Now it can be (legally) told — why I keep getting kicked off of juries

I was called up recently for jury duty for the second time in about a year and a half. The first observation I’d like to make is that it shouldn’t have happened. We have lived in Pierce County, Washington about three and a half years, but my wife Marty has never been called up. Jury duty selection should use “shuffle mode”, like the shuffle mode on your MP3 player, which plays your songs randomly, but doesn’t skip any and doesn’t repeat any until all of them have been played. The county government apparently uses the cheapest, dumbest kind of lottery or “random mode” to select its jurors instead. I have little doubt that this is the norm across the country.

From my snarling, you might think I hate jury duty and would like to shirk it. Actually, I do think jury duty is a duty, and I would be a juror if I could. Unfortunately, I am never permitted to serve on a jury because of my political views, so every couple of years, it seems, I must truck down to the courthouse and endure a series of questions over several days designed to expose people of my political bent and have us dismissed from the jury.

You might think my claim that I’m being rejected from juries because of my political views is patent paranoid nonsense until I tell you what those views are. I support the right of jury nullification, which means that I refuse to check my conscience at the courtroom door, especially if it means convicting a person of an unjust law. Actual jury nullification, not just talk or theory, has a long and noble history in this country and others. For example, during the Civil War, many slaves who escaped and were recaptured were freed again by Abolitionist-leaning juries who refused to convict the slave even though the laws of the time plainly said the slave was guilty and must be returned to slavery. The law was unjust, and the jury simply ignored it, or nullified it.

That is the right I carry with me into the courtroom — the right to reject unjust laws and refuse to convict my fellows of them. But that right and that opinion can’t be borne by judges and attorneys, especially prosecuting attorneys. Free thought has no place in their courtrooms; they’d prefer something slightly closer to the lynch-mob end of the spectrum.

Just so you know, here is the question they ask in Pierce County to flush out the jury nullifiers:

“Is there anyone here who might not be able to fulfill the judge’s instructions for any reason?”

I may support jury nullification, but I also support telling the truth in court, so I raised my hand. Over the next five hours or so, over the course of two days, I was subjected to a flurry of questions, especially from the prosecuting attorney, who even said at one point, “Juror Number 20, I’m sorry if it seems I keep picking on you, but…”

The prosecutor in this DUI case looked prosperous and dressed slickly. The defense attorney wore a rumpled, ill-fitting suit and had a bad haircut. He was Japanese-American (the reason I tell you this fact will become apparent shortly). He was probably a public defender; the elderly accused didn’t look as though he could hire a lawyer himself, and this was apparently his third time through the justice system on a similar charge.

At one point, the prosecuting attorney asked me whether, if I thought a law was unjust, I would vote against conviction even after I had taken an oath to follow the judge’s instructions to the letter. I responded that I supposed I would.

The prosecutor also asked me whether I thought DUI laws were unjust. I said that in general, I thought they were a good thing, but it depended on the consequences. If the punishment for a DUI conviction were the death penalty, that would probably be unjust.

He asked me how I knew which were just laws and unjust laws. Airily, he added, “Is it just that you know it when you see it?” I almost agreed with him automatically, then shook it off. I responded “You need careful deliberation. You must judge the law as you would judge the person.”

After each of these responses, I was asked to sit down.

There was one glorious moment of the jury selection that made me glad I had come, and it paid for all the frustrations. The defense attorney asked us, “How many of you agree with Juror Number 20’s stance on jury nullification and would refuse to convict someone of an unjust law?” No hands were raised.

He went on, “How many of you remember the internment camps for Japanese-Americans in World War II? If I were on trial and about to be sent to an internment camp, how many of you would refuse to convict me?” I was halfway back, but I counted 5 or 6 hands going up out of about 40; there may have been more hands raised behind me.

I began to glow, and I looked down at my knees, smiling. I’ve been rejected as a juror on three jury trials now, every time for more or less the same reason. Never had I felt so good about it. Together, the defense attorney and I were spreading the meme of jury nullification. I felt more like an activist and less like someone who merely caused trouble in the courtroom and got filthy stares from the other jurors.

Ballsy Mr. Defense Attorney, will you marry me? I’d say “God bless you,” but I’m a freethinker, which is how I get into this sort of trouble in the first place.

Of course, later that day I was asked not to return to the courtroom.

***

Wikipedia has a very good article on jury nullification with links for further exploration. I encourage you to check it out.

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One thought on “Now it can be (legally) told — why I keep getting kicked off of juries

  1. Keith, in this case it was the last couple of hours of one day and the first couple of hours of the next day. This was by far the longest jury selection process I’ve experienced. My first two, about 18 months ago, were each shorter, but the time I had to spend loitering around the courthouse was extended, as I was dismissed first from one trial, then a couple of days later from another.

    Like

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