Anyone who knows me well knows that if something is going to happen, it’s going to happen to me. It’s definitely not always a bad thing, I’ve had plenty of great experiences thanks to this weird type of luck. I’ve also been a little inconvenienced over the years. That’s exactly the way I felt when I was summoned for jury duty in November. Hoping work would give me a way out, I was told by my boss that it was my civic duty. All that I could think of was 5 days of missing work, meant coming in on weekends and at night since it is the busiest time of year (or one of them). Many people told me that I likely would just sit in a room all day waiting for my name to be drawn. I was instructed to say that I was a racist (which I couldn’t in good conscience since it isn’t true), believed in the death penalty (which I don’t) or just answer the question by speaking in tongues (not familiar with the lingo).
I really thought that it would be just long days of reading my book and answering emails. Of course, the justice system had a different plan. My group was told that after we registered, we’d have until ten to get a drink, eat, do nature duty, etc. before we went up to court. Still in denial over what was happening, I absent-mindedly posted humorous (at least I thought they were) observations about my fellow jurors not realizing what was about to transpire. I simply thought that going to court meant that I would be placed in a different holding room, while I waited to potentially be called in for a burglary or fraud case. Well, that’s not what happened.
About 300 people (estimate) were shuffled upstairs and told that we were entering the largest courtroom in Canada, that the judge was a representative of the Queen and that this was a very serious matter. Once we were seated, things changed dramatically. The defendant was in the courtroom. The judge, a kindly looking older gentleman was at the front of the room, and the lawyers were wearing the official robes and collars that they have to wear in Canada, which are pretty cute, at least in my humble opinion. I knew what His Honour would say though, before he even spoke – this was going to be a first degree murder trial. Before you get cozy thinking that you are going to get some juicy details about the case, I made a decision not to give any details about the defendant or the victim. No names, no pictures, no who did it theories or details. Before I even wrote about this, I looked at several blogs and they provided every salacious detail. Everyone is entitled to write what they want from their own experience. My feeling is, that there are so many people impacted by this, most importantly, the victim and her family and that it would be disrespectful of me to dramatize or comment on anything related to her death. The defendant is also someone’s child or brother and is quite young – this case is tragic all the way around. What I will tell you about is the experience.
The judge explained what the case was about (first degree murder with some brief details including the name of the victim, defendant and the general vicinity of where it happened), and the defendant gave his plea – Not Guilty. His Honour then went on to explain that this was a case where the accused was going to defend himself. The lawyers were introduced, then the judge proceeded to ask the jury panel if any of us knew of the case, the victim, the defendant or the attorneys. A few people put their hands up and one by one were escorted to the microphone where they were questioned politely by the judge. Some prospective jurors were excused. The witness list was read and once again, we were asked if anyone was familiar with people on this list. Another small trickle of people went up to the microphone, some were excused, the remainder had to take their seats.
Before we went upstairs to the courtroom, we had to fill out a questionnaire with 11 questions including whether we clearly understood English, had any disabilities that may interfere with being a juror, any health concerns, etc. At this point, the judge informed us, in a very respectful way, that he’s seen trials that were short and long, and that this would be a lengthy one – at least 2-3 months. A gasp came over the courtroom. Everyone looked at each other in shock. He then proceeded to ask if anyone’s life would be substantially impacted by a lengthy trial and about 2/3 of the jury panel raised their hands. The judge chuckled expecting this, and he told us that we had to really search our conscience and think about whether this was a case where we truly would SUBSTANTIALLY be impacted or if it was more of an inconvenience. We were then told to line up, but they had to do it in sections, so I was seated until later in the afternoon. Each person gave their form to the judge and he asked them a series of questions. He was incredibly respectful, asking if he could reveal certain information or even ask questions related to their rationale.
Some people had very valid reasons – caring for an ill relative or they were owners of their own small business or English wasn’t their first language and they weren’t confidant that they would understand everything. All of these people were excused with the judge’s respect and best wishes. People with vacations booked were told that the court could accommodate their schedules. People that worked for large companies were told to speak to their HR Departments since many places paid employees for jury duty. The judge only lost his cool once or twice and that was due to the responses he was getting, not bad temperament. We were all referred to by number, not name, and he was always careful not to reveal anything personal without asking permission first. His only frustration was the large line up of people. He reminded us that jury duty could be very rewarding, and by the end of the day, I really wanted to change my answer to please this judge. He was someone that I truly respected. Unfortunately, circumstance prevents me from being too far from my phone in case of emergency. My reasons for not being able to do jury duty this time, are private, but if it was just a matter of a heavy workload, this judge convinced me that it was my duty to serve and that wasn’t a factor. He read my form and saw the pleading look on my face and unlike many people who went up to the microphone, he didn’t ask me a single question. He smiled at me gently, and just said “After reading this juror’s response, I have no hesitation that being a member of the jury in this case would cause her undue hardship and for that reason, you are excused. I wish you all of the best of luck in your circumstances.” I thanked him and left.
This judge gave me hope in our justice system. He made me believe that it truly was our civic duty to be on a jury and I hope to have another opportunity in the future. This experience made me realize that this isn’t just an inconvenience forced upon us, but part of what we should be honoured to do. What’s at stake is huge – justice for a victim and changing the course of the defendant’s life. As hard as it may be for us to do, imagine how hard it is for the people that are truly impacted by this case. Whatever you go through as a juror, at night you can go back home to your life and family. The victim can’t. The defendant can’t and their families will never escape from their nightmare, no matter what the outcome.