A juror’s take on service after 70

Chris Bateman
By Chris Bateman March 15, 2017 16:36

My first thought was, “I could have escaped this.” I had just been picked as a juror for a three-week criminal trial in Tuolumne County Superior Court. If I had only checked a box on my summons, I’d be out.

Turns out that those of us beyond 70 can simply say that jury duty would bring “undue risk of physical or mental hardship.” Then – bingo! – we’re exempt. Forever. No doctor’s letter needed.

Climb Everest last year? Finish the Ironman? Just renew your Mensa membership? Doesn’t matter: Check that box and you’ll never be one of those 12 angry men – or women – again. And in 2016, more than 260 oldsters in our county did just that.

I turned 70 last April, but argued myself out of it. Answering the call, I reckoned, was my civic duty.

But I never thought I’d actually be on a jury. For decades I was dismissed repeatedly by lawyers who would rather have an ebola carrier on their juries than a wiseacre, know-it-all journalist.

At worst, I figured after getting my latest notice, I’d sit in court reading a novel, then be sent home after 12 others were picked.

That didn’t happen. First, only about half the potential jurors for the felony rape trial showed. Which was no surprise to courtroom regulars. On average, only 47 percent of those summoned actually report. The statewide rate isn’t a lot better, and in some counties it’s much worse.

Next, many who came to the courthouse for this case did their best to leave it.

One complained that the snow near his Long Barn home was too deep. Another said she needed medical marijuana every two hours to ward off seizures. A man swore his pain medication caused him to make “stupid mental errors.” And a woman insisted that caretaking her “ornery mother-in-law” made jury service impossible. All were dismissed, either by the judge or one of the lawyers.

“I just don’t want to be here,” griped one guy, saying his funk might prevent him from rendering a just verdict. Gone.

Others didn’t have the time or money: Single parents, sole providers, teachers and students who couldn’t miss classes, and others who said the $16-a-day jury pay wouldn’t make ends meet were all excused.

Sensing rising relief among the liberated, Judge Jim Boscoe warned against “undue displays of enthusiasm” on dismissal. No fist pumps, no high fives in this court.

Others, however, coveted a jury seat like it was a Super Bowl luxury box. Potential jurors included brothers, sisters, friends and confidants of cops, prosecutors, crooks, investigators and inmates. One was a probation officer, and others had been arrested. Yet all swore they could put this checked baggage aside and deliver a just verdict if they were chosen. None made the cut.

Me? I told the judge that my brother had a couple of minor run-ins with the law, but I still passed muster. “If it’ll help, I’ll get arrested for something more serious next time,” brother Chip cracked.

I also found that jury duty can be a social event. Haven’t seen a neighbor lately? Wonder what happened to your second-grade buddy? Come to court.

In pre-trial questioning, we owned up to knowing witnesses, attorneys, cops, investigators and each other. We had worked with some, gone to school with others, and said one, “My daughter dates his nephew.” I’ve known Judge Boscoe for 40 years, and my son has been a juror in his court.

No secrets here.

After two days of prying out such information, the attorneys ran out of challenges: Five men and seven women were sworn in.

If not a jury of peers, we were a community cross-section. We ranged from 34 to 78. We included a fire district board clerk, a medical technician, an outdoor-education teacher, a mom who works from home, an executive assistant, a truck driver, a shop supervisor, four retirees and one surprised former reporter.

During trial breaks we talked about politics, dying trees, rising creeks, cars, travel, kids, sports, medical problems, how things used to be and how things should be. We got along.

After two weeks of testimony, we got the case and went to work. We delivered verdicts on four counts, then argued long, hard and with passion over the most serious charge, forcible rape.

We pored over phone logs, parsed the judge’s instructions, studied photos and had testimony re-read to us. We compared trial notes and argued over witness credibility.

All of us were involved, but in the end we disagreed. Over a half-dozen ballots we went from 9-3 for acquittal to 8-4 for conviction before concluding, after nearly two days, that we were deadlocked.

“What’s wrong with these people?” I thought. “Why can’t they see things my way?” Of course our dissenters were asking the same questions about me.

A colleague saw my frustration. “There’s no shame in being a hung jury,” she consoled. “We’ve done our job.”

Not only that, but we’d do it again. None of us 12 will opt out of jury duty at 70. “A responsibility of citizenship,” members told me. “Our duty in a democracy.”

And although perhaps not eager, all of us were willing to serve – unlike the 53 percent who don’t show and who to date have paid no fines and served no jail time. (Although court officials say serial shirkers will eventually face consequences).  

Thus far there have been enough of us faithful responders to decide the fewer than 50 cases (out of some 2,700 filed in Tuolumne County) that annually go to jury trials.

Walking down the courthouse steps, I was glad I didn’t opt out. No, our system isn’t perfect. But serving on a jury showed me it works – even when a wiseacre, know-it-all journalist gets seated.

Chris Bateman is a 45-year journalist still trying to retire. Email him at chris@seniorfan.com.

Copyright © 2017 Friends and Neighbors Magazine

Chris Bateman
By Chris Bateman March 15, 2017 16:36
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