Jury Duty In Escambia County
I apologize for not blogging or blawging, however one wants to spell it, more the last few months. I have been interested in writing on many different topics but with some of our recent cases coming to resolution, traveling near the end of the year, and attending both a Trial Lawyers College workshop and annual meeting and attending a retreat and mission work with Don Miguel Ruiz, Jr. M.D., near Liberia, Costa Rica, my priorities have lied elsewhere lately.
A recent experience I learned a great deal from was being summoned for jury duty in Escambia County last week. Albeit I have been summoned four times and never chosen to sit on a jury, I always find the experience interesting because of being on the other side of the fence, so to speak. (Lawyers often believe other lawyers cannot be impartial and follow the law which is simply not true).
The day started out by having to arrive at the Courthouse at 8:00 AM and, after checking in much like one would do as if casting a vote, we were directed to sit in a room that probably held 350 or so people. People arriving late were directed to an overflow room, where they watched everything going on within the room I was sitting in on a video fed television.
The first video we all saw was from our Chief Judge who told us, among other things, “don’t be nervous” or “anxious,” that most trials only lasted a day or less, and do not access the internet at anytime about the case you are sitting if selected to be a juror and do not talk to anyone, including your spouse, about the case if you become a juror. I have always felt that people who are on the panel, as it is called, of potential jurors who are brought into a courtroom and questioned by the judges and attorneys were, to some degree, nervous. I always have been and I have been a lawyer for 28 years! It is an tremendous responsibility to sit and judge the facts of a case, be it a criminal or civil case, knowing that your decision is going to impact someone’s life possibly forever. Questions such as “is the lawyer being honest with me?,” “is the Judge’s attitude towards a party a signal of who is telling the truth and who isn’t?,” “does the Judge know more than I do about the case?,” or “what kind of personal information am I going to have to reveal in front of all these strangers going through this process?” These questions and others seem to me, to create a certain level of anxiety in a person. It is because of this that when I am actually picking a jury as a trial lawyer that I admit to them that I am nervous myself---I do so because I honestly am—it is an awesome responsibility to represent someone who is going to win or lose and who’s case I am totally invested in. I wouldn’t want a lawyer representing me who wasn’t nervous! I also admit that when I have been summoned for jury duty I am nervous myself because, I guess more than anything, fear of the unknown and the questions outlined above. “If I am picked for this jury, am I going to do justice?”
After watching the first video, a second video from the Chief Justice of the Florida Supreme Court is played wherein he tells us that “it is your justice system” and it “exists to serve you!” Well that didn’t make my anxiety go away either.
Then a third video is played: this time a woman talks about the basics of jury qualification and talks very briefly about the qualifications of jurors. (In Florida jurors in the State court system are selected based upon driver’s license rolls; in the Federal system, by voter registration). She also talks very briefly about the difference in the burden of proof between a civil and criminal case. She instructs us how important it is to be candid with the lawyers and judge involved in the case in the Courtroom we are eventually taken and it’s our basic responsibility as a juror to render a “fair and impartial verdict.” I don’t know how many times through sitting through four jury selections that day I heard the lawyers ask “can you be fair and impartial?” – The question being asked, based upon such little information provided to us - how could one possibly know how to answer? The vast majority of the jurors just nodded their heads affirmatively to this hollow, in my opinion, meaningless question. (There are exceptions of course—if someone hates insurance companies or if someone has been a victim of a serious crime, yes, they would know if they could be fair and impartial). The lady in the video mentions we can’t do our own investigation during the case, e.g. internet searches, etc., that closing arguments are not evidence and to expect each lawyer to ask us to render a verdict in his or her client’s favor. OK, I understand that. I am still apprehensive. She also interestingly does not state if chosen to be on a jury, one of us will be elected “foreman.” Instead she mentions one of us will be elected by the other jurors as a “presiding juror.” She explains a person in this role makes sure each person has a chance to talk and that each person should vote the way their intellect and conscience tells them. I think she also should have said that the “presiding juror’s” vote is no more or less important than any other person’s vote and that it is not the “presiding juror’s” role to try to influence how the vote is decided; that their job is primarily to collect the ballots. I think the video, albeit implicitly stated only because of the use of the term “presiding juror,” also should explain the “presiding juror” can be a man or a woman.
After these videos were played the Clerk of Courts comes in and swears in the entire 350+ of us as qualified jurors. He is accompanied by the Sheriff who is entirely silent. Why he is there, I don’t know. Escambia County’s Sheriff was meeting jurors and shaking hands, etc. at the parking lot where many people park who have jury duty until the Federal Judges of the Northern District of Florida said “no more.” To me, and perhaps the Sheriff did not realize this, but by his shaking the hands of potential jurors and even giving some of them his card created an improper relationship of sorts between the potential juror and the Sheriff. The potential juror might sit on a case where one of the Sheriff’s deputy's credibility is at issue. Would the juror think that if he decided the deputy wasn’t credible and decided against the deputy and for a criminal defendant, the juror’s ability to pick up the phone and call the Sheriff might be hindered? I don’t know but the federal judges didn’t like it and put an end to that. But why the Escambia County’s Sheriff merely walks in with the Clerk of Courts is unknown to me. He didn’t say anything to the group which I think would be an extremely bad idea for the aforementioned reason but his merely being there seemed to me to be a non-issue to me and a waste of time for him.
Once taken into a courtroom after one particular judge called for 65 of us to come in, we discovered we were on the jury panel for four separate, serious criminal felony cases. The judge was very nice and respectful to us and did explain again a few things and more about the law, our roles as potential jurors or jurors if selected, and then handed it off to the lawyers. I was still a bit anxious and I know others were also because some of them told me so. I think, just like most good trial lawyers, a juror who is taking his or her role seriously should be a nervous or anxious to some degree. It is a tremendous life changing decision the people chosen to sit on a jury are going to have to make that will impact someone’s life and sometimes multiple families’ lives. It’s an imposing responsibility and should be taken very seriously. I am still taken back by lawyers who, during jury selection, say, “well the other lawyers went before me and I won’t take up much of your time because they have asked many of the questions.” This is ABSOLUTELY not true. How might you feel if you were on trial for something you did NOT do, or had an serious injury for the rest of your life because of someone else’s negligence and your lawyer says I am not going to ask you many questions because some other lawyer asked questions about their cases???? Each case is entirely different with different witnesses, facts, dynamics, and physical evidence as well as different laws that must be applied to the individualized facts! One defense lawyer that day, asked no questions!
In my opinion, no lawyer should ever apologize to a jury panel for taking additional time, as much as they need, to ask potential jurors in depth questions about themselves. Of course it’s a given, the lawyer should not ask questions that are a waste of time or to show how funny he or she is because they have a captured audience. When I have had to be second or third to ask questions during jury selection I always explain to the panel “I may have to ask you questions that may take longer than the previous attorney because I have to get to know you because you, if selected, are going to be deciding Mr. or Ms. Jones fate and his or her liberty is at stake here.” And if the opposing counsel has been funny or gotten the panel to laugh at his or her jokes, then I explain to the panel “I apologize for not being funny like Mr. or Ms. Lawyer was because, honestly, this is no laughing matter. This is an extremely serious matter because Mr. or Ms. Jones liberty is at stake or the facts are such that Mr. or Ms. Jones is seriously injured and your decision will impact them the rest of their lives, long after this trial is over. “
One thing that surprised me some from my jury panel experience is how many people knew one another on the same panel. Of course Escambia County, with a total population of 350,000 or thereabouts, isn’t that big. I also witnessed people during breaks already violating their oaths they took earlier in the day! One case in which jury selection had begun before a break was about a “home invasion,” a VERY serious charge. One lady I overheard while standing in the hallway waiting to go back inside, without knowing any of the facts, said there was no way she was going to let someone off who was charged with such a crime—“no way!” She didn’t get picked or I would have told the Judge presiding over these cases what I had heard.
I wasn’t picked of course. A couple days later I spoke with the most experienced attorney picking a jury that day because we have a case together. After finishing my business with her about our case, I mentioned to her to please believe that as a citizen of the United States I am obligated to follow the law and would have based my decision on the facts after applying the law to those facts. I hope one day I’ll get to actually sit on a jury. But the odds are that just won’t happen. Oh well, I still learned a lot from the experience of merely summoned for jury duty, so I am grateful for that!
A very general article on jury duty can be seen at AVVO
Warning: this article is not specific to Florida.