Jury duty: When your number comes up, you’re ‘it’

Odd as it may seem, I was looking forward to jury duty when my summons arrived in the mail.

The system requires those summoned to call the court each day after 5 p.m. to listen to a recording. If your number is within the range chosen for the next day, you must report by 8:30 a.m.

criminal court jury

Criminal Courthouse, Syracuse, NY.

The first two nights I was spared. I started to feel relief, and told myself I didn’t want to be bothered after all. The third night, my number came up — we’ll see you in the morning, and bring a lunch.

I talked myself into it that night, the whole civic duty thing. Subconsciously, I invented ways to get out of it. (I have some legit excuses, and some creative ones I’ve heard over the years.)

But I wanted to play it straight and do the right thing. So I arrived at the courthouse and joined a group of maybe 30 other citizens of our democracy. We were ushered through the instructions, watched a video on the jury process and Law 101, raised our right hands to take the jurors’ oath and were led to a courtroom.

Among the first things we were told was that if you’re picked, you can’t say a peep about the case to anyone. All a juror is supposed to say is this: “I was picked for a jury. I get out every day at 4:30.”

Here are some things not to do, or risk being held in contempt: communicate via social media, go to the scene of the crime, conduct research on the Internet, talk to people in the hallway or elevator (they could be media, an investigator, a family member).

The wrinkle with our group: this was a criminal trial with two defendants being tried together. The charge? Robbery. I think a gun was used. The pair is alleged to have stolen heroin and cocaine from a third person, who was going to be given “consideration” in exchange for testifying against the two men — who were sitting in the courtroom with us.

OK. Now I’m interested.

Even though the judge told us the trial likely would last several days, in the back of my mind I was in grade school gym class: “Pick me! Pick me!”

I got the sense that few shared my enthusiasm. Prospective jurors in a criminal trial have a good chance to escape, and several took advantage. If they knew anyone in the prosecutor’s office, if they knew either of the accused or their attorneys, if they had been the victim of a crime, etc.

Several in our pool opted out this way, and were free to go — excused from jury service for another 10 years.

I couldn’t honestly use any of those excuses, so I was among the group that went to the jury box to be subjected to “voir dire,” the process in which prosecutors and lawyers ask questions to determine whether they want a particular person on the jury.

They asked us hypothetical questions about crime and punishment, to pick up any vibes, detect any bias. For instance, Mr. X kills a churchgoing grandmother while Mr. Y kills a drug-addicted prostitute whose kids are in foster care. Are these crimes the same?

The psychological gymnastics went on for a while until it was revealed that the actual 12-person jury had been selected the day before. All they needed from our group were two alternates. I was not picked. (We were assured that being passed over is not a reflection on a potential juror’s intellect or integrity. Thank you.)

As disappointed as I was at being let go, I was glad to learn that the full jury wasn’t coming from our entirely Caucasian pool. The two defendants are African-American. Given our belief in being judged by one’s peers, I trust that the 14-member group reflects some diversity.

I’ll be looking for media accounts of the trial this week. I’ll wonder about the jurors, the testimony and evidence they heard, their deliberations and how they arrived at their verdict. And of course I’ll wonder how I would have felt deciding the fate of two human beings.


About Jim McKeever

Writer, father, runner, advocate based in Central New York.
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16 Responses to Jury duty: When your number comes up, you’re ‘it’

  1. markbialczak says:

    About 12 years ago, I was part of a grand jury in Madison County, Jim. I loved the experience. Some of the panel, like I, were into it. Some wore constipated looks and continually checked the clock on the wall. I shall not divulge details, but it was an interesting case.

    About five years ago, I got called into the Federal (!) court in Syracuse for jury duty, and made it through all the cuts. Just as we were being led to the big room, a clerk rushed in and said a settlement had been reached in the case. We were told that often the presence of a real, live jury often has that effect. I was bummed.

    Excellent post, Jim.

    I am going to reblog this and ask for others to comment on jury experiences.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jim McKeever says:

      Thanks, Mark! It’s really a privilege to go through this process. And as we were told during selection, if you or a loved one were involved in a trial, you’d certainly want jurors to take it seriously and give it their all. It’s too bad so many people just can’t be bothered.


      • markbialczak says:

        The people on the grand jury that voted the opposite way than I did … me and the folks on my side of the table … we were the interested ones … you could sense our frustration that they felt less connected in the importance in the process … OK, can’t say more. But, thank you for bringing up the topic, because it is a civic duty where literally, lives hang in the balance.


  2. markbialczak says:

    Reblogged this on markbialczak and commented:
    My good friend Jim has related an interesting tale about call to jury duty. Have you ever served on a jury? Would you like to?


  3. annetbell says:

    I really enjoyed this post. Thank you . I was on a Grand Jury years ago and was called 3 times in 7 years when I was in AZ. I was excused because all three cases involved children and I was excused. Husband is called fro next week. He doesn’t want to go and he would be a great juror. He probably will be taken when I would loved to do my duty….strange?

    Liked by 2 people

    • Jim McKeever says:

      Thanks, Anne, and yes it would be somehow fitting if your husband is picked. Who knows, maybe he’ll be part of a very compelling case and love it!


      • annetbell says:

        Glad to meet you. . . .adore Marco…he is terribly patient with my silly sports questions and my connections to Syracuse …daughter went there and now son lives in Skaneateles. I live near Albany….and am more than ready for some warm weather. . . . My blog is mostly about incredible India and our time there in 2013 and yes it is a long, long way from Syracuse ! 😎


  4. I have mixed feelings about doing jury duty. When I worked i loved when they called me for jury duty. Usually we got out half day. I got paid for jury duty on my job which was better then the small check we got back then. Ten years hum must be the same down here too. Use to be four years. I haven’t been called since 2004. I was wondering why because I was called every four years like clock work.


  5. I was called for jury duty years ago. I dutifully called every night to check my numbers. I was not called. So I forgot about it. Apparently I forgot about it too soon. I received a subpeona inviting me to appear before the judge. I was TERRIFIED! It said it was because I did not fulfill my jury duty. Well, I wasn’t the only one because I got there and there were three or four dozen of us. And each one of us “got” the chance to stand before the judge and explain our neglect to our duties. I just told the truth. He had our records of calling in. He told me I had called in four days in a row why didn’t I call in the last day. I told him I had no excuse, I just forgot. When I left I went right home and wrote that judge a letter apologizing. I thought it was heartfelt and sincere. I probably shouldn’t have expected a letter forgiving me….. I didn’t get it. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  6. LAMarcom says:

    I actually have served on one jury: Armed robbery. Your post has inspired me to write about that experience. They (other eleven folks) actually picked me to be ‘Foreman’. Didn’t want that! But it all worked out.
    Great post.

    Wandered in here via my Friend Mark.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. ermigal says:

    Interesting post, Jim. I served on a jury a few years ago, a sexual assault of a teenager by an adult, and I was upset that we had to go with ‘not guilty’ due to the way the case was presented. It’s a good experience of how our legal system works. I feel like you do, that it’s a privilege to serve.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Dennis H says:

    I was called for jury duty once a few years back and, like some of you, was actually excited about it, especially when I found out what the case was. But as I was sitting there waiting for my group to be called for an interview, Bob Baker arrived to cover the trial (it was fairly big news in these parts). In my simple mindedness (I can’t spell naivete) , I chatted with him, not having seen him in a long time. Well, that sank me. They did interview me, but sent me packing soon after. I was disappointed because I wanted to see how the system worked and how I and the others would react. Now I spend my days waiting for the mailman, and another call to jury duty, “the long-delayed but always expected something we live for,” as the poet said. OK, maybe it’s not what I live for, but I like that quote and truly would like to serve on a jury sometime. Nice post and comments from everyone.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Jim McKeever says:

    Those darned media jackals, Dennis! Watch out for them! That’s pretty funny. I hope you told Bake about that.


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