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Prompted By Jury Duty

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Sacramento County Courthouse

Unlike most of the writers here, I really wanted to be on a jury. I thought it would be helpful in my career as a trial lawyer, and I also thought it would be just plain fun! I know that may strike you as weird, but there it is. And I have actually made it onto three juries over the years.

I thought being on a jury would be helpful in my career as a trial lawyer, and I also thought it would be fun!

First, some background. In my 30 years of practicing law, I only had one case that almost went to a jury. While in criminal cases the defendant is always entitled to a jury, in civil cases this is not true. One of the parties has to request a jury, and has to pay a certain amount to the court in advance to have a jury impaneled. My case was a sex discrimination case, a woman who was suing the Office of the State Architect. I was representing the Architect. The plaintiff requested a jury, so I spent the entire weekend before the trial learning about voir dire and preparing my questions for prospective jurors. My husband, who had done many jury trials in criminal cases, was very helpful. Monday morning I arrived at court, all prepared, only to find out that the plaintiff had changed her mind and withdrawn her request. I was so disappointed! We tried the case to a judge, and I won. The judge found no discrimination. Still, it would have been fun to see how a jury would react.

The first time I was called for jury duty, everyone told me I would never make it onto the jury, that one side or the other would surely challenge me. But it turned out neither one did. The prosecutor figured I was on his side, because I was a Deputy Attorney General (hah!). The defense kept me because she “just had a good feeling” about me, even though the other lawyers in her office told her she was crazy. She was right, of course, my sympathies are much more with the defense. The defendant had been charged with embezzling money from the photo-developing kiosk where she worked (remember those?). I was elected foreperson of the jury. We ended up with a verdict of “not guilty” because there were several employees who had access to the money, so we could not find beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant was the one who had taken it.

My second summons for jury duty came several years later. Once again both sides kept me on, but, unlike in the first case, I didn’t discuss it with them afterwards, so I don’t know what they were thinking. The defendant had been charged with making meth in the garage where he was living. The cops had found various chemicals there which led them to this conclusion. However, there had not been any testimony from anyone who had seen him making meth. The defendant testified (which is rare in criminal cases), and he seemed like a pretty dim bulb. I was able to persuade my fellow jurors to reach a “not guilty” verdict because, I said, “I’ve seen Breaking Bad, I know that there is complicated chemistry involved in making meth, and this guy isn’t smart enough to do it.” Maybe he put one over on us, I’ll never know, but even if so, I’d like to think we did a good deed, and he straightened out his life as a result of this acquittal.

My third time on jury duty was another criminal case, but I don’t remember what the crime was. Why not? you say. It took all of the first day of trial to pick the jury. After we were sworn in, we went home for the day. When we came back the next day, we were informed that the defendant had taken a plea deal. Apparently after he took a look at the impaneled jury, he wasn’t so confident about his chances of prevailing. .

Finally, a near miss. In this case I was one of the twelve in the jury box after the lawyers had finished questioning everyone, and had made all of their challenges for cause, and the challenged jurors had been replaced. We were sent out on the mid-morning break. While we were waiting for the elevator to go up to the coffee shop on the top floor of the courthouse, one of the jurors said, “well, I guess that’s it, we’re the jury.” I said no, not necessarily, and explained the difference between peremptory challenges (where the lawyer doesn’t have to give a reason) and challenges for cause. The peremptory challenges were still to come. The defendant overheard my explanation and reported it to the judge, whereupon the judge dismissed me. This was a big no-no, because the jurors are all supposed to regard each other as equal, and there should not be a situation where they look to one person as knowing more than the rest of them. So I’ve learned my lesson, and from now on I will play dumb.

Can’t wait until I get my next jury summons!



Profile photo of Suzy Suzy

Characterizations: funny, right on!, well written


  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    First let me say how nice it is to hear from you again, Suzy. And second, boy does this prompt fit you to a “t”. You offer us great insights into what it is like to be on both sides of the process, how you arrived at various decisions and how your “insider” information informed the entire process (both good and not so much). This was a compelling story. So happy we got to hear it.

    • Suzy says:

      Thanks Betsy. When we paused Retro at the end of 2022, it was because, among other things, we couldn’t think of any more prompts that we wanted to write about. I felt that everything I had to say had been covered, and up until now, this year’s prompts bore that out. On every prompt, I either had already written (and moved my old story to the new prompt), or I had nothing to say. This was the first prompt of 2023 that motivated me – so much so that I wrote the first draft yesterday on my phone while attending the State Fair!

  2. Dana Admin says:

    Thanx Suzy for the story of your jury service, and glad to see you again on Retro.
    Like you, and unlike some of our Retro buddies, I liked serving. But I think lawyers should be exempt from jury duty, I wonder if judges are also called?

    I remember once while I was a juror I was in the courthouse ladies room and saw another woman crying. I wondered if she was a defendant worried about her upcoming verdict, or a victim or witness reliving some horrendous experience that was the subject of a trial that day.

    I went up to comfort her and discovered in fact she was a lawyer and was crying because she had just heard she’d lost her bid on a very desirable coop apartment!

    • Suzy says:

      Judges are not exempt from jury duty, although I can’t imagine that very many lawyers would want to keep a judge on the jury. The other jurors would be too likely to give their opinions deference.

      Love the incident about the woman crying in the courthouse ladies room. That is such a New York story!

  3. Like you, I always heard that neither side ever wants a lawyer mucking up the jury’s thinking–even worse, I guess, than a grad student!

  4. Laurie Levy says:

    This is really interesting, Suzy. Thank you for doing what many of us at Retro tried to avoid.

  5. Suzy: It is instructive to hear an inside story on the jury experience. I too was surprised you could serve. Just shows, how little I know about these matters.

  6. Dave Ventre says:

    Highly amusing that you cited your experience watching “Breaking Bad” as legal precedent! If I am ever on a jury for a case involving warp drive or the Prime Directive, I’m all set.

    • Suzy says:

      Having watched all 5 seasons of Breaking Bad, I felt I was an expert on how to make meth! I don’t know what the two shows you refer to are (and no need to tell me), but the concept makes sense. You bring all your knowledge and experience to bear when you are deciding a case.

  7. Khati Hendry says:

    No surprises here Suzy–I would expect you would enjoy the jury process both for the insights from a legal perspective and the general human drama. Maybe you will be called again. I would imagine that empaneling a litigation lawyer would be a risky call for the lawyers–they don’t want people who know too much–but obviously you made it through more than once. As you note, preparing for a jury trial is a big deal, and you have to do a lot to prepare so you are ready to “go” if there is no last minute deal or change of heart as the moment nears. More often than not, someone flinches and it is called off.

  8. Jim Willis says:

    Suzy, Great to see you writing again, and I found your piece on jury duty very insightful and told from a unique perspective: a trial attorney who wound up sitting on three juries herself. The fact that lawyers of both sides in the cases approved you says a lot about the balance and fairness you must evoke. You summarized each situation well, and I can definitely see how the jury experiences enhanced your expertise as an attorney. Thanks for sharing. As an afterthought, I would mention my only shot at being seated on a jury in Boston fizzled when the prosecution learned I was a journalist. I guess he put me in the “bleeding-heart liberal” category and felt that would do the state’s case no good.

    • Suzy says:

      Thanks for your comment, Jim. I think that Boston prosecutor missed an opportunity to get an intelligent juror who would have decided the case fairly. Have you never been summoned for jury duty besides that one time?

  9. Mister Ed says:

    Nice to read your story. As you know, it’s not a surprise when the case settles at the last minute. Perhaps one or both lawyers hadn’t really looked at the case until the day (or eve) of trial. Time to make a deal ….

    In your meth case, loved the reference to Breaking Bad. I wonder what the prosecutor would have said had he or she known that was what the real decider was!

  10. pattyv says:

    As Saul said “two sweetest words in the English language “miss” and “trial”. Love this glimpse of our legal system from a highly professional lawyer. Your enthusiasm can actually motivate me. But I would have to pretend I was you.

  11. I loved this story, Suzy. So good to read your clear, personable narrative voice, I can hear you reading! Your lawyerly language gave you away, telling each experience sequentially, with care given to how the decisions were made. My fave story was your elevator no-no. I hadn’t come across that.

    I have similar problems with juries. The lawyers, even the judge eyeball me and want me on the jury. I’ve served on three or four. Constitutional Rights Foundation gave us three weeks paid leave for any jury service, so I took them when I could.

    I always found juries to be diligent, taking their tasks very seriously, and the collective decisions always seemed fair.

    • Suzy says:

      Charlie, thanks for your nice comment. I’m happy to hear I still have that “clear, personable narrative voice” after 6 ½ months of not writing any Retrospect stories. This was a prompt that really grabbed me!

  12. John Shutkin says:

    Great story, Suzy (as always when you write), and I am particularly amused that, despite your many years as a trial attorney, you have never had the thrill — or sometimes terror — of proceeding with a jury trial. However, as I also experienced, jury trials are much rarer in civil cases than criminal ones — and, of course, many cases also settle on the proverbial courthouse steps.

    Nonetheless, I think your insights as a lawyer about the way the jury system works (or doesn’t), as noted both in your story and your comments, are absolutely right. I particularly resonated to your focus on how lawyers are always trying to decide if they want smart or stupid jurors on their particular case. (I think we can be pretty confident in assuming which ones Trump’s lawyers are looking for.)

    As with other readers, I, too, look forward to your next jury summons and your follow-up story.

    • Suzy says:

      Thanks, John, glad to get your insightful comment, lawyer to lawyer. (Are we really the only 2 lawyers here??)

      I’m surprised you didn’t mention my song title title, a cute little ditty from 2001 by the Englsh boy band Blue. I know it’s a little after your time, musically speaking, but I’m always looking to expand your horizons. And the lyrics do include the phrase “the jury will decide.”

      • John Shutkin says:

        You read my mind, Counsellor. I just remembered that I had forgotten to weigh in on your song title, which I always try to do, so was hoping to revise my comment before you approved it. Too late!

        But, if I may be allowed to amend my pleadings, I just wanted to say that, as usual for you, it was the perfect title for the prompt and your story. But I had never heard of the song or the group. I felt better about that, however, after my usual intensive Google research since I don’t think most juries would conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that I should be expected to have heard of a 20-year old song by some British boy band. Harry Styles/One Direction is about the best you can expect from me in this area.

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