Jury Duty: A Serious Job, Privilege

Today’s column is about jury duty.

OK, stop right there.

I hear your groans. I see your eyes rolling back into your heads. And I can read your minds as you cast about for all the reasons you can come up with that might get you excused.

Too busy.

Can’t get a baby-sitter. English isn’t my first language.

I heard them all and more when I actually got selected a couple of weeks ago. Some of the excuses worked, others didn’t. They don’t let you off easy.

But I was glad to be picked. I’ve wanted to serve on a jury for years. It is, after all, our civic duty, and one that the rest of the world admires and even envies. Every American ought to want to serve on a jury. It’s too bad so many people consider it a bore and a chore. I see it as a privilege.

Plus, I was curious. Would it be like TV or movies? Would there be drama? Would there be speeches and emotional breakdowns?

No, no, yes and no.

It’s not like TV or the movies. It’s both more boring and more interesting. Our judge, The Honorable Edward H. Kubo, was informative and painstaking in his explanations of our duties as citizen judges. We learned what it really means to be “presumed innocent until proven guilty.” It’s just a phrase that we hear all of our lives, but you really don’t understand the weight of it until you hear it in a courtroom.

It’s a different mind-set than the one we use when watching a televised trial on cable news. In the cocoon of our homes, planked on our couches, it’s fun to be judge and jury. Pronouncing someone’s guilt or innocence is easy when you don’t have a real stake in the proceedings. But when you sit in a courtroom, you realize something: “Guilty beyond a reasonable doubt” takes on huge importance when the life of an individual hangs in the balance.

I, and everyone else sitting in the box, was intensely interested in every step of the process, including jury selection – who gets asked what questions, who gets eliminated? It was never explained why someone got to go, but we were told not to take it personally. It was fairly easy to guess why in at least one case: The woman could not understand why the defense attorney didn’t have to prove his client’s innocence. They take “presumed innocent” very seriously in the courtroom.

The case wasn’t a headline grabber- a man charged with knowingly passing counterfeit bills. Nonetheless, I sensed a significant shift in people’s attitudes as the process wore on. Those who were reluctant gradually began to realize how important their role was. My fellow jurors were from all walks of life and yet we really did feel bound together with a common mission.

I don’t remember names, but we got to know each other in broad strokes. There was the man who was into vintage cars and was the life of the party. He also made a good jury foreman. The woman I sat next to was a military wife. She worked at home and wanted to have lunch in the Federal Building because she’d never been there before. There was the young guy who came in all gung-ho and couldn’t wait to be selected. And there was the lady from Waianae who had an awful commute. We bonded. No matter what we were outside of it, when we were in that courtroom we were all sensible, thoughtful and eager to do a good job.

And by the time we got to deliberation, we did know our jobs. Everyone had listened carefully and we followed instructions. We discussed like rational people and came to a decision based on the evidence. I was proud of us. It was a little case and fairly uncomplicated, but to the person accused, it was his entire life. I think we delivered justice – the prosecution failed to prove he knew they were fake. Not guilty.

If you get your summons, don’t groan or roll your eyes. Be happy you can participate. It’s an honor, not a burden. Everyone who has been through the process comes out with a deeper understanding of what it means to be an American.