• Otter Views: A Jury of One’s Peers

    The Monterey County Court’s jury assembly room in Salinas seats about 200, with space along the walls for standees. Two walls and most of the chairs were full by 8:30 one recent Monday morning, when 180 of us passed through metal detectors and reported for the first shift.

    “One hundred eighty more will be coming in here at 10:30,” a clerk announced, “followed by another 180 at 1 o’clock. So we need to move you through in a timely manner. We’ll call the first 75 numbers in about 45 minutes. Until then, please help yourselves to coffee and pastry.”

    A general stirring rippled through the room as prospective jurors rose to make phone calls or to browse tables proffering a dozen kinds of pastries and Starbucks coffee from industrial-size dispensers.

    “I could get used to this,” I thought, but then I saw the banner. “Juror Appreciation Week 2015,” it read. Thanks to some wrinkle in the space-time continuum, our jury notices had brought us into the room on the very week California honors its jurors. And it was that week only.

    As I lifted onto my plate an iced caramel donut glittering with candy sprinkles, my pulse quickened. If I could get onto one of the juries, there would be coffee and pastries every morning all week. But as I would soon discover, getting onto a jury is not so easy.

    First, there’s the terminology. As if to prepare us for what lay ahead, the coffee tables offered stacks of violet-colored flyers titled: “Juror Appreciation Week Word Search Puzzle.” Hidden within a word square matrix were 28 legal terms ranging from “foreperson” to “judicial branch.” All were in English, except the French “voir dire.”

    Circling the answers, I was struck by all the special words the law uses and expects citizens to know. And the violet sheet was just an appetizer. When we reached the actual court room, the words would get longer and the meanings more complicated. At 9:45, the clerks faced the assembly room and called out the first 75 names who would receive number stickers and report to a courtroom. I was issued number 39. Filing silently into the court room, we filled the place up. I remember thinking 75 seemed a wildly inflated number of prospects for a 12-person jury, even including the six alternates.

    After explaining that questioning would continue until the 12 and six had been chosen, the judge added some advice. “Please don’t think just because you have a high number you won’t be in that chair answering those questions,” he said. “I can’t tell you how many times juror 75 sat in that first seat, or juror 104, or juror 140.”

    Gazing down at the #39 sticker affixed to my shirt pocket, I thought: “Coffee and sprinkle donuts, here I come!” But first, the judge and the two attorneys would have to reject at least 21 others before selecting me. Pastry-wise, the situation looked dire.But as the “voir dire” (to see, to say) questioning got underway, the judge’s admonition was borne out: jury prospects exited the box faster than chocolate eclairs. The judge excused on hardship grounds any who would face “extreme financial burdens” if the trial lasted two weeks or longer. Also excused were sole supporters of children or elders; full-time students; and those with limited English.

    Once the judge had exercised his veto powers, the attorneys for the state and the defense each had 10 “preemptory” dismissals they could invoke. These generally involved jurors who knew someone in crime, corrections or law enforcement, or whose answers suggested possible biases. The attorneys also could “stipulate” that poor English skills could eliminate a prospect.

    While numbers 1 through 38 were being questioned, I had time to reflect on the language issue. The Constitution grants trial by a jury of one’s peers. But what if English is a daunting second language for the defendant’s presumable peers? If jurors need to understand the terms used by highly educated judges and attorneys, can a jury of peers truly be assembled? Or will it be, by default, a jury of the court’s peers?

    To that end, I scribbled down some of the words and phrases I heard that Monday. They include: “evaluate credibility,” “relevant,” “admonition to self-sequester,” “impartially,” “telephonically,” “fascinating,” “whatsoever,” “marital privilege,” “abiding conviction,” “appearance of impropriety,” “philosophical objections,” “without reservation,” “third person,” and of course, “voir dire” and “stipulation.”

    One by one, prospective jurors fell like sheaves before the scythe, and I realized 39 was not such an unlikely number. At length it was called, and my sprinkle donut jones went into overdrive.

    “I understand every word you’re saying,” I told the judge excitedly. “I used to be a journalist.”

    “Dismissed!”

    posted to Cedar Street Times on May 22, 2015

    Topics: Otter Views

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