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Jury duty

April 9, 2011

I had Jury Duty Recently…

And it was wack! It was my second experience dealing with my constitutionally-defined social obligation, and I learned more this time around than the last. Namely, that my ideals diverge (apparently) significantly from those expressed by either those inhabitants of the court system, as well as the average potential jurors. I will proceed to describe my experience, and then discuss some of the themes I noticed.

1: I’m always late.

It’s true. My tardiness on this particular morning was caused by a couple issues, namely that I don’t usually drive, let alone wake up at 7:30 am. So apparently traffic is terrible at 8:00 in the morning, which I’d always heard about, so I knew about it through rumors. Let me tell you, all those stories you brushed off as old-wives-tales and flights of fancy about how bad traffic is in the morning are TRUE. ugh. Also, I (to quote George W. Bush) I misunderestimated the distance between where I’d planned on parking, and the courthouse. Turns out it was more than a mile, and though I had left with more than a half-hour to spare, I arrived about five minutes before I was supposed to arrive. Because I’m from Phoenix originally, I naturally don’t trust mass-transit to get me anywhere on time, I decided to kick off my shoes and run the distance barefoot. Through downtown Phoenix. In front of a bunch of businessmen, police officers, and homeless people. It was a lot of fun, actually, to get confused looks from these people. After waiting in line, I had to empty my pockets to get through the metal detectors (it was a really bad day to bring my complete wrench-set), I finally made my way to the jury waiting lobby.

2: I hate waiting for events in which I have no interest

And wait I did, for hours and hours and hours! We were sitting there for so long! They put on a movie for us, which was well-intentioned (My Big Fat Greek Wedding) and that was fun, but we had numerous interruptions during which my number was completely ignored. Luckily it gave me a good four hours to read The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, by Ruth Benedict, which (if I ever finish it) will be the subject of a future blog post. We had a short, hour-and-forty-five-minute break for lunch, and it was back to the juror detainment center. It was actually on this lunch that I had one of the most interesting conversations, which happened to be with a woman who had spent years living on the street. We discussed the supposed “revitalization” of downtown-with the introduction of ASU Downtown, and Cityscape-and the effects such construction had on the homeless populations in Phx. Apparently she had lived under the actual courthouse for years, and would be woken up by volunteers working with the displaced people in downtown. With the introduction of new wealth and focus on downtown, the city had apparently been cracking down on these people. Once back inside, I was dismayed to realize that they hadn’t paused the movie, and we were the better part of the way through the infinitely inferior 13 going on  30. Since when did Jennifer Garner go from being an ass-kicking superspy to an irritating whatever-she-is? We watched the end of this movie and were called to take numbers and go to a court room.

3: Court

We filed in, sat in specific seats, and had our cards. The basic premise is that the judge asks questions of the jury, and a negative response to any question is to raise one’s number. The potential juror is then asked to clarify the reason for their negative response. The most popular question the judge asked was “and you think this will interfere with your ability to fairly weigh evidence how?”. There were all kinds of responses, and it becomes apparent that people will do just about anything to get out of jury duty. One member explained that he was taking prescription pain-killers, in the prescribed dosage from a certified doctor. When the judge asked him how this would effect his decision-making, considering the defendant was accused of making meth, he revised and claimed that he had at one time been addicted to them. All these people were anonymous, and I can’t say that they were embellishing or what, but if everyone felt like I did, then most were quite probably doing their best to get out of it.

4: Dismissal

Long story short, I was dismissed. The reason I was dismissed was interesting, and so were everyone’s reactions to my statements. I enjoy talking to people, which I suppose makes sense as an anthro. While we were waiting for the court to be ready for us, we were all just hanging around, and small groups were coalescing. I had struck up a conversation with a couple of women, and we were discussing education, when I realized that this other young person about my age was wearing a Northern Arizona University t-shirt. I asked him about it, and it turned out that he and I had gone to the same school for like four years. We even had a friend in common. All of a sudden this older guy, probably in his late fifties walks up and greets us, explaining that he’s an NAU alum as well, class of ’79! So we start off by discussing life in northern Arizona, and the tribes and everything. It also turns out that one of the other women works in the same school district as my mother. Weird! In the courtroom, the first thing I noticed was that the only “person of color” was the defendant. He was latino, and everyone else on the court (except for a police officer) was white. I suppose it says something that the potential jurors were a very diverse crowd. The main sticking point for the judge wasn’t that I wouldn’t give equal weight to different testimonies, but that I wouldn’t return a guilty verdict to a violation of a law with which I didn’t agree (both sentiments that I expressed). My reason for refusing to say for certain if I would return a guilty verdict is that

A: a juror’s vote is the justification for punishment for a crime.

B: odds are, I didn’t play any part in the creation of a law that the defendant might have broken

B(2): either for having voted for the law directly, or for having elected the people who wrote or voted for the law

C: Based on premise B, the claim that the legal system is an extension of the will of the people is false.

Seen in this light, the idea that I am socially compelled to uphold a system that claims to be, but is not a reflection of my ethical code to the extent that a human being will potentially suffer  a decrease in their quality of life, is rendered even more ridiculous.

Considering that the direct result of my actions is the punishment (or decrease in the quality of life) of the person in question, it makes sense that I would follow any recourse to challenge an unjust law. In this case, my only option is a vote of not=guilty.

So I expressed these views, and threw in a comment about how I’d seen how undocumented immigrants are treated  in the legal system, and the very first reaction I get is the woman sitting in the seat next to me whispers: “you’re a terrible person”. I’m not sure if she was being funny or not. Then, as we adjourned for a few minutes, I got back with the group, and they all asked me if I was the one making all the trouble. Which lead us into a productive discussion about life in northern Arizona. We were called back in, and I was dismissed along with a few others.

So Now What?

In light of this experience, I was met with some uncomfortable thoughts.

Cultural Relativism

In theory, as an anthropologist, I’m expected to maintain the mindset of cultural relativism, which necessarily requires a step back from my own personal values and approach social interaction as much from the emic perspective as possible. It was for this reason that I was a little weirded out by the fact that I had consciously denied the authority of an institution in favor of my own system of ethics.

Luckily, the problem is easily solved, if we view my participation as mandatory, and directly the result of my adherence to the overarching culture group of the United States. It is also interesting that the courts system has adopted certain practices so as to accommodate people who might be ideologically opposed to the process of serving on a jury. Before we adjourned, the judge actually asked “Is there anyone here who’s religious beliefs prevent them from passing judgement on others?”. No one raised their card, but it was a nice thought.

Jury Nullification

Also, it turns out what I was feeling during the trial is essentially the practice of jury nullification. The practice has precedent in the United States going back to before the founding fathers. This has to do with the fact that the US legal structure is based on English Common Law, and while there are significant differences between the two, nullification was transferred.

In the past, jurors have actually experienced legal punishment for refusing to convict people, as was the case with William Penn, who had a meeting of Quakers in London, and prosecution was attempted. The jury actually voted him ‘not guilty’ contrary to the evidence, and the judge proceded to send them to a prison cell where they could think over their choices. He even threatened to starve them.

There are some problems with the practice of jury nullification. There have been cases of all-white juries acquitting defendants demonstrated to have been guilty of victimizing blacks in the south. It is suspected that the acquittal of the white police officers responsible for the beating of Rodney King was an example of Jury Nullification.


It’s definitely interesting that most jurors don’t know about their right of jury nullification, although in the case of race relations, that might be a good thing. Also for well-known famous people. Luckily, I won’t have to tempt the courtroom with this kind of chaos for another 18 months…


Here are some photos I took while I was on my lunch break. I thought the photos of the buildings were hilarious, mostly cause they’re the epitome of government buildings. So much for corner offices…




2 Comments leave one →
  1. April 17, 2011 3:28 pm

    I like that we both have blog posts about jury duty 🙂

    Cruz says that she forgives you for working at Starbucks because of your public announcement to the judge.

  2. Kwanele Junior permalink
    June 6, 2011 6:31 am

    Hi, I want to be an anthropologist, but I do not know different kinds of jobs offered therein, and the risks thereof. Can you give me different kinds of opportunities that one might find in the field…

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