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Citizen juries: A basic right for Americans

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POSTED April 13, 2010 2:55 a.m.

Defense attorneys apparently don’t like newspaper editors.

For the fourth time in the past 19 years I’ve made it past all of the preliminary cuts in jury selection in San Joaquin County only to get dismissed with a peremptory challenge. Essentially it means the attorney doesn’t think having me on the jury is in the best interest of his client so he can have me dismissed by the judge without stating a cause.

The one time I did get placed on a jury was in a civil case in Placer County.

The entire process of jury selection is fascinating. Both the prosecution and defense want people who they believe will offer them a sympathetic ear despite all of the niceties uttered about them wanting justice. They want to win. There’s nothing wrong with that unless, of course, justice isn’t achieved.

Jury selection is more art than science. Somewhere defense attorneys have become convinced that newspaper editors are particularly harsh of those accused of criminal acts.

One time I was asked outright in the jury selection for an armed robbery case whether I trusted police and if so how often. I replied that given the protocols they go through that probably 90 percent of the time they were right, nine percent of the time there may be some doubt and one percent of the time they are wrong. The prosecution had no issue with that response. The defense attorney did.

On another occasion when a capital murder case involving the killing of a peace officer was moved from Nevada County to Placer County to take advantage of a bigger jury pool, I made the first cut after filling out an extensive questionnaire.

Those making it past that point were grilled extensively. When the defense attorney asked whether I had known any police officers that had been killed in the line of duty, I replied yes. He then asked if I could fairly judge the facts in the case as presented and I said I could. The last question he asked in a series of about a dozen was how I viewed a capital case if I was on the jury. My response was I’d want to be absolutely sure that the person being tried was indeed guilty before passing judgment.

He told the judge he’d have no problem having me impaneled. He didn’t have any problem at the time with my occupation as a reporter. The prosecution concurred. But then an assistant district attorney from Placer County that was assisting his Nevada County counterpart during the jury selection, whispered to his colleague and then all of the attorneys approached the bench.

The judge then called me up and asked me whether it was true I penned a column every time the men convicted came up for parole who had laid in wait for Lincoln Police Officer Les Schellbach and murdered him in cold blood imploring readers to flood the parole board with letters of protest and signed petitions, I said I did. The judge dismissed me.

Say what you want about jury selection and jury trails but it is a right that is equal - if not greater - than the right to vote. It is in our collective best interests as citizens to be tried by a jury of our peers instead of a government-appointed panel or individual. Up until the birth of this nation, it wasn’t something that the common man with no standing whatsoever in the community had a right to demand.

The system is far from perfect. The case in question on Monday involved a commercial burglary from more than two years ago. Justice takes time.
We all like to moan and groan about getting called for jury duty. It is important, though, to keep two things in mind. We all have opinions about how effective the criminal justice system is. It won’t work unless we do what is asked of us as citizens even if it means sitting for hours on end for a day or so just to be rejected for service. And despite any and all flaws - perceived or otherwise - when push comes to shove you’d rather have your fate if you’re sitting in the defendant’s chair determined by 12 of your peers and not those from some elite class given the authority to sit in judgment of others.

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