When I received a jury summons in the mail, it felt like the culmination of a life’s work. Not the life of someone who has studied the law in any respectable fashion. The life of someone who has read the entire John Grisham catalog, watched every episode of “Law and Order” and has Marissa Tomei’s testimony from “My Cousin Vinny” nearly memorized.
If it’s a piece of media that features a courtroom, I’ve consumed it multiple times. Which means I am well-trained in what it takes to be a good juror. I know when to nod in understanding. When to give a witness my most encouraging eyes. And how to gasp dramatically when the defense attorney reveals something big that requires the judge to dismiss the case immediately. No one has ever been more prepared to jure, or so I thought the morning of my jury duty.
I arrived at the Salt Lake County Government Center at 8:30 a.m., right on time. Being too early would signal desperation, I had decided. But punctuality would suggest good time management and respect for rules, two essential qualities in a juror.
When I entered the courtroom, a county employee handed me a list of questions that read like we were about to play a get-to-know-you game. “What’s your name? Are you married? What’s your spouse’s name? List your children and their ages. What do you do for work? How long have you done it? Are you involved in any clubs? What do you like to do for fun? Where do you get your news? What’s your favorite movie? Do you subscribe to any newspapers or publications?” and so on.
I was instructed to review the questions but not write the answers, which took all of four seconds. Then I had nothing to do other than survey the other potential jurors in the room and compare their jury-worthiness to my own. I was discouraged to see some were even more prepared than I was and had brought a book to read while we waited. They were going to get picked for sure, I assumed.
We sat for about 20 minutes, some of us reading, some of us internally debating if it was allowed to leave for a second to go to the bathroom (me) and one guy listening to a video on his phone at full volume.
Eventually, the prosecuting attorneys and their witnesses (two highway patrolmen) arrived, followed by the defense attorney and the defendant, a young man with a nice watch.
Then the bailiff entered and instructed everyone to rise, just like the movies told me he would. As we stood, the judge entered, greeted us, and asked us to sit. Just like the movies told me she would.
She thanked us for being there and explained the voir dire process. We were to answer the questions on the sheet we had reviewed, and we should not be surprised if she interjected with a few follow-ups, she told us.
For the next 30 minutes, each of my randomly selected peers stood and shared the details of their lives. I was amazed by how quickly things got personal and vulnerable. Two potential jurors had lost children. Many had lost jobs. Some were divorced, and some never married. Some enjoyed metal-detecting, others woodworking.
When it was my turn, I talked about my work here at Deseret News, listed the names and ages of my kids, explained my love for cooking and quipped, “I’m the laziest member of a few book clubs,” to which the judge gave a knowing smile.
I sat down sure I had nailed the interview.
The judge told us the day’s proceedings would include testimony from a policeman, and then asked if any of us would have difficulty trusting the testimony of an officer. Responses varied from “yes, I would,” to “much of my family is in the military so I’m more likely to trust an officer than a citizen.” Then the judge explained the case for the day was a misdemeanor DUI and asked if any of us or our loved ones had received a DUI. The majority of hands rose, and each person was asked to explain.
The exercise felt wildly patriotic. A group of 30 strangers had gathered and were sharing the intimate details of their lives and regrets in the name of justice for all.
Once there were no more questions to ask, the judge invited counsel to her bench, and she and the two attorneys whispered with each other for a good while. I’ve never had the experience of watching someone gossip about me in front of my face, and I don’t know that I cared for it. I found myself smoothing my hair and re-tucking in my shirt.
The whispering eventually ceased, and the attorneys returned to their benches on opposite sides of the room and began passing a paper back and forth through the bailiff. In addition to a book I had also failed to pack binoculars, so I couldn’t make out what they were writing to each other. But I could tell they were crossing names off a list.
Then, at last, the bailiff handed the paper to the judge and she read the names of the four selected jurors and an alternate.
I was not one of the five.
Maybe my pick-me energy made it obvious I was hungry for a “Twelve Angry Men” moment. Maybe I listed one too many news sources. Maybe my book club joke wasn’t as funny as I thought it was.
I’ll never know.
The judge instructed us rejects that we were dismissed and that we should expect a paltry check in the mail soon. Then she promised it would be at least two years before we were eligible for a jury summons again as if that was good news.
I left the courtroom feeling like I had had the chance to grab my destiny but couldn’t quite reach far enough. And now it will be at least two more years until I get that chance again if I ever do.
Now, I’m destined to spend the rest of my life watching procedural courtroom dramas in syndication, envying the fake jurors reviewing the evidence that will convict or clear alleged criminals played by C-list actors, wondering what might have been.
But if I’m being completely honest with myself, the judge and attorneys made the right choice in sending me home. Democracy works best when its participants are duty-bound, not attention-seeking writers.
A jury should be made of willing but not over-eager citizens, who will serve on a jury because it’s the law, not because they might be able to gasp dramatically, and then dash off to write an article about it.