Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Reporting from the other side of the bar

Democrat photo by Shelly Thorene

THE EMPTY jury box awaits the next panel to decide the guilt or innocence of a fellow citizen. Democrat photo by Shelly Thorene

From page B2 | December 03, 2012 | Leave Comment

I came home one day in early August to get one of the single most-dreaded pieces of mail an American citizen can get: a jury summons.

My first reaction was something along the lines of, “Please don’t let it be for the Cameron Park courthouse.”

Being the Mountain Democrat’s crime and court reporter, my average week sees me spending quite a bit of time in the Main Street and Fair Lane courthouses. The three criminal court judges — James R. Wagoner, Daniel B. Proud and Douglas C. Phimister — are all accustomed to me silently sitting in their courtrooms and taking notes.

The regular attorneys, both defense and prosecution, often make small talk with me before hearings. Even most of the bailiffs recognize me.

So my first thought was how easy it would be to be excused from any potential jury duty. The court personnel know me, at least by sight and I am a reporter. Neither of these are qualities desired by attorneys picking a jury. This would be a piece of cake to get excused.

I ripped open the summons, and, as luck would have it, I was destined for the Cameron Park courthouse and a civil matter. Well, so much for getting off easily. Still, there was hope. I would surely get kicked off and be out of the courthouse in minutes for being a reporter, right?

On the rainy morning of Aug. 22, I made my way to the courthouse. I had found out a co-worker, Cary, who is in the production side of the Mountain Democrat, also had the same jury summons assignment. After passing through the metal detector, the bailiffs — who knew me — made small talk of how I was doing my civic duty. I’m sure they thought it was hilarious that I was going to be on the other side of the court proceedings this time.

We sat down, amidst about 50 other potential jury members, with orders that if we were going to apply to have our summons deferred due to hardship, fill out the form. A lot of people filled out the form, but only a dozen or so were let off — for now — after the judge reviewed all the forms and situations.

Cary had filled out the form, but was not let off. We continued making small talk. The entire process took about an hour.

Soon enough the court bailiff was showing us a video on what it means to be on a jury. All about how it’s needed for the court system to work, etc. All well and good, but I prefer to be reporting on the court proceedings, not participating in them.

Judge Nelson Keith Brooks then came into court and began expanding on the video. Next the two parties introduced themselves and their clients and then there was an explanation of what the case would be about — a family law case concerning a father against his in-laws over his daughter.

As this was explained, I was wondering how long this would take. I had already been called in more than an hour earlier than the original summons ordered, meaning I was forced to miss another event I was going to cover for the paper before coming in.


The process begins

The voir dire process — picking the jury — then began in earnest. Twenty people were randomly picked to fill the jury box and a few seats along the back wall of the courtroom.

First, they were asked standard questions — name, where they were from, occupation, if they had a spouse, children or grandchildren and what their occupations were.

The last few questions were key in this case, hence their inclusion.

The judge had been asking the questions so far, the same questions to each person.

Now, the attorneys took over, asking for clarifications and digging deeper into who each person was. Many had adult children or grandchildren, which would play into what the attorneys wanted in a juror.

The voir dire process really is about picking the jury the attorney wants — based on life experiences, the jury may sway one way or another.

Having grandchildren or children might make that member of the jury just that much more susceptible to persuasion. Not biased, just more susceptible.

Another interesting question was what TV shows the candidates liked to watch — most said “CSI” or “Law and Order.”

Whether this made them better or worse candidates, I couldn’t say.

The court broke for lunch. I ran home, heated up something frozen to be quickly consumed and drove back, cursing my luck that an accident had closed off one lane of a two-lane road leading to the highway. I made it back just in time.


Who gets selected ?

Questions had been asked. The attorneys had mulled over who they wanted from the 20. It was time to start picking.

The attorneys took turns — someone my age, in his early-to-mid-20s, with no children, was the first to be let off.

This was looking good for me.

If a full jury was not found among those in front of the court bar, I could be called up in the next group.

Another candidate similar in demographics to myself was dismissed.

A woman whose mother is an attorney in the El Dorado Superior Court system — who one of the attorneys said she knew — was, surprisingly, not let off at first, but was eventually dismissed.

Slowly, the makeup of the jury became as obvious as I thought it would be — they wanted adults who had raised children and preferably grandchildren, as I had earlier guessed.

Luckily for both myself and my co-worker, only about seven or eight people from the first 20 were let off before the full jury was selected. I was never called up, I just got to sit and watch.

I left the courthouse somewhere between 2 and 2:30 p.m., after the rain had stopped.

It was certainly interesting, seeing what happens from a prospective jury member’s point of view, after having sat through trials and seeing the panel in the jury box.

Some people enjoy being on a jury — a handful of the panel that day that were picked had been part of jury panels before and had enjoyed the experience.

Personally, I’ll stick to sitting in a corner and taking notes of what is happening in court, rather than trying to figure out for myself who is right or who is guilty.


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