Not so fast: rethinking jury duty

We have all heard the jokes about jury duty. Even David Letterman does a comedy bit about how he gets out of it.

It is an American commonplace. When summoned for jury duty, we groan at the inconvenience. We laugh at how little remuneration is offered for our valuable time, check an exemption box, scribble an excuse, return the form, and (except for a quick pat on the back for our cleverness) forget all about it. But I experienced something last summer that changed my view of jury duty.

As I entered the Douglas County courtroom with a group of potential jurors, I saw the defendant waiting for her trial. Her chance at justice, I realized, rested in our hands.

The charge was felony drug possession. The defendant — we'll call her Jamie — was a young woman originally arrested for unpaid fines. An ensuing search found a half-tablet of prescription pain medication.

The small piece of pink oxycodone tablet was in the watch pocket of Jamie's jeans. A friend had offered it earlier that day, assuring her it would relieve muscle pain. Jamie had accepted but taken only half, tucking the other away for later.

The familiar prescription pain medication Vicodin is a mixture of oxycodone and acetaminophen. Oxycodone is a Schedule II controlled substance. Possession is illegal without a prescription. If you were in pain and accepted the Vicodin tablet your husband offered from his prescription, you would both be breaking federal law.

Did we intend to spend our tax dollars prosecuting such trivial infractions? Did Jamie deserve a felony drug conviction? Reality dictates anyone of us could find ourselves in a similar position. You may think no jury would convict you. Think again.

In his article, "Covert Advocacy," Victor Gold, law professor at Los Angeles' Loyola Law School, says attorneys are trained to use psychological techniques on juries. Designed to work at subconscious level, the techniques convince jurors to make decisions based on improper legal precepts.

In our case, the prosecutor effectively colored the jury's perspective. The defense attorney was unable to fully undo his handiwork. Indeed, most jury members entered deliberation fevered to convict, even though they had admitted during jury questioning to taking others' medications. They judged Jamie's character through speculation about her life choices, then rushed to convict.

That wasn't their job. The jury's job is to discern what has been proven beyond reasonable doubt. Only then should jurors decide whether to convict. Researchers estimate that happens in only 35 percent of cases.

Not all citizens fully understand how the system should work. Court-provided juror training in proper deliberation could help secure the integrity of jury verdicts.

As presiding juror in this case, I spent nearly two hours helping my fellow jurors to separate impressions from presented facts, to understand the burden of proof rests with the state, and to see the validity of "not guilty" based on insufficient evidence even if they had difficulty perceiving Jamie as "innocent."

Had I decided my time was too valuable for jury duty, Jamie might easily be a convicted felon today. Our jury found her not guilty. Should I ever find myself in Jamie's position, I hope my peers consider jury duty important enough to serve.

It is inarguable that a day in jury duty is costly, and jurors are not well compensated. But we depend upon our jury system despite its imperfections. It is our responsibility as citizens to accept jury duty if it is within our power.

Some people can't serve jury duty. A single parent whose loss of a day's pay means no food on her family's table that night has a valid excuse. But a professional with the ability to serve who seeks a dishonest exemption commits a crime against society and, by extension, against herself.

We need juries that represent the entire community, including those well-educated professionals who have been acculturated to consider their time too valuable for jury duty. While our laws are carefully written to protect our freedoms, it is the folks who show up for jury duty who must put these safeguards into practice. Because many of us don't take jury duty seriously, our fate as defendants could rest in the hands of people unversed in legal concepts, unschooled in reasoning skills and unaware of the tactics lawyers use to sway their opinions.

Our right to a jury trial is guaranteed by the 6th Amendment to the Constitution. But there is no guarantee that the jury deciding your case will be competent.

You cannot depend upon a jury of your peers if your peers avoid jury service. Maybe it's time we stop laughing at the jokes and rethink jury duty. Someone is depending on a fair trial. Someday, it may be you.

Kim Blossom graduated from Southern Oregon University in June with a degree in writing. This piece is part of a capstone project she completed on her experience as a juror.

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