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McCallum: Jury Duty

This spring I was summoned for jury duty. I’d happily fallen through the cracks for decades but now my number was up. A letter arrived that instructed me to report in two months to the county criminal court for jury selection. Honestly, my first reaction was dismay over the inconvenience it would cause in my personal and professional life. But that morphed into curiosity about a process I’d witnessed only on television and the big screen.In the following weeks I was taken aback by the astonishing amount of advice people offered on how to get out of it. An internet search revealed that finding ways to avoid jury duty is practically a cottage industry. A few keystrokes yielded websites filled with tips on how to dodge the bullet by faking medical conditions, hearing loss and prejudice. None of these appealed, so I blocked out my calendar, informed my boss and prepared to assume my civic duty.

I’ve often considered the challenges of forming a jury of one’s peers in a society where so many are intent on avoiding serving. And so I was surprised at the diversity and willingness of the forty-five potential jurors who filled the room that day. Our numbers would be winnowed down to fourteen by day’s end to a group that included a young college student, the head of a nonprofit, gallery owner, teacher, farmer and a sprinkling of retirees. Despite hours of waiting, everyone appeared engaged and eager to serve on an especially difficult criminal case.

The popularity of television law shows that portray dramatic criminal cases has created a fascination with trial testimony, DNA analysis, evidence gathering and verdicts. People find criminal cases intriguing, whether they serve on a jury or observe from the gallery. The notion that a jury must be fair, impartial and unanimous in a final decision that could alter the life of a defendant forever is the stuff of theater.

Any citizen of the United States over age eighteen who procures a driver’s license or files a tax return can be randomly selected from computerized lists to serve. It’s an opportunity to fulfill one of the most important roles in our legal system: evaluate facts without prejudice and deem a defendant innocent until proven guilty.

After days of absorbing testimony, during which I took copious notes and prepared to apply the letter of the law, the judge randomly selected two names from the jury pool of fourteen to dismiss before deliberations began, a standard practice. And mine was one of them - thus relieving me of the daunting task of determining another citize's fate.

Mary McCallum is a freelance writer and former prison librarian who now works with Vermont elders.
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