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Eric Freedman

Eric Freedman

Many are Called, and I Wasn’t Chosen

June 21, 2013

I was, for a few minutes, Juror No. 4. After more than 35 years reporting about courts and the justice system, I landed in a jury box with the prospect of becoming a participant, not a mere observer, at a murder trial.

The crime had garnered local media attention –a violent beating outside a popular downtown Lansing bar only a few hours into New Years Day 2012. The victim lingered for a couple of days in the hospital before dying. Police had arrested two men –one who was convicted and sentenced last year, and the other who sat before me, neatly groomed and wearing a suit, in Ingham County Circuit Judge Jim Jamo’s courtroom. Their original involuntary manslaughter charge had climbed to second-degree after a preliminary hearing.

I’d received jury notices from time to time over the years but never had to do more than phone in at the start of “my” week to see whether I was needed. I never was, until now.

About 120 of us showed up on a cold, rainy May morning before the designated reporting time of 7:30 a.m. We hadn’t been told, however, that the courthouse doesn’t open until 7:30 so the luckiest of us huddled under the shelter of an overhang, while the rest stood in the rain.

After an orientation session, the jury clerk divided us into two groups –one for each criminal trial scheduled to begin that week. My group crammed into Jamo’s courtroom, with the first 14 channeled into the jury box for initial questioning –the screening process called voir dire from the French for “to speak the truth.”

These people reflected in a tangible sense a cross-section of the county, or at least of county residents with drivers’ licenses or state ID cards – retirees from GM and MSU, employees of the Lansing School District, a longtime state worker, a self-employed business owner, a stay-at-home father and a former deputy sheriff among them. Three had served previously on juries, including one who’d sat on a murder case handled by the same prosecutor.

Two would-be jurors were excused after the first round of questions from Jamo, the prosecutor and the defense lawyer. One was the sister of a retired state trooper and who has two other cop-relatives. She repeatedly made it clear that she’d more likely believe police officers than other witnesses. The other was a man whose family vacation reservations would be disrupted if he was chosen to serve.

Then I– Juror No. 4 – and another man were called to fill the empty seats. And so we did.

When an abbreviated round of questioning ended, the prosecutor politely excused Juror No. 4. No explanation. It could have been my long career as a newspaper reporter and freelance journalist. It could have been my law degree and State Bar membership. Or the fact that I, my MSU journalism students or both, had interviewed the defense lawyer years earlier when he was Eaton County prosecutor. Or that I acknowledged having read a number of Lansing State Journal articles about the crime when it occurred.

Whatever the reason, I’d done my civic duty, and the experience –brief as it was– provided a greater appreciation of justice applied. In the run-up to Juror Appreciation Month in July, I was impressed by the willingness to serve of those I watched being questioned –no special pleading to be excused, no whining. I was impressed by their willingness to assume the heavy burden of literally sitting in judgment of a stranger whose liberty for decades was at stake. I was impressed by their willingness to accept the inconvenience and disturbance of their personal lives for the two weeks or more that the trial would run.

And brief as my jury service was, I did make it further than a number of those at the top of the justice system, so I’m in good company.

The experiences of Michigan Supreme Court Justices Michael Cavanagh and Mary Beth Kelly were closest to mine. Cavanagh, who was summoned several times but never selected, recalls, “On one occasion when I was chief justice, I was summoned to Ingham Circuit Court and impaneled for the voir dire in a first-degree murder case. I believe I answered all of the questions satisfactorily but following the court’s sidebar conference with counsel, I was advised that I would be excused.”

And Kelly, called twice in Wayne County, was excused the first time “by the prosecutor in the exercise of a peremptory challenge.” The second time she watched the voir dire but wasn’t called.

Their colleagues didn’t even make it that far.

The court’s newest member, Justice David Viviano, never made it into a jury box. He recalled being called in Macomb County before taking the bench. “We served all week, waiting in the jury room to see if we were needed in the courtroom.” Since then, the county has switched to a “one day – one jury” system, Viviano says, so “if you’re not chosen on a case that day, your service is completed.”

Chief Justice Robert Young Jr., who appears in the juror orientation video I watched in Lansing, was called twice within the past few years. “I have never made it out of the jury waiting room before being discharged – an experience that motivates me to work more diligently on our performance measures to ensure that we do not needlessly burn our jurors’ volunteer time.”

Justice Stephen Markman was called to duty “on seven or eight occasions over the years, but have never even progressed to the voir dire stage.”

And Justice Bridget McCormack said, “I have never been called and really want to be! In fact I have tried to volunteer to serve –to no avail.”

Justice Brian Zahra raises an important lesson from the two times he’s been called in Wayne County since joining the Supreme Court: “There is a great deal of unexplained waiting, which leaves many people frustrated and questioning whether the court system respects their time.”

This is what Zahra experienced: The first time he was called, he appeared at the Frank Murphy Hall of Justice at 8:30 a.m. “and sat in the jury room, which was less than half full, for approximately two and a half hours before being told to go home.”

Then in April of this year, he arrived to find an overcrowded jury room with about 60 people standing or sitting on the floor. “At about 9:15 a.m., the process of assigning prospective jurors to courtrooms began. By this time, many of the potential jurors had been waiting for almost two hours.” By the time a jury was impaneled – without him – it was 3:30 p.m. “I did not get called for voir dire, but after the jury was chosen, the trial judge pointed me out to everyone in the courtroom, and declared, ‘In our system, everyone is called to serve.’”

Zahra recalls feeling torn as he sat in the courtroom: “I wanted to serve, but I was hoping to be excused because I had too much work and personal responsibilities that needed attention. As a former trial judge, I know how critical juries are to our justice system. But I also understand why so many people want to avoid jury duty. Many are called, but very few actually serve.”

Epilogue: The jury in “my” murder case deadlocked and Judge Jamo declared a mistrial.

Eric Freedman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, is associate professor of Journalism and director of Capital News Service at Michigan State University. He and Domemagazine.com columnist Stephen A. Jones are co-authors of Presidents and Black America: A Documentary History (Congressional Quarterly Press).

June 20, 2013 · Filed under Freedman

38 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Anagnorisis // Jun 21, 2013 at 1:06 pm

    Well, yeah, if they want you, you might not be a fair-minded participant. If they don’t want you, it’s likely they don’t figure you’re amenable to their side, and this is, don’t forget, a dichotomy between prosecution and defense, tradeoff all the way to jail or the bank. It’s a stacked deck, in other words, nobody wins fairly. Justice? I don’t think so. Never have, never will.

  • 2 Excogitatoris // Jun 25, 2013 at 5:02 pm

    Excellent story. One quibble, voir dire unfortunately doesn’t mean “to speak the truth.” It literally means “to see, to speak,” which probably describes what’s really going on — time for the lawyers to check you out.

  • 3 Mike Nichols // Jun 28, 2013 at 7:19 am

    Eric: Thank you for taking this topic and writing about your experience. I am a trial lawyer and I also served on jury service before. The waiting is frustrating. The video is – not really representative of how a trial works nor does it discuss the burdens. The video does not discuss that in a criminal case, it is up to the government to prove the case and being “fair” means putting the government to meet their burden – not being fair to both sides. One last point – we do not volunteer as jurors despite the observations and verbage of the justices – we SERVE. It is our duty in a democracy to stand between the lawyer’s arguments and what we believe is justice in a given dispute that is played out in an American courtroom. As always – well-written and nice work. Mike

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