Voir Dire by
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Prompted By Jury Duty

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There was a time when I seemed to get a jury summons every few months from Oakland or Alameda County and so I got to know the trek to the courthouses quite well.  Mostly it involved a lot of waiting in drab rooms full of other dutiful and neatly dressed prospective jurors for your number to be called or dismissed.  Occasionally you could request some consideration for not showing up, but at best it just moved you to the next call-up date.  And although it was possible to think of jury duty as a civic responsibility–a radical democratic concept, maybe with an interesting slice of life–it was always a disruption of work and other plans.  There was a sense of relief when your number was not called, though sometimes it took a couple of days for the final release. As it happened, it was common for lawyers to settle cases at the last minute to avoid the risk and expense of a jury trial and many times the whole group that had been summoned would get to go home.

Was there anyone on the panel who could not give equal weight to the testimony of a police officer?

Inevitably, one day my number was still in play as others were being dismissed and the remaining prospective jurors were whittled down.  We were ultimately led into the courtroom for the “voir dire”, where the lawyers have a chance to interview the panel.  Each side is allowed a certain number of peremptory challenges to remove someone, without any explanation needed.

Our group was seated in the jury box, with a judge presiding and various lawyers and officials present.  We were all asked to take an oath that we would answer questions truthfully and they impressed us with the importance of our task.  It was quite intimidating. There may have been one or two who were excused by the judge when they explained why they would not be able to serve, but the rest of us stayed and were given a very vague sense of what the case entailed.  The memory is not very clear now, but I’m pretty sure we were each asked our names, our work (community health clinic physician), maybe a few other questions about experiences with the law (my partner was a litigator, no I hadn’t been arrested).

Then the judge asked a few questions.  Was there anyone on the panel who could not give equal weight to the testimony of a police officer?  I thought hard on that one, remembering my oath to tell the truth.  I thought of the civil rights demonstrations, the Chicago convention police riot of 1968, the murders of the Black Panthers, the persecution of Leonard Peltier, drug arrests with planted evidence.  The cop who gave me a ticket I couldn’t contest because it was my word against his, and who would believe me?  Police officers and prosecutors who know what to say to the court. I raised my hand.

The judge wanted to know why.  In a shaky voice I said, “I know they lie.”  And how did I know that?  Well, I just knew they were capable of coming up with a story that wasn’t true.  Were they more untrustworthy than anyone else though?  Maybe not.  Would I be able to give them as much benefit of the doubt as others?  I could try.

When it came time for the peremptory challenges, I was the first one excused.  Later I realized that maybe they thought people might give MORE credence to a police officer’s testimony, but it never occurred to me at the time.  In any case, I was informed by my litigator partner that I had “tainted” the entire jury panel by my answer, and the judge was trying to repair some of the damage.  But I bet I wasn’t the only one who thought the same way.

Profile photo of Khati Hendry Khati Hendry


Characterizations: well written

Comments

  1. Thanx for your confessional about your jury service experience Khati.

    Sally’s comment about what you said during your voir dire, and your reasons for saying it, may have tainted the entire panel but reminds me that our systems are far from perfect, but better than most – I still hope!
    (Remember Ben Frankin – “a democracy, if we can keep it!”)

  2. pattyv says:

    Khati, I applaud your honesty. So many would’ve wanted to say what you did, but would’ve immediately realized where they were, and would’ve refrained. I’m glad you threw out a little bit of the truth for all to reflect on.

  3. Good for you for raising your voice to accidentally “taint” the entire system with a whiff of the truth that nobody wants to admit.
    You and I both had to think hard about answering the questions during voir dire–I hope you will check out the story of how I responded under similar circumstances.

    • Khati Hendry says:

      I did check out your story—you had a lot of ‘splaining to do about the many girls named Ashley! Your description of the voir dire was much as I recalled, but with much more detail. Thanks for confirming my suspicion that I might not be the only one hesitant to trust the word of a police officer.

  4. Betsy Pfau says:

    I give you SO much credit for answering truthfully, Khati. Wow, powerful. Yes, over these last (I started to write several, but it has been TEN years since poor Trayvon Martin was murdered by George Zimmerman in that ridiculous ‘stand your ground’ situation)? How many times have we seen police get away with murder (I know George Zimmerman was NOT a policeman, just a wannabe)? Really frightening.

  5. I wish I had your thought process and strong will before I was a juror. I did not stand up for my decision–my fellow jurors hounded me and the judge advised that this was a civil trial that did not require full proof (or something). I still feel ashamed that I did not stay with my single opposing vote. For this reason I did not respond in detail to this prompt. The jury found the defendant “guilty,”

    • Khati Hendry says:

      That sounds like a rather harrowing jury experience—and I can understand why it could be painful to revisit. Especially when you didn’t feel comfortable with a “guilty” verdict. It could be very difficult if you are the only holdout I’m sure. Lots of pressure. Learn and move forward.

  6. Laurie Levy says:

    I would have responded the same way, Khati. Also, as you know, I share your lack of enthusiasm for doing our civic duty. My lawyer son-in-law finds this a very disappointing attitude.

  7. Suzy says:

    Khati, regardless of what you did or didn’t think about the police, that would certainly be a good way to get yourself excused. Even though I also think that the police often lie, I would rather stay on the jury and have an influence on the other jurors (as you can see from my story). Btw, other witnesses lie too. It’s the job of the jurors to decide whom to believe.

    • Khati Hendry says:

      Yes, that was what the judge was getting at—anyone can lie. Are police more likely to? Maybe, maybe not—I would do my best to be open minded. I wasn’t actually trying to get kicked off-or get on—just responded to the question at hand as honestly as I could.

  8. Dave Ventre says:

    If asked, I’d have to answer the same way. I often feel that police work is one of those jobs that, if you actually want to be one, you shouldn’t be one.

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