person immediately dismissed had been sexually molested or knew a molester. The shock? The vast number of people who went in and a second later, walked out. It was astonishing and sad. Educational.
Kassandra LambJanuary 26, 2022 at 2:12 pm
Glad they took that approach to talk to people individually. And sadly, I’m not shocked. Childhood trauma was my specialty as a psychotherapist. The statistics are staggering!
Lisa MitchellJanuary 26, 2022 at 2:48 pm
I have served on juries in NY, Florida and Louisiana, and every state has their own directives. NY , my home state, was very regimented and very strict on how they chise jurors. They spent way beyond ample time questioning and selecting prospective jurors. Florida was very strict too but never felt like we were in the Principal’s office or treated like unruly kids like NY and LA did.. I have very recently moved to Texas but hopefully I won’t get called at all. I have been called for jury duty a LOT in my life….
Kassandra LambJanuary 26, 2022 at 3:21 pm
Lisa, Florida is definitely friendlier. I was called once in Maryland. They were pretty obnoxious because I was sick. They didn’t believe me; made me come in anyway. I’m standing there swaying on my feet and the guy says, “Go on, get out of here,” in a disgusted tone. I felt like coughing in his face. But I didn’t.
I’ve been tapped 4 times total. Twice in Maryland, twice in Florida. Once I was 8 months pregnant; another time they didn’t need any jurors that week after all.
Dwayne KellerJanuary 29, 2022 at 2:46 pm
I have been selected more times than I care to mention. I would say at least 8 times. I’ve had everything from calling the night before and being excused, to being selected, sequestered and have to return the next day for the actual start of the trial. I sat on a case where a convicted drunk driver was on trial for the sixth time for her license. She had lost it, got it back, and had two more convictions. (Really made me wonder why we were wasting time on an obvious case). I also sat on one where a juvenile had been released from the halfway house he was staying at, for a weekend pass to go home, but went to the girlfriend’s house instead. The girlfriend’s parents refused to let the boy’s parents see the son. When the parents of both realized 12 strangers were going to decide the fate of their children, they decided to settle out of court. When we arrived the next morning, we had to sit in the jury deliberation room for two hours, until the judge came in and told us they settled out of court and we were free to leave.
I’ve also been called and sat in the basement of the courthouse in a large room with folding chairs with to plus other people waiting to be called. I’ve been called, went through selection and sent back to the room for another chance at selection. Also been selected, when through the process and then dismissed without cause by one of the attorneys.
Kassandra LambJanuary 29, 2022 at 3:36 pm
Wow, that is a lot of times, Dwayne! And it sounds like you never did get on a terribly interesting case.
I’m glad my county only asks you to go through the selection process once. It would have been really irritating if I’d had to do that several times, knowing I probably wouldn’t get selected based on what I did and what I now do for a living.
Denise O.February 1, 2022 at 11:24 am
I can only hope more conscientious citizens like you serve as jurors. Not enough people take this privilege and duty seriously. I imagine they would if all of a sudden this constitutional right were ripped away from us. More should take note of how democracy works, along with the freedoms we have, come responsibilities.