12 really angry men

Imagine you’re sitting at counsel’s table, ready to start trial. The jury walks in and is seated in the jury box. The judge shuffles his papers, looks over at them and opens his mouth his start instructing the jury.

Suddenly, one of the jurors leans forward and says: “He’s brave enough to go out and get shot at by anyone but he couldn’t handle this?” Another juror pipes in: “I think severe emotional distress is what is happening in Haiti. I don’t think you could have such severe emotional distress from that”.

The case was a suit for emotional distress in the workplace, but that’s irrelevant. What’s relevant – and a little disconcerting – is the anger, resentment and frustration displayed by the jurors. This outward display of vehemence isn’t necessarily caused by the facts of the case; in fact, under other circumstances, they may have made appropriate jurors.

The troublesome matter here is that these jurors made it through voir dire and were selected – over their own objections. Both those jurors above attempted to be excused based on hardship.

Here’s how it works: a bunch of potential jurors are brought into a courtroom for voir dire. The judge explains the basics and gives them a time frame. Then the judge asks if anyone cannot serve for family or financial reasons. Those that have legitimate excuses or hardships are summarily excused.

The hardships are only getting worse in these tough economic times and courts are getting more reluctant (at least in some parts of the country) to excuse jurors. That jury duty is an important civic duty is unquestioned. Many people who are summoned want to serve, some because they recognize the need to do so. But no one wants to give up days of their lives if it is at the expense of their livelihood. The longer a trial, the smaller the jury pool.

Here, in CT, your employer is required to give you 5 days pay for jury duty. After that, you receive a stipend of $50 per day. Judging by the numbers quoted in the article above, that’s on the high side. In California, jurors get $15 a day. In Dallas, they used to get $6 before it was sensibly raised to $40. But even that’s a pittance.

Imagine forgoing your income for 7 days in exchange for $350? Not many can and want to do that. Yet, somehow, we have to fill our juries.

Lawyers will agree that the last thing one wants on a jury is a reluctant juror. I shudder inwardly every time a judge hesitates to excuse a juror who claims a hardship, no matter how weak or blatantly made up it is. If it’s not a real hardship, but the juror claims it anyway, it reveals a distinct lack of desire to serve. And if they’re forced to serve, they’ll make poor jurors. Forget fair and impartial. They’re pissed off they’re there and they’ll do something to get back at the system. I don’t want that to be at the expense of my client.

That these two jurors made it onto the jury is telling: the system, the economy, all of it is straining under the pressure of the financial downturn. Finding a suitable jury in a criminal case is difficult enough as it is, having 12 angry men is another burden we don’t need.

I understand that the jury pools are small to begin with and are only getting smaller, for a variety of reasons, but to seat reluctant jurors who might vote based on the facts of the case but also might vote their frustration doesn’t serve the interests of anyone.

5 thoughts on “12 really angry men

  1. Bill Thompson

    Brings to mind the old line about “I wouldn’t want anyone deciding my fate who was too stupid to get out of jury duty.” Jurors are paid a whopping $25/day here (pay for your own parking/lunch)in my jurisdiction and are committed to 5 days of service or longer if the case demands it. No statutory obligation on the part of employers to pay juror/employees. As a practical matter, I’ve rarely seen a judge require a juror to serve if they bitch enough about a financial difficulty. I’ve struck jurors who express such hardships if I have a spare peremptory lying around as I don’t necessarily believe persons forced to serve are predisposed to acquit the criminally accused…

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  2. Martin Budden

    I have done jury service, and regarded as my civic duty to do so. It lasted two weeks and my employer payed me fully during those two weeks (I live in England).

    One of the things that struck me as a juror was that the court did not respect my time. Jurors’ time was not seen as a valuable commodity and was frequently wasted. During the two weeks I saw two trials each of which lasted two days. I had to present myself to the court each day, and on a few occasions was sent home immediately, since I was not required for a trial that day. This wasted the time I spent traveling to the court.

    Even when there was a trial on, there was a lot of sitting around waiting. One of the trials was for shoplifting and we had to wait outside the courtroom for over an hour while a videotape machine was set up in the court so that we could view the video evidence. The courtrooms should have been set up permanently for the showing of video evidence (which is presumably fairly common). The trial was in a new (less than ten year old) courthouse, so there was no excuse for not having the facilities to present evidence quickly.

    In one of the trials the barrister for the defence was clearly winging it and the jury’s time was wasted as he consulted the solicitor (who was very well prepared). Even when the barrister is well prepared the solicitor/barrister split we have in England results in jury time being wasted.

    It seems to me that there is a lot of scope for better time management by the court administrators. The court days could also be made longer, so that a juror could take fewer days off work for a given number of court hours.

    Using jurors’ time more efficiently won’t solve the problem of lack of jurors, but it will reduce that problem. If trials were run more efficiently so that more of them could be completed in 5 days, then more jurors would be covered by CT’s 5 day jury duty pay. And if courts didn’t waste so much of jurors’ valuable time, then those jurors would be less angry that their time was being wasted.

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  3. R

    I did jury duty on a civil in Mass., where the laws are about the same as CT (3 days pay instead of 5, $50 starting on the 4th day), and the court judge was extremely respectful of our time. The case ended up going over a day, and she tripped over herself to apologize. In Mass Superior Court, civil trials only occupy the first half of the day, so most of us could work half days anyway. But that didn’t keep every. single. person. from being at least a little disgruntled by the time we went into deliberation. That said, I can think of several members who would have strangled any juror who spoke out during the trial–We were very committed to reaching a fair verdict and would have been upset to risk a mistrial because one or two of us were feeling pissy.

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