Voir Dire
©2022, George J. Irwin. All rights reserved.

On behalf of our court system, welcome to Jury Service and thank you for being here today to participate in the work of your courts. Since our nation's earliest days, the right to trial by jury has been central to the guarantee of equal justice for all. We could not preserve and protect this fundamental right without the participation of jurors like you.

Yeah, I'd read this before. Here we go again.

I wonder how long it will be before I'm disqualified this time?

A Jury Duty Summons was, and is, something that is not exactly a welcome item for most people I know. In fact, the first time I received one, I was inundated with ideas on how to get out of it. My favorite one: "Tell them you read The New York Times." Apparently neither of the parties in the case wants anyone all that smart to serve. Pausing for a self-pat on back, I will admit that if that's true, I'd probably never be seated.

My first experience with actually appearing for Jury Duty took place after three near misses: two Jury Duty Questionnaires which didn't result in a summons, which bookended a summons for which I wasn't actually called to show up. I didn't get to tell anyone that I read The New York Times.

So my first experience was on essentially the fourth try.

I got up in plenty of time to dress appropriately, have breakfast, make sure I had enough of a lunch and snacks to get through the day, and drive down to the county courthouse. And park. I left plenty of time for that, as there was essentially no parking on streets, meaning the use of a pay-for garage. Along with probably one hundred other people, I was brought into a large room, handed in my jury summons, given a handbook to peruse, administered the oath, and instructed to wait. Some short time after that, about half the potential jurors were called by group based on their number and escorted to courtrooms for possible selection. I remained behind as part of the second half. Despite my having brought plenty of things to read, boredom quickly set in. As did a bit of discomfort: the chairs weren't very good for long duration sitting. This would prove to be a commonality across all jury rooms in which I sat.

There was a modestly-sized lunchroom off to the left front of the main room, where a number of people gathered. It was not only the sole place were food and beverages were allowed, it was also the location of a small television.

A little before noon, anyone who could fit inside that room or could otherwise have a view of the television was riveted to it.

The Challenger Space Shuttle had just exploded almost immediately after takeoff.

January 28, 1986 was one of those "I remember where I was" days. It's easy for me to remember that I was waiting to see whether I would be called to serve on a jury.

Not surprisingly, I don't remember anything else that occurred that day, other than that I was not selected to be on a jury. I was thanked for my service and I went home to watch the coverage of the disaster. I'm not sure how far the court cases which were scheduled to begin or continue on that day proceeded. Perhaps all of the sessions were adjourned. I'll never know.

The second trip back to this same courthouse did not involve any space travel disasters, but it did include my admitting that my car had been broken into and my favorite "starlight" denim jacket stolen. That under-oath, and completely truthful, response to a question resulted in a quick request from the defense to be excused, along with, if I recall correctly, the bouncing of anyone else who answered that yes, they had recently been the victim of a crime or were closely related to someone who was. And that was the end of my experience in my home state.

The various jurisdictions (definition: "The domain within which power is exercised; specifically, the territory over which the authority of a state, court, or judge extends") in the State of New York took their time catching up to the fact that I'd moved there. And even then, it was something like five years until I received an actual summons after a couple of questionnaires. I never got as far as an appearance that time, either. The entire service consisted of calling in to listen to a recording telling me that my number had not yet been picked, which I did on Friday night, the following Monday morning, that same Monday afternoon, then Tuesday morning and evening, and finally Wednesday morning when the recording informed me that I was off the hook. This was how juror numbers worked; the higher yours was, the less likely that you'd actually need to show up.

For a little bit of variety, the next summons for my jury duty service, which again followed a couple of questionnaires, was not at the usual county level but the local level: the town in which I lived. I was told that it was likely that I would wind up actually hearing a case this time because the jury pool was more limited and fewer people were called at a time.

Since the court was in session only in the afternoon, I had to record just a half day in the Official Company Time Recording and Nanny State System for "Jury Duty." (By the way, this record would later be bounced as an "invalid entry" which then led to an inordinate amount of time explaining to The Bureaucrats In Charge that they were missing an option, not that I was incorrect.) I headed down to the town hall and was seated in a relatively small courtroom along with maybe twenty other people. A jury of six was required so I had a pretty good chance of getting in.

The judge came, administered the oath and then explained that there would be a delay as the legal counsel for the prosecution and defense were meeting.

So we waited.

And waited.

And waited some more.

Meanwhile, about a dozen students from the local community college arrived. As I would find out later, part of their coursework was to observe a trial.

And we all waited.

About an hour after the scheduled start of the jury duty, the judge returned from her chambers, welcomed the students and profusely apologized. The prosecution and defense were still meeting. The topic was whether to have a trial by jury or a bench trial, the latter meaning that the judge would not only preside over the case but also rule on the verdict. There are advantages and disadvantages to a bench trial. One plus for the defendant is that the judge can instruct herself to ignore irrelevancies whereas a jury might not even if they are told to do so. A bench trial is also generally faster.

The judge returned to her quarters and the waiting began again.

This time, however, it didn't take as long for the judge to return. I already guessed that this would go to a bench trial because that meant that once again I would not be serving on a jury.

And I was correct. We were officially released from service, and it was duly noted that we would not be called again for at least another five years. We were also invited to stay if we would like to hear the proceedings. That sentence wasn't out of Her Honor's mouth before all of the other prospective jurors were out the door. I had already logged the half day in the company time recording system, so I decided that I might as well stay. The observation counted for the community college students regardless of the trial type so they remained as well.

About fifteen minutes later, the trial officially began. Let's put it this way: It's not exactly Law and Order. Nor did it resemble Perry Mason. In fact, it's not like any of the television or motion picture depictions of trials. The first ten minutes or so consisted of establishing the authority and experience of the first witness, a New York State Trooper who was involved in the Driving While Ability Impaired pullover which was the subject of this trial. This line of questioning was conducted by the prosecuting attorney. By this time, the television and/or movie audience probably would have walked out, and I suppose I would have too, but this was Real Life Law and yes, this is what actually happens. What also happened—oops, I mean allegedly happened—is that the defendant was observed driving haphazardly on a local expressway and was pulled over. Said defendant insisted that he was not drinking... however, there was a nearly empty bottle of a certain cold medication on the floor behind the driver's seat. And that was the basis of the Driving While Ability Impaired charge... yes, you can get drunk on Nyquil. Well, I already knew that. From personal experience. It only takes one dose for me, in fact.

At a break in the proceedings, I decided that I'd probably had a sufficient experience observing the Criminal Justice System until next time, and I gracefully took my leave. I never did find out whether the judge presiding over the bench trial found the defendant guilty of driving under the influence... of Nyquil.

Just a little more than five years later, another jury duty summons arrived, this time back at the county level. My juror number was low enough, letter B something or other, that I had a feeling that maybe this time I might actually get to participate. This was not least because it was a busy time at work. My manager actually asked if I could try to get out of it given the size of his queue, and I replied that I would probably get out of it pretty quickly anyway, and if that didn't work I'd mention that I read The New York Times.

I didn't have to report until the second day of duty. I arrived as required well before the prescribed time and found myself among at least two hundred other potential jurors. This was probably the largest crowd I'd ever seen. Almost every seat was taken in the waiting room. I parked myself and my "things to do" bag on an aisle, fully aware that I would probably lose this place if I got up to go to the bathroom. Yikes. I can't tell you how many times I looked over the Juror Handbook, which contained the Juror Welcome I'd seen multiple times before. "On behalf of our court system, welcome to Jury Service and thank you for being here today to participate in the work of your courts." Yes, I know.

There was a reason for this crowd. The previous day's jury selection had not been completed, so assembled on this morning were all of the jury pool that had not yet been either assigned to a jury or otherwise dismissed plus all of the "new" jurors. Once yesterday's leftovers were escorted back to the courtroom for more voir dire, the number of people remaining returned to something more approaching normal.

It didn't occur to me until later that if the previous day's jury selection was behind, that there would be a domino effect which would place the current day's jury selection behind as well. That's exactly what happened: after sitting around for most of the day, we were told that we could leave but would have to return the next day. And so much for getting out of jury duty in a day or less. My manager wasn't exactly thrilled.

The next day started with another few hours of waiting, but late in the morning a fairly large group of us were finally brought up to one of the several courtrooms. There were already seated the attorneys for the prosecution and defense, along with the defendant. A clerk was present and handed to each of us a laminated card with a number on it. It was explained that from this point on, we were to ignore the juror number under which we had been summoned (I'd already forgotten mine) and instead refer to the number on the card. We rose for the judge's entry and he made some initial remarks about the Importance of Jury Service. He then began to discuss the case at hand in a fair amount of detail. I had not ever gotten this far into the process.

This was interesting, but I couldn't help comparing the description to a sales pitch for some cheesy product on third tier television. This was, of course, completely inappropriate, but I kept it to myself and as far as I knew, no one was reading my mind or I would have been bounced immediately and perhaps even held in contempt. The similarity was in the way the judge explained the circumstances. Each time you thought he was done, there was something added, not unlike a "But wait, there's more!" With each new point, the judge stopped and reminded the potential jurors that they needed to remain open minded to the situation. And it was a complex situation, to be sure. It could have been a drug deal gone wrong, it could have been the defendants in the wrong place at the wrong time, or it could have been something else. That is what the jury would be charged to decide.

Well, then, surely I would be valuable as a juror, given my employment required consideration of the facts.


With the judge's opening remarks concluded, the court clerk got down to business. He pulled out a device that is usually employed to select bingo numbers: a globe-shaped wire cage with a handle attached to the outside, in which there were a number of small balls. Presumably each ball had a number corresponding to the number each of us was handed. Round and round the cage went as the clerk thoroughly mixed the balls inside. I was impressed; this was certainly helping to ensure a fair selection among the potential jurors assembled.

And given my luck with picking numbers, that is to say, the lottery, I'd surely be passed over.

The first group of numbers was drawn... and amazingly, mine was one of them. How about that? I was directed to take a seat in the jury box, the first time ever that I'd sat in one, out of all of the times I had been on jury duty. This was also not like Perry Mason, or Law and Order. For one thing, there were television monitors built into the carpentry. I decided that I would not ask whether they got cable. For another thing, I didn't recall ever seeing a jury box from the inside on anything I'd ever watched. On the other hand, I hoped I wouldn't have to watch anything grisly. Based on the judge's roundabout explanation of the case we might be considering—if selected—it seemed at least possible.

And it seemed that I was actually going to be asked some questions, the first time that had happened since I was still in my home state.

And that meant that I would be queried in what was a real life, genuine voir dire, "the preliminary phase of a jury trial in which the jurors are examined and selected" (thank you, American Heritage Dictionary). It only took I couldn't remember how many years.

The judge called my number and asked the first question: "What is your occupation?"

Hmm, not what I expected. I thought I would be asked whether I could be impartial or whether I thought anything about the case would be disturbing. Yes and maybe, in that order, but that's not what I was asked. That was a bit problematic because I could not say something straightforward, like teacher or salesperson or accountant. But I had taken the oath and I had to tell the truth, so...

"I'll give you my official title first. I am a Six Sigma Master Black Belt. What that means is that I work with people in my job to solve problems that they have."

And I got back the usual reply. "It's not karate?"

I didn't know whether to laugh or grimace. I did know I'd better not do either.

"No, your honor, it isn't. You might say that I fix broken processes. I look at operations with my team and any data that is available and I make recommendations on how to do things better."

"I see. Thank you."

And he called the next number.

Wait, that was it?

At that point I was pretty sure that I saw the defense, the prosecution, and the judge all writing down my juror number. It was therefore not much of a surprise when I was among a group of those excused from the proceedings.

Well, my manager was happy. I called him after getting home and told him what had happened and that I was back on the clock.

"Lawyers don't want someone who will figure things out for themselves," my manager suggested. "Trials are shows. They want you to agree with their story and how they tell it, not look at the facts."

I supposed that might have been a little harsh, but it was also true that juries needed to be convinced "beyond a reasonable doubt." The idea that someone who could look at the evidence professionally and with the fact-based scientific method might not have been exactly what the prosecution or defense desired on the jury. Oh, well, good luck with that. I made a mental note to follow the trial to see what happened, but I never did. I also haven't been called for service since that time, so I am still zero for everything with respect to being on a real jury.

But there was someone else in the family called who clearly should not have been selected.

My mother called in a panic with that news.

"This is a disaster!" she announced. "Your father got a jury duty summons!"

My father, who had passed away approximately three years before, that is.

"What am I supposed to do about this?" my mother shouted into the phone. "He can't answer these questions!"

A pause. "There's a phone number, and an address, and what is this... htp, www...period..."

OK, the start of a web address, as only my mother could describe it.

"I am not near my computer right now," I replied. "Let me get to it and I will call you back and you can read that line to me again."

I did so a little while later, after both of us had calmed down. I did find it more amusing, and perhaps perplexing, than aggravating. Was this not the same county that prepared the death certificate, now summoning my father for jury duty? Before getting into the web address, I confirmed that the middle initial was my father's, not mine. It wouldn't have been the first time that we'd gotten mixed up... and don't get me started on how The Army managed to give me a middle initial that neither one of us had.

I had my mother read the letters slowly, one at a time. Fortunately, it wasn't too long of a Uniform Resource Locator. As I expected, it connected me to the county's court system website.

I obtained my father's juror number, entered that and his... ahem... former address... into the input screen. I was taken to the questionnaire. Several questions which would have been nothing special under ordinary circumstances were presented.

"Are you a resident of the county?"

Well, yes, I could reply, since the Memorial Gardens where he was interred was within the borders of said county.

"Are you able to participate in a jury trial?"

Well, that was a harder question. If I answered "no," then some sort of an explanation would obviously be required.

Fortunately, only one of the questions really mattered. My father was already several years beyond the upper age limit for jury service when he passed away. If the same county that issued the death certificate and sent out jury summonses had also cross-checked his date of birth, they would have known that already. So whether here or in spirit, he was off the hook.

Years later, the state issued guidance on what to do if someone who received a summons is deceased. The fact that they had to include this information on their Frequently Asked Questions page tells me that my late father's summons was not an isolated incident.

Oh, and by the way, he read The New York Times.