I received my first Jury Summons in the mail a day before my birthday. My first reaction was ‘Oh, no.’ that was not the gift I wished upon myself for my birthday. The terrific notion of a "government of the people, by the people, for the people” shrinks to a mere nuisance in everyday life. Most people love noble ideas but would rather have someone else perform them. My second reaction was ‘It should be interesting.” I love stories and that was an opportunity to hear a new one. My family in Israel got a kick out of the news. Until now, in their minds, jurors belonged to the world of movies.
“You? Taking the bus?” My husband looked at me in disbelief, his left eyebrow rising, just like he did on our wedding before he signed his life away (I have a photo to prove it). It was a no brainer for me: the court paid for a bus ticket, I have a bus line right near my house that goes to the courthouse downtown, and I didn’t need to worry about traffic and parking. A limo and a driver of course would be better, but I doubt the taxpayers would agree to such an expense. I downloaded to my phone audio books from the library and by the end of my jury duty I finished listening to three books: “The Pairs Wife” by Paula McLain, “Committed” by Elizabeth Gilbert, and another book in which I’ll explain about later.
We were several hundreds of people in the Juror waiting room that morning. After watching an instructional movie about the role of the Jury and listening to one judges’ speech, we waited to be called. Later in the day my name finally came up in a list of seventy names. We were asked to fill out a questionnaire about our personal experience with subjects related to the case. Shortly afterwards we were instructed to go to our assigned courtroom where both sides’ lawyers started to question us trying to spot and get rid of any potential biased juror. I think I was the only one who was hoping to be elected for jury duty. I wanted my story. Screening continued the next day and by noon I was juror number 3 of 14. While the jury requires only 12 people, 14 people are elected. If all jurors last to the end of the case, two will be released and will not participate in the decision making process.
In October 2011 a high school student stabbed two students. One victim was severely wounded and now she was suing the school for negligence, claiming that the school knew that the stabber was a troubled person and did not do enough to treat her properly. The school district on the other hand claimed that they did everything they could do under the limitations of the related laws. Apparently in Washington state, minors age 13 years and older are entitled to privacy when it comes to mental illness, drug abuse, and sexually transmitted diseases.
The hardest part of being a juror is the fact that for the duration of the trial we were not allowed to talk about what we heard and what we saw with anyone, including even among ourselves. We were instructed not to look for information about the case on the Internet, ignore any piece of news related to the case, and to avoid going to the school where the crime had occurred. On April 9th, while still in court, the judge told us about Pennsylvania school stabbing and asked us not to read or listen to anything about it. It was quite a coincidence having a similar event happening at the same time as this court case. We had notebooks to take notes for, and we were given the opportunity to ask every witness questions, if we had any. If you haven’t seen this in movies, it is because it is a new procedure. After both lawyers finished questioning the witnesses it was our time to ask questions. Jurors with questions submitted them in writing to the judge, the lawyers were given the opportunity to accept or reject the questions, and if accepted, the judge presented the question to the witness.
This case had a long list of witnesses. Some were people who were involved directly with the event and others were brought as expert witnesses. Some testimonies were fascinating and others were really boring. We got to hear some interesting forensics experts, but some had this horrible monotonous speech that made it difficult to listen to. If one day you are called to witness, please think about the 14 people who need to listen to you and add some drama to your voice. While it was entertaining to see a witness squirm in their chair during cross-examination, it was very hard to see a witness break down in tears. For me, one of the hardest testimonies I had to listen to was of the doctor who treated the stabbing victim at the hospital. Growing up in Israel I was exposed to a lot more graphic images and description of violence, and they don’t easily disturb me. The testimony was hard for me because I was trying not to laugh – because of my active imagination. Go figure. At the beginning of the testimony the doctor said that they had to move a patient who was already sedated from the operation room to operate on the stabbing victim. Here my twisted imagination started going wild imagining the sedated person waking up thinking it’s all over and maybe, if let to believe so, can heal by the power of his/her mind. It should be an interesting experiment, to continue the research of the placebo effect on people.
Put different people in a room with no knives or ammunition and they will become friends. My experience was no different. We had a nice group of jurors and bonding was inevitable. The jury room became our social club; we had interesting intellectual discussions, shared personal experiences, stories, and baked goods. Saying goodbye included exchanging business cards and contact information between us. It might be “The beginning of a beautiful friendship.” As Rick told Captain Louis Renault in Casablanca.
After both lawyers delivered their closing arguments the judge announces the juror numbers who would be released from the verdict delivery process. Early on, one juror asked the judge to release him from his duty because of a personal hardship, so there was only one juror to be released now, instead of two. Part of me wanted to be released because of two reasons: A. It was a nice day in Seattle and I could use it to enjoy walking outside. B. At this point I had no idea what my opinion on the case was and I found it easier to avoid being part of the decision-making process. The story- chaser part of me wanted to stay to the end and see the process through. The number the judge announced was not my number. The judge gave us instructions and questions we had to answer to determine the case and we all used our notebooks to compare notes and impressions. This was the first time we were allowed to talk about the case among ourselves. To pass a decision we needed 10 of 12 jurors to agree. The process was fascinating. It was a human lab of decision-making. It was interesting to see how every person brings his or her personal experience, beliefs, emotions, and professional knowledge to contribute to the decision process. I was really impressed that people were quiet when someone spoke and really listened, no matter how long it took. Witnessing this made me realize that such a legal system would never work in the Middle East, just like the Four-Way Stop is not suitable for that culture.
Once we let the judge’s bailiff know that we had reached the verdict, she contacted both sides who had 30 minutes to arrive to the courtroom. After the judge read the verdict he asked each one of us if 10 people agreed on the verdict. It was the first time the judge referred to us by name instead of by number. After this we went back to the jury room, the judge and his bailiff joined us and we could talk freely to him for the first time. During the trial we were instructed to avoid and ignore the presence of both sides involved. When the verdict was over we could speak freely to all people involved. We were told the lawyers may want to speak with us and that we had the option to speak with them or we could refuse.
Because we delivered the verdict late in the day, after a day and a half of deliberation, we were asked to return the next day for debriefing. Jury debriefing is an emotional support service some counties in the US offer the jury in cases with violent content. It started in Texas during a trial when a mother of a murder victim raised the question of how the harsh evidence affects the jury. In everyday life when people are exposed to disturbing events they get to unload them by talking to people. Jurors are not allowed to talk about anything they hear and see in court until deliberation time. Some jurors suffer from insomnia, nightmares, fatigue, stress, anxiety, guilt, etc. During the debriefing we learned about the different ways the experience might have affected us and may still affect us, and were given different tools to cope with them. The debriefing program also offers individual psychotherapy sessions for jurors after the case is over.
My last audio book as a juror
In the jury room as we were discussing the case, trying to decide whether the school could have prevented the stabbing incident, I decided to take a look at the contents of the stabber’s backpack that was presented as one of the items of evidence in the courtroom. During the trial both lawyers focused on the day-planner the school had given her a month before the incident, during a staff meeting to help her follow up with her school work. She stopped filling it in about two weeks before the stabbing and no one at the school noticed that. I was curious to look at her other belongings and notebooks, to see if there might be any clue for what she was about to do. I found a poem she wrote, some heart sketches on some of her papers, nothing in the girl’s backpack was hinting to any violent tendencies. I found three hygienic pads, which made me think she was either in her period or about to get her period. It made me think about something I read in one of the books of the psychiatrist dr. Daniel Amen, where he mentioned that some women who suffer from hormonal imbalance can do crazy and violent things during their PMS. I also found a small book named “12 Angry Men” by Reginald Rose that raised my curiosity. It is a play about 12 jurors trying to decide if a 16 years old is guilty in stabbing his father to death. The next morning I downloaded this teleplay from the local library to my phone and listened to it on the bus on my way to court. I don’t know why the stabber read it. Did she study this play in school? Did she borrow it from the library? I did not see any library sign on the book. It looked new. It was such a symbolic book to the case and to my position as a juror in it.