Voir dire, from Norman French, is pronounced “jury selection” by normal people, but I had always stayed one step ahead of the law and never seen it first hand. Now I’ve been living in one place long enough to be at the same address when the jury duty summons showed up. My excuses for missing jury duty are probably worse than most people’s, so I arrived at the courthouse promptly on the specified date to do my part as a citizen of a free and democratic country.
Voir dire is interesting. I suspect we were seated in order of how likely we were to be put on the jury, because most questions were directed just to the first half or third of the prospective jurors. I was seated front and center.
Things got off to a good start, even though I had a cold and hadn’t slept well and felt a little bit spacey. The defense attorney started off with a nice introduction in which he asked us to set aside preconceived notions. He said something about someone having his birthday in December, but also celebrating his birthday in the summer every year, and asked us to ponder how this could be. I had a flash of inspiration and raised my hand and he called on me and I said “Australia,” because Australia is really far away in the southern hemisphere, and the defense attorney got this look on his face and said yes, the defendant was from Australia. I think that made an impression on him.
Later the defense attorney asked if we understood the concept of presumption of innocence, and that just because someone was charged with a crime doesn’t mean he was guilty. Of course I understood that. Then the defense attorney asked if we thought someone charged with a crime was more likely to be guilty than a random person on the street, and I thought about it, and I thought about it some more, and the defense attorney asked me what I was thinking, and I said that the population of guilty people is drawn from the relatively small population of people who are charged with a crime, while the population of people on the street is much larger, so just as a matter of statistical probability, someone charged with a crime is more likely to be guilty than some random person on the street. I’m not sure that was the right answer. The defense attorney seemed to be making a lot of notes on his legal pad.
The prosecutor took notes, too, but on a seating chart corresponding to where the prospective jurors were sitting. There seemed to be a lot of notes for my seat. Who of us had been a designated driver before? Not me, since socializing with potentially drunk people hasn’t really ever been my thing. Which is too bad, because only people who had been designated drivers were asked about their feelings about alcohol and impairment and what they liked to drink, so I never got a chance to say that I had never touched a drop for…meaningful pause…RELIGIOUS REASONS. Maybe a quarter of the designated drivers also didn’t drink, it turns out, but none of them were prepared to hoist the Title of Liberty as they mentioned it.
The prosecutor also wanted to know if we agreed that the city had the right to make and enforce laws for the safety of its citizens. Of course it did. And could we follow those laws in our decisions as members of the jury, even if we didn’t fully agree with the law? Such as the law in question, which seemed to involve criminalizing not driving your car while drunk. Just being inside or near your car while drunk seemed to be enough to land you in legal trouble. This was a new one for me, and I wasn’t sure how I felt about it. I mean, I’m more than ready to throw the book at drunk drivers. We just recently had to replace a car thanks to an inattentive driver (on icy roads at 8 AM in a school zone, by the way, and no, we were not prepared to accept 70% of the blame for the front of their car running into the side of our car), and inattentive drivers are bad enough, let alone drunk drivers.
But I’m not sure how I feel about drunk non-drivers. Someone froze to death here last winter just by trying to walk home. If you’re in no condition to drive, maybe sleeping in your car isn’t the worst option. Could I uphold and honor the law by convicting a drunk non-driver because the law said so? I think I said, “Yeah, I guess so,” but I wasn’t the only prospective juror making noncommittal noises, and the more I think about it, the more I think, um, yeah, no. No, I don’t think I want to be a part of convicting someone of sleeping it off in his car. If they ask me the same question next time about the same kind of case, that’s exactly what I’ll say. After all, both the defense attorney and the prosecutor said that they just wanted us to tell them what our honest opinions were, and that’s mine.
After that, the selected jurors stayed and the rest of us left. I was the lowest-numbered person not selected.
Going through the process of jury selection did help me gain one important insight: I would have been an absolute disaster as a member of the jury. Participating in the workings of the law takes a certain mindset that I do not have. Not every potential juror is right for every case, the judge and clerk and both attorneys had said. By the time I left, I understood what they meant.