14 February, 2011

Jury Panel Member # 508

"You're being very whiney", Eva intoned as we drove downtown. "And it's very unattractive."
Yeah, happy Valentine's Day to you too, I thought...and then continued to whine. "Look, it's not that I have a problem fulfilling my civic duty. I just have a problem with the fact that my employer won't pay my wages if I do."
"You're not even losing a day here, though. You just have to do something you don't want to do on your day off. Waaaaah."
"--And maybe tomorrow, and Wednesday....hell, the summons states it could be up to five da--"
"So you take some vacation days. Waaaaaaah."
Shut up, Ken, I thought. Like most arguments with your wife, this is one you can't win.

Waaaaaah.

Eva works a few blocks from the courthouse to which I had been summoned. I grabbed a coffee in the atrium of her building and assembled my time-passing items on the table in front of me. Globe and Mail, check. Two novels, check. iPod, check. An hour and a bit later, I found my way to the courthouse.

Holy crap. There had to be five or six hundred people packed into the main lobby like so many sardines. We sardines were halved and sent to different courtrooms. I was among the first inside courtroom 2, and I found a seat at the extreme front left of what I would later learn was the "body" of the courtroom. My reasoning was simple, and twofold: added legroom, plus if they went front to back, I might get out of here sooner.
Or, I reflected, they might go alphabetically, in which case my last name would stand me in good stead. Boy, I'm glad I'm not Ken Zyzzix.
Then again, maybe they'll go by jury number. I'm 508. That's a lot of numbers.
The court was called to session and we all rose. Not for the first time, I was forcibly reminded of a church. The pews courtroom benches were just as uncomfortable, and now with the up-down, up-down. Would we be kneeling before a statue of the scales of Justice before the day was out?
The judge announced himself and said that this would be a criminal trial. He confirmed with the Crown attorney the estimated trial length: eight days. Yike, I thought. Eight days! Plus however long it takes to get a jury! Waaaaah!
Then came the arraignment. Almost despite myself, I was sucked right in as count after count was read out. Seventeen in all: it took almost twenty minutes. Two counts of trafficking in a controlled substance, "to wit, crack cocaine". Nine counts of various types of assault, against three persons. Kidnapping and forcible confinement. Two counts of uttering threats, one a death threat and another a threat of bodily harm. And one count I missed the legalese for, but which boiled down to an attempt to pimp. The accused stood stoically as each charge was read, and pled not guilty to all counts against him. I sat there in the audience and thought seventeen counts, and you're not guilty of ANY of them? Riiiight. They don't just make these things up, buddy. Then I clapped a mental hand over my mental mouth and resolved not to let a thought like that form again.
The judge then went through several different valid reasons to be excused from jury duty. Medical conditions. The inability to hear or understand English. A personal connection with the accused, either of the lawyers, or the police officers expected to be called as witnesses. Extreme personal hardship. I waited for "Waaaaah!" to be cited, but it wasn't. Nevertheless, at least ten people declared themselves unfit to sit as a juror, for a variety of reasons, some of which I felt sure were made up. "It's against my religion," was one that actually took the judge aback. I missed what religion the man professed, but the judge let him go with a shake of his head.
Another thing that wasn't cited as a reason to be exempted from jury duty in this case: racism. Which, quite frankly, surprised me. The accused was a person of colour, or, as his lawyer called him, "African-Canadian", and two of the alleged victims had white-sounding names. Moreover, the accused's lawyer was so black he was almost blue. I really would have expected some sort of racism filter to be applied.

Twenty names were picked at random out of a drum. Mine was not among them, so I was free to watch the ensuing fun.
Seven of the chosen people decided at that moment to announce that they, too, had issues that would prevent them from serving. I could sense the judge was growing a bit exasperated as this went on; I also got the sense he'd seen the same routine many times before.

Finally we got to the actual jury selection. The judge explained that either the Crown or defense attorney could accept each prospective juror or "challenge" them. A challenge could be "for cause", in which case two already selected jurors would act as "triers of cause" to determine whether or not the prospective juror was acceptable. Or it could be a "peremptory" challenge, in which case no reason would be given and the challenged party would be free to leave.

The defence attorney stood and announced that he intended to challenge each prospective juror for cause. Ah, here's the racism filter, I thought. And it was, indeed, a racism filter, but it took an exceedingly long time to work. The procedure was unbelievably long-winded and tedious. First, the triers for cause would get the choice to swear on a Bible or solemnly affirm. (Rocket, you may be interested to know that more than half of all those placed under oath chose to affirm). Each trier was asked "Do you swear/solemnly affirm that you will well and truly try whether (prospective juror name) stands acceptable or unacceptable to try the accused, and a true verdict give according to the evidence (so help you, God)"? Each trier would say "I do".
Then the prospective juror would be asked to swear or affirm. Then the defence lawyer would state his challenge. The first three or four times, he said that the question he was about to ask was allowed by Canadian law, and that it was not intended to 'cast aspersions' on anyone. (The judge eventually told him this preamble was not necessary). The question went as follows:

"After the trial and before your deliberations, His Honour will instruct you on the importance of impartiality. The accused in this case is African-Canadian, and the alleged victims are not African-Canadian. Do you feel that the fact that the accused is African-Canadian and the alleged victims are not African-Canadian will affect your ability to be impartial in judging the facts of this case?"

Confronted with this $64,000 question--which I still believe could have been asked beforehand of the entire courtroom and answered by show of hands, thus saving everyone involved a great deal of time--some people chose to announce to all present that they were, in fact, racist.
Most didn't. One woman said that she would not be impartial, "but not because the accused is African-Canadian". Hah, I thought. No, you're not racist, are you? Racism's a crime, and crime is for black people, right?

In every case, immediately after the answer had been given, the judge would address the triers of cause and say

"I remind you that an impartial juror is one that will conduct his or her duties with an open mind, and render a decision based solely on the evidence presented and my instructions at the conclusion of the trial. If you feel that (prospective juror) will conduct his/her duties in this way, you will find that he/she is impartial and thus "acceptable". If you do not feel that he/she will conduct his/her duties in this way, you will find that he/she is partial and thus "unacceptable". You may confer with each other and render a verdict."

The triers found acceptable all those who said that they would be impartial, and unacceptable all those who said they wouldn't. It was all so predictable...almost pointless, I thought. I began to play little games with myself, sitting there. Is it racist, I thought, to look at a person and decide on appearance whether he's racist or not? I decided it was, but it was the only diversion I could engage in without appearing rude, and so I engaged in it. That farmer, Hank Whathisname? Racist. (Yep.) That little old lady, Edith Somethingorother? Not racist. (Wrong).

So we'd go through this entire routine, the Crown would say it was "content" with the potential juror, and we'd sit there on tenterhooks waiting for the defence attorney to say "content" or "challenge". If everybody was content--the Crown always was, the defence used at least five of the twelve peremptory challenges allowed--the juror would be sworn in:

"Do you (swear/solemnly affirm) that you (juror) will well and truly try and a true deliberance make between our sovereign lady the Queen and the accused at bar whom you shall have in charge, and a true verdict give according to the evidence (so help you, God)?"

One down. Eleven to go.

Look, I get it that this all has to be nice and legal, but surely there's some way to streamline this whole process. The prospective jurors could be sworn in all at once. The triers of cause need only be sworn once themselves. And everyone knew, after the first time a juror was challenged for cause, just what that cause was and that everyone else was going to get it, too. No wonder lawyers insist on getting paid a squillion dollars an hour. I would, too.

It took over three interminable hours and ten more drawn names to get to eleven jurors.
We all sat on eleventerhooks waiting for that twelfth. We had one person announce she could not be impartial, followed by three (!) peremptory challenges from the defence attorney. Just as I thought my bladder was going to simply explode and shower the entire court in yellow justice, the defence attorney stood and rumbled "content". A sigh of relief ran through the room...and then the judge asked for nine more names, to serve as alternates. Again, my name was not called. By this time I had truly mixed emotions about that. Jokes aside, I do believe I would make a fair, impartial juror. I would love the opportunity to "a true verdict give". At the same time, if it took this long just to empanel a jury, who knows how long the trial would really take? It would of course be necessary to give the legal definition of each charge at least three times, probably more often. Chances are at least one jury member wouldn't understand the simplest of instructions. (George Carlin: "Think of how stupid the average person is, and then realize that half of 'em are STUPIDER THAN THAT!") If the judge gives explicit direction at the end of the trial, why have a jury at all? Why can't "jurist" be a paid profession, something like a lawyer without the antagonism? And yes, why aren't employers legally required to pay wages of employees serving on juries?

Waaaaah.

Seriously, though, in Ontario, jurors get squat for trials up to ten days' duration, the princely sum of $40/day for days eleven through 49, and (wow) $100/day in the unlikely event the trial runs past fifty days. This strikes me as not just unfair, but discriminatory. Remove the financial hardship from this civic duty, and people wouldn't feel the need to lie about why they can't serve. You'd get a much more representative sample, including more poor people. In the event the accused is poor--and lots of them are--the jury would more closely resemble his peers. Wouldn't it?

I will say this. It was an experience just being part of a jury panel. I hope to be able to follow the trial I would have been a part of. But at the same time, I'm glad I get to go to work tomorrow, and that's not something I say often.

2 comments:

Rocketstar said...

"Yellow justice" lol nice.

I am so excited, I just received my first notice of appearance in 22 years of possible selection! I can;t wait, my first possible chance to see how the system works or as you point out works pretty uneffeciently.

I can't believe your employer does not pay you for Jury Duty, that UnCanadian!

I just hope the courthouse has free wi-fi because my workload will not be put on hold but at least I still get paid.

Ken Breadner said...

Rocket, you don't know the half of it. The judge told us at the conclusion of the proceedings that what we sat through would have taken days if not weeks in the United States. You guys allow your lawyers to grill each prospective juror. We don't.
As for free wi-fi, I don't know. We were told to turn off all electronic devices because they interfere with the recording equipment. That caused no end of bitchery amongst the sheeple in the audience...finally the bailiff snapped that we'd have to pretend it was years ago, before cellphones were invented...