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On jury duty: The benefit of discussion

Written by Linda Kirkpatrick on .

Committees and meetings are not my thing, I admit. I’m generally in favor of greater efficiency than most meetings produce. Email can often avoid the need for meetings, but frequently I need the benefit of discussion to make a decision.

I think of myself as a decisive person once I know the facts, but I don’t like making quick decisions without understanding the issue.

I’ve found that, on a particular board I’m on, approval is too frequently needed for something or other – rather immediately – and an issue is put out for vote. Board members have become accustomed to feeling the need to vote up or down on an issue while I am wanting to hear more of the reasoning behind voting up or down. I do not necessarily feel equipped to know enough about every issue to cast an off-the-cuff vote on whether or not we should spend several thousand dollars on something I’ve never considered, for instance.

Recently, I was faced with a similar situation but with greater consequences.

Two weeks ago I served on a jury for a week-long criminal case with five hours of deliberations. The outcome required a unanimous decision of “not guilty” or “guilty.” Of the 12 jurors, about half seemed to come into the room with their minds already made up. If not trying to impress the others that they could think more clearly than the rest of us, they were at least used to making quick decisions based on sound bites, although four days of testimony were anything but sound bites.

Every one of us on the jury struggled with understanding the legal terminology (“proximate cause”) that was part of reaching a verdict, but some were quicker than others to accept a cursory explanation of what would mean a felony for the defendant if he were found guilty. A few others needed to hear some logic and explanation; and after four hours of deliberations, three of us still struggled to vote “guilty” without talking about it more.

It was not a clear-cut case.

As with voting by email on a big expenditure for a nonprofit entity, I found myself in the final three wanting to know more before casting a vote. When one man said after four hours, “It’s plain and simple….,” he eliminated any credibility I might have given him earlier and I immediately wrote him off. Nothing about the case was plain nor simple; it was very complex.

When another much younger woman who’d babbled her way through every break of every day tried to influence me with more babble that seemed to be making less and less sense as we worked into the fifth hour, I decided she no longer deserved my time and attention. One thoughtful young man offered sufficient reasoning to convince one troubled juror, leaving two of us as undecided. And then a second juror tentatively said she’d decided, making it just me keeping us from having a verdict at 5:00 on a Friday afternoon.

It was not my desire to cause a hung jury nor a mistrial. But I was not about to convict someone as long as I had reasonable doubt.

I turned to the other two jurors who’d changed their votes and asked what had changed their minds. One confessed she was still not certain; and while she reasoned with herself aloud, I was able to draw a conclusion that made me feel comfortable with voting “guilty.”  

I would need to live with the decision just as the defendant would need to live with the verdict.

It might have been part of a personal journey, but this experience on jury duty helped me reinforce the notion that there’s a definite benefit to hearing how others think. But spare me of committees that waste time with WHAT they think – often about extraneous subject matter – and not HOW they think or WHY they believe what they do.


Postscript: Of the 300 jurors summoned for duty on a particular morning, only about 150 showed up. The court system expressed a concern they might run short of jurors that day. (I was pleased to recognize two others from Evergreen who’d not sought to be excused in advance – Karen Cage and Roberta Sutton.)

As in our case, 40 were designated to be in that particular pool, of which 13 were needed, 1 being an alternate. The judge dismissed 14 for good cause, and the attorneys each dismissed 6. Only one person in the pool was not brought up and questioned.

Although having to make up for lost work time and to reschedule eight appointments, I was happy to have served. It was exhausting to sit and listen intently for a week, but I am grateful there are people who are willing to do this.