There are few, if any, civic responsibilities as important as serving on a jury, especially in a criminal case. The fate of a fellow citizen’s future rests in the hands of twelve peers. When it comes to civic duties, jaded people are heard to complain at election time “my vote doesn’t count.” Well, jury duty is a time when an individual’s vote counts decisively. On a jury, a single person’s vote can nullify the wishes of eleven others.
The two-word notice; JURY DUTY, usually sent out on a postcard can bring a burst of emotion from the recipient. Most people dread the thought of serving on a jury and will immediately conjure up a list of semi-plausible excuses to escape their summons. Then there are the scarce few people who have always wanted to serve on a jury. They will sadly find out only a tiny percentage of those called will ever sit in the jury box. Also note, a person’s uncommon enthusiasm to serve on a jury will probably be detected and they will be excused, forthwith.
The right to a trial before a jury of peers is spelled out in our Constitution. Innocent until found guilty by a jury is a piece of the bedrock which makes up the foundation of our nation’s democracy. On a smaller scale, a group of jurors seated in the jury box in the Chenango County courthouse will be a sampling of our community’s members and a display of our local values whether the verdict is in favor of the defendant or in support of a victim.
Don’t confuse jury duty with being a member of a grand jury. It is easy to find people with experience on a grand jury for a couple of reasons; grand juries convene more often and there are substantially more people impaneled on a grand jury. However, few people among us have served on a jury in a criminal case. At a criminal trial, the jury is the center of attention as both sides argue their case to the members of the jury with an impartial judge in the middle. A more powerful group of twelve people would be difficult to find in government, or anywhere.
In nearly all criminal cases a defendant may exercise their right to a trial by jury. Countless times I have sat in a courtroom at the start of a trial, seated opposite a defendant; both of us surrounded by scores of prospective jurors. I, as the arresting officer, and the defendant both know the case rests in the hands of this random selection of people called to serve.
Often a courtroom filled with the jury pool is as far as a criminal trial will proceed. A defendant with an ounce of guilt in their soul soon realizes their fate will be decided by the jurors who were called. With the moment of truth upon the defendant, this is the time they usually ask their attorney to plead guilty in lieu of a trial. Those summoned to jury duty should realize a guilty plea would never happen if they didn’t answer the call. Even the jury pool has potency just by their presence.
Conversely, there are cases where a defendant has demanded to be tried by a jury, declining any plea deal offers, knowing in their heart they are innocent. These defendants can’t wait to testify, waiving their right to remain silent. They know the truth is apparent and a jury foreman will justly declare them “not guilty.” Being in a courtroom when this happens is breathtaking. This is a feeling I know from personal experience.
Jury duty is a serious civic responsibility, and skirting this duty shouldn’t be a sport which is bragged about. Because of negative feelings associated serving on a jury, some people are proposing professional paid jurists. The thought of this should be repulsive. We shouldn’t require taxpayer dollars for such use. Consider also, with the prior knowledge that a small group of people likely to serve is known, the possibility of tampering increases.
The chance that a person will be called for jury duty more than once in a lifetime is rare, but it does happen. The pool of potential jurors has increased substantially over the years by including names of people from voter registrations, motor vehicle records, tax rolls, and even the welfare rolls to make sure a large and diverse group of citizens are available.
The only disqualifying factors to being a juror are English illiteracy or a felony conviction. However, this may change because New York does have legislation winding its way through the capitol to allow felons to serve.
Chenango County has at least one murder trial approaching on the calendar. If you are called to serve, do so with energy and pride. If you are the employer of a person called to jury duty, support your worker’s absence because what they are doing is an essential part of our justice system. A call to jury duty is not the time to make excuses akin to the dog eating your homework. It is a time to ensure a fair verdict is reached and justice is done.