2010-04-08 / This Week's Attitude

This Week's Attitude

Jury Duty Humbles The Myth Of A Speedy Trial
By Neil S. Friedman

In the criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups: the police who investigate crime and the district attorneys who prosecute the offenders…


That prologue that opens every episode of “Law and Order,” the acclaimed television series with plots that focus on crimes “ripped from the headlines.” Whether or not the program will be renewed for a 21st season, so it passes “Gunsmoke” as the longest running prime-time network drama, will soon be decided by NBC executives.

I’ve been a fan of it and the first spinoff – “Law and Order: SVU” – for years, though I dislike the franchise’s third installment (“Law & Order: Criminal Intent”) because of the forced mannerisms and acting of co-star Vincent D’Onofrio.

Anyway…I was recently summoned for jury duty and witnessed the final portion of the show’s introduction – district attorneys who prosecute the offenders – in action.

Well, action is hardly an accurate term. The Sixth Amendment to the Constitution guarantees any citizen accused of criminal wrongdoing the right to a speedy trial. However, the interpretation of “speedy” does not necessarily mean ASAP or PDQ. When it was written, it likely was a broad term meant to avoid a suspect from rotting in jail before the case ever went to trial, which probably was the case in some instances before American independence was declared.

I requested and received two jury duty postponements before I got a “must appear” notice early last month. Most people find it a boring waste of a day or two inside the Supreme Court building Downtown Brooklyn. Fewer view it as a democratic civic obligation akin to voting.

I’d been called for jury duty several times, but never served on one deciding a criminal matter – until last week. When my name was called by the court clerk and the group I was in was escorted by a court officer to another building on Jay Street, I realized it housed the borough’s criminal courts. By Monday, however, the passing kick of being part of my first criminal trial had worn off.

If things went as speedy as I imagined, it might not have been so terrible. But, in reality the judicial system doesn’t move quite as fast as it must in the confines of a one hour television show, a 90-minute movie or 350-page novel.

It’s slower than ketchup oozing out of a bottle.

Once a potential panel of three dozen jurors is picked, the lawyers ask every person a series of questions before eliminating most and selecting those they hope will benefit their case.

I am Juror No. 2 in a case being tried this week. The judge admonished the 14 of us (12 jurors and two alternates) not to discuss the case, so I’ll skip the facts. (Perhaps I’ll write about it in another column.)

After jury selection, we were sent home late last Thursday afternoon and told to report back Monday morning for the start of the trial. But it didn’t start. We, the jury, waited five hours, including a 90- minute lunch period, for the trial to commence just before 3 p.m. By the time the assistant district attorney and the defense lawyer finished their opening statements and the first witness testified, it was time to go home. Therefore, for my first two days on jury duty I was only in the courtroom for two hours. I didn’t feel so bad when I realized the accused had been waiting for over a year since the arrest.

Day Three saw much more court room time, but the pace didn’t pick up as the ADA and defense attorney went over minute details for each witness. It may be requisite, but it was monotonous, as my fellow jurors concurred during a short break.

Yesterday, we were scheduled to hear closing arguments, then deliberate the case. Regardless of the outcome, I’m glad for the experience, but won’t look forward to my next jury summons in about five years.

Though citizens tend to get frustrated over the snail’s pace of the judicial system when they’re serving jury duty, the lack of haste concerning an individual’s liberty is probably a good thing. After all, a speedy trial could lead to a rush to judgment and overlook key evidence if it is prematurely or improperly presented. Both the prosecution and defense need time to establish what they hope will be slam dunk cases for the fairest trial possible, which is a crucial element that makes America’s system of justice the best around.

When you’re summoned to serve, keep that thought in the back of your mind and it may help ease the frustration and temporary annoyance of jury duty.

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