Page 1 of 3 -- Originally written in February of 1986 by Donna J. Leiber


"...the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed..."   -The Sixth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America

I have long held in high esteem certain unalienable rights guaranteed to the citizens of this great land by the Bill of Rights, such as the right to trial by a jury of one's peers. After serving the first six weeks of a four-month stretch on jury duty for the United States District Court seated in the Eastern District of Virginia, I must wonder if this great right is such a sound practice.


First, let me explain how the jury selection procedure works. Potential jurors are chosen randomly from the lists of those individuals registered to vote. Though I haven't voted in nearly four years, my name must have just been on their outdated list, enough to get me selected (why not a million dollar lottery?). The term of service for this particular kind of court is four months, so I will not be relieved of my duties until the first of May.

Starting with the report date given on the formal notice of selection (received in November sometime), the procedure is to call a certain telephone number after 5:15 on the lost working day before the scheduled report date to see whether attendance is truly required. That process entails fighting busy signals for quite some time (with one reporting date a couple weeks ago, there were over 300 jurors who had to call the pre-recorded message and I wasn't able to get through until after 3:00 a.m.!) to eventually reach a very long answering machine message which lists (alphabetically) all those people who must report and then all those people who need not report and for them, when the next report date is, so they can go through this all again. There appears to be no rhyme nor reason as to the possible report dates; I've had them on every day of the week except Friday and as far apart as 14 days and as close together as 6 days. Consequently, that makes scheduling meetings at work, social engagements, utility/condo fix-up visits, etc. almost impossible.

Thus far I have actually had to appear in court three times. After parking in a pay public parking lot (if they're not all full), when the individual reports to the Clerk's Office, he receives a notarized and somewhat decorative Certificate of Jury Service (whether or not he's actually chosen for a trial jury) and is given his next report date (which also has no connection whatsoever whether he's chosen for a jury that day). The Certificates are for payroll offices since U.S. Government workers get Administrative Leave (i.e., full pay) for this civic duty (but must prove it). The Court also pays 20.5 cents a mile for travel to and from the court and $5 for parking. For non-government workers, the remuneration (taxable, of course) is $30, but apparently several school systems, individual businesses, etc. take the $30 and pay their employees their standard salaries.

Then the jury panel members file into always bland, poorly lit and ventilated/heated jury rooms (adjacent to the courtroom of the day) and patiently wait. The instructions are always to appear by 9:30, but nothing has ever happened yet before 10:00 so I think this is their way of insuring that everyone is there on time.

The first time everyone appears there is distributed a pamphlet about the judicial process and how to be impartial in a jury trial. For example, it's stated emphatically that a person's guilt or innocence can't be judged based on his looks or clothing, that the defendant is innocent until proven guilty, and that if the judge sustains or overrules an attorney's objection, that fact alone should not influence the innocence of the accused. (What? You mean if the defendant's attorney has sixteen objections overruled, that doesn't prove his client is guilty?!)

Finally, then, the bailiff escorts the panel (ranging from about 25 to over 100 people, based on the severity of the case) into the courtroom wherein sit the counsel for both sides, the court reporter, several court clerks, a few U.S. Marshals, and the defendant. The judge's chamber door opens and everyone is asked to stand, the honorably robed leader enters, an extremely antiquated Call To Order is pronounced (starting with "Oye, oye, oye..." and including something about "drawing nigh"), everyone sits, and the jury selection is underway.

The judge introduces the attorneys and the accused, reads the charges being tried, and tries to summarize what they mean. Then a flurry of questions are presented to the now-sworn-in panel, pertaining to the specifics of the case. My first case was a drug trafficking charge perpetrated at National Airport, so some of the questions dealt with the prejudices one might already have about the nature of drugs. For example, was anyone greatly in favor of them or greatly opposed to them? Did anyone feel that the laws for possession, selling, etc. are unfair and should be changed (or implying: not enforced)? My immediate curiosity was whether anyone feeling/thinking the biased way the judge was trying to weed out, would actually admit it. (No one did.) Then there were other questions which seem to be pretty generic from case to case, dealing with such issues as the panel's history of law enforcement work, post run-ins with the law, previous knowledge of the accused or any of the attorneys, etc. The questions are asked en masse, but whenever one elicits a response, the juror is to raise his hand, stand, and explain the details. Although I've never seen it happen, there is the possibility of asking to approach the bench to explain especially sensitive details so that not everyone has to hear.

While all the questioning is taking place, the attorneys are busily taking notes on their lists about the panel. I've not yet ascertained just what information about us is included on those sheets, but I wonder if maybe everything filled out on the initial jury card, such as name, address, occupation, employer, and age. Then, for all the people not yet excused by the judge (more about this later), their names are put into a box and a court clerk draws twelve names randomly. As each is announced, that juror grimaces and walks up to the jury arena where he takes a seat in a large, plush, swivel/rocker chair.

The lawyers are allowed a certain number of challenges, some peremptory and some otherwise (i.e., for good reason or just on a whim), so often some of the original twelve are asked to step down. It would be very interesting to know why some of the challenged ones are singled out, but with some it's fairly obvious. One man I talked to dressed sloppily the first time so he wouldn't get chosen, but that didn't stop him and he did have to serve on a jury. So the next time he wore a three-piece suit and again he was chosen. It all depends on the attorneys and what they're looking for and that's something we jurors can't foretell. In all but my last appearance only a couple of those originally selected were asked to leave, but the last trial involved about a half hour of names being called and then a subset of them being asked to leave, and then another several names being called and some of them having to leave, etc. until finally twelve were chosen and even a thirteenth to serve as an alternate, since the case was anticipated to last several days.

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