Chris Frederick

Jury Duty Complete

August 15, 2009

My obligations as a juror this year ended on Tuesday, August 11th. I promised you more details, and here they are!

First, I’d like to point out a few interesting facts about jury duty in Seattle.

  • An individual only has an obligation to serve once a year.
  • A juror’s “compensation” of $10 per day is supposedly the same as it was in the 1950’s.
  • At least two-thirds of jury summons are ignored, postponed, or excused.
  • Jurors are not summoned by the courts for a particular trial, but for a two-day jury pool.

I would like to elaborate on this final point. When I tell people that I have received a jury summons, some of them ask me what trial I was chosen for. In Seattle, at least, the system does not work this way: The courts send jury summons for a two-day pool of potential jurors, rather than for individual trials. This juror pool is replenished every Monday and Wednesday, which means that any jurors in the courthouse on Friday have already been assigned to a trial and are in the middle of deliberations.

So, all jurors start their service by waiting in the Jury Assembly Room. When a judge needs a jury for a trial, he or she contacts the administrative staff in the Jury Assembly Room. The staff then asks the local oracle, a computer, for a numbered list of potential juror names from those people currently waiting in the Jury Assembly Room. The computer dutifully selects (more or less) at random ~20 names for a 6-person jury and ~40 names for a 12-person jury. After their names and numbers have been called, the potential jurors are escorted by the bailiff to the courtroom, where they will be cross-examined by the judge and attorneys.

This is where the process gets interesting. The judge first asks some basic questions to determine which jurors could be disqualified for obvious reasons, which may include the following:

  • Knowledge of the case in advance
  • Familiarity with either the plaintiff (prosecutor) or respondent (defendant)
  • Strong opinions regarding the trial itself
  • Religious objections to judging another human being
  • Financial or physical hardships caused by serving on the jury

Next, each attorney gets a chance to cross-examine the jury. Apparently King County uses the “struck jury” method, which in this case means that each attorney engages in a discussion with the entire jury rather than questioning every juror in order. Note that an attorney can and probably will single out jurors who have not answered many questions, but this does not have to happen in any particular order. At any time and as often as they like (within reason) during questioning, the attorneys have the opportunity to make a challenge for cause, requesting that a juror be dismissed for an obvious bias. In this way, the jury is whittled down until the attorneys have used up all the time allotted to them.

This process of questioning that I have just described is known formally as voir dire, “to speak the truth”.

Remember how each juror was given a number when he or she was selected by the computer? Now that number becomes important because at the end of voir dire the jury box is filled in with jurors holding lower numbers. To make this easier to understand, assume that the trial requires a 12-person jury and there are 40 potential jurors. Originally, jurors 1-12 are the jury. However, if jurors 3, 5, 8, 9, and 10 are dismissed during voir dire by a challenge for cause, jurors 13, 14, 15, 16, and 17 will take their place on the jury. If jurors 14 and 17 had been dismissed by a challenge for cause, as well, jurors 13, 15, 16, 18, and 19 would move to the jury box instead.

At this point the attorneys have a chance to use their peremptory challenges, which basically allow them to dismiss potential jurors without giving a reason. For each juror that is dismissed from the jury box, a new one (with a higher number) takes his or her place. Because each attorney has a limited number of peremptory challenges (I have seen this vary between 3 and 8 per attorney), the jury will be decided when either all of the peremptory challenges have been used up or each attorney is satisfied. All the other potential jurors are then dismissed to the Jury Assembly Room to wait for another trial.

This process repeats for two days. Any jurors chosen for a trial during that time must continue to report to the courtroom until their trial completes, and all other jurors are free to leave.

We really do have a fascinating legal system in this country.