I sat on the creaking wooden bench, in the second row. I was number twenty-seven on a list of fifty-four. While waiting for the rest of the summoned individuals to file in, I surveyed my surroundings.
At the front of the room hung a giant golden replica of our state seal, flanked on either side by the state flag and the US flag. Desks, tables and chairs of various sizes and shapes occupied the front half of the small room.
A young, attractive woman, dressed in a black tailored suit and red blouse, sat at the table on the left. Her dark eyes appeared to be assessing each person filing in. Those individuals choosing to make eye contact with her were rewarded with a pleasant, albeit reserved, smile.
The table on the right was occupied by two men. The gentleman wearing a business suit had his chair turned toward the back of the room so that he, too, could observe the procession of diverse humanity parading through the door. The second occupant at the table sat unmoving, facing the front of the room. Fifty-four curious spectators were limited to visually dissecting only the back of his head. Right or wrong, initial impressions were drawn based solely on his white dress shirt and wavy dark mullet.
“Come to order. Court is now in session.”
With those words from the bailiff, jury selection began.
The first twelve prospective juror numbers were called. Mine was not among them. As I settled in to observe the often-boring, yet sometimes-rigorous “voir dire,”—the practice of questioning potential jurors about their backgrounds and potential biases—I marveled at the judicial system we have in the US, and wondered if other countries have a similar process.
I could not, however, let my mind wander for too long. I knew from experience that I needed to be an active listener to the questions being asked by the judge and the attorneys during this selection phase. My number could be called at any moment, and I did not want to have to answer “no, your honor,” when asked if I heard the questions asked of previous jurors.
The initial queries were typical. Marital status. Children. Residence. Employment. Jury experience. Law enforcement friends/relatives. Military experience.
The judge asked additional questions for further clarification, followed by the prosecuting attorney and finally the defense attorney. As each question was asked, I “practiced” responses in my head. After hearing the same questions asked of five or six prospective jurors, I felt confident that I was sufficiently prepared, and would not look like an imbecile if summoned to the jury box.
As a result of the initial questioning, the judge dismissed two jurors “for cause.” When the attorneys resumed voir dire, they started asking more pointed questions to help them determine whom to dismiss with their limited "peremptory challenges"—the right to dismiss a potential juror without a particular reason.
During this phase, the defense attorney focused on one particular issue. He singled out an individual and asked the following question: “Just because a person has been charged with a crime, do you automatically assume that person is guilty of the crime?”
The response the defense attorney was looking for, obviously, was “no.” One by one, the twelve prospective jurors were asked the same question. And although each responded with the appropriate “no,” some answered with visible hesitation. For those individuals, the defense attorney pressed further.
I contemplated my answer. Of course I would say “no.” That’s how I really felt…right? Except…in the crime shows on television, the accused person is usually found guilty, unless there is some last minute evidence, some “courtroom drama,” to prove otherwise. Still…in this country, a person is presumed innocent until proven guilty.
Not wishing to be subjected to additional questioning from the defense attorney, I knew I would have to make him believe that I really meant “no.” Unfortunately, I wasn’t going to be able to answer “yes” if he asked me his second question: “Can you think of an instance when someone was falsely accused and charged with a crime?”
But, wait. Yes, I could think of an instance. My Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, was charged for a crime for which He was completely innocent. With absolute conviction I could answer “yes.” But…what if he asked me to explain further? Would I?
The defense excused juror number sixteen.
“Call the next juror please.”
“The court calls juror number twenty-seven to the box.”
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