Dave Lister: Inside the jury system

By Dave Lister

I suspect I did what we all do when I received my jury summons: I groaned. Originally called in April, I’d requested a postponement until October. My recollection was that it was Oct. 24, but my powers of recall had failed me and the date was actually Oct. 4. In the past I’d always been excused because I couldn’t be gone from my business for a month. But Multnomah County’s current system of service is for only one day or, if you’re chosen for a jury, the duration of the trial. That didn’t seem too bad. I’d simply have to ask to be excused from any lengthy trial. I figured I could be out for a few days.

I can’t say I like going to the county courthouse. Most of us go there for some reason we’d rather not, like hoping the judge will knock a few dollars off the cost of a ticket or grant a reduction in spousal support. For the rank and file, it’s nerve-wracking, especially with the airport-style post-9/11 security measures.

When I checked in to the jury pool room in the morning, there were seven or eight dozen people already there. There were plenty of comfortable chairs, books, magazines and flat-screen TVs. We saw a video explaining the importance of the jury system, and the coordinator let us know she’d start calling names in a few minutes. I settled onto a sofa and started reading, assuming I’d be in for a long and boring day. To my surprise, I was called on a few minutes before 10.

In her courtroom, Judge Marilyn Litzenberger explained the two counts of the criminal indictment that six of us would hear. We each answered a set of standard questions and then responded to some general questions from the prosecutor and the defense attorney. I didn’t think for a minute that I’d be selected. I was wrong. As soon as the others left to return to the jury pool, the trial got underway. It didn’t take long before I was glad I’d been chosen. Not being a party to the case, it was fascinating to watch the courtroom choreography.

When we were dismissed for the day, Litzenberger stressed that we were not to do any research concerning the case. No Internet sleuthing. No driving by the crime scene. If any of us did anything like that, she assured us, there’d be a mistrial and the whole process would have to start over. Most importantly, we were not to discuss the case among ourselves or with anyone else until all the arguments had been made.

The next morning the judge explained the points of the indictments that had to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. We could consider only the evidence presented and, difficult as it was, we were to ignore the defendant’s outburst during the prosecutor’s closing argument. We went to the jury room to deliberate.

It took only about 30 seconds to agree on the second count of the indictment. They had the guy dead to rights. The first count was more difficult. After about three hours, we agreed that one point was not proven beyond a reasonable doubt. As the judge read the verdict, I didn’t look at the defendant, but I heard his fist hit the table when he heard her read “guilty.”

After it was over, I went ahead and did some research. It turns out the defendant was a habitual offender with assault and burglary arrests. He’s been in and out of our catch-and-release justice system. Knowing that, I’d have happily consigned him to Devil’s Island. It was not knowing that ensured a fair trial by jury, which is our sacred right.

Dave Lister is former Small Business Council Advisory member, BrainstormNW author and Oregonian guest columnist