We, The Jury

In many states, and in some federal jurisdictions, you may be excused from jury service if you are over the age of seventy – no questions asked.  Jury duty used to be something that many people disliked.  Not me.  I wanted to be on a jury ever since I was a young man.  Now, I’m 71 and still have that desire to be empaneled on a jury – petit or grand – makes no difference.

My first opportunity came when I was called for jury duty sometime in the late 1970s or early 1980s in Crawford County, Iowa.  I remember being excited about sitting in the jury box during voir dire (French word meaning “to speak the truth.”  It’s that period before a trial when lawyers from both sides question potential jurors to wean the larger pool of prospective jurors down to the required amount, twelve jurors in a criminal case.)  I sat in the front row.

One of the attorneys told the entire pool that the case was not a criminal trial, but a civil trial that involved an accident between a truck and a car on Highway 141 west of Denison, Iowa.  I remember seeing a young woman at one of the tables, and I had to assume that she was one of the parties to the suit.  I don’t recall much more factual information than that about the case.  Perhaps I wasn’t informed of any more facts.

Surprisingly, although I was in the middle of the first row, I received the first question. “How do you feel about insurance companies?”  “I hate ‘em,” I replied.  The follow up question went something like, “do you believe that would prejudice your decision?”  My answer: “It has, already.”  No more questions for me.  I was sent back to work once a jury was assembled and there can be no doubt, I was too blatantly honest to be a juror.

The next time I was called for jury duty was after living in Des Moines for several years.  It was a week in March which included the Iowa Legislature’s first funnel deadline, the busiest week of the session for a lobbyist.  It was my belief that I would be out of the courthouse before noon.  There was no way I was going to sit on a jury since being employed as a paralegal/lobbyist for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), especially if the case was one of a criminal nature.  Even placing a legal assistant on a jury in a civil case is unusual.  “Minneapolis lawyer Robert J. Beugen told Minnesota Lawyer, “I would never allow an attorney or even someone with legal training on to a jury panel. Typically you want a clean slate and not someone with preformed impressions.””  Action at the Capitol didn’t begin until 1:00 pm.  I shouldn’t miss a thing.

Ironically, it was Polk County’s busiest court docket for trials that week.  Along with a few hundred Polk County residents, I was shuffled into and out of several different court rooms.  A single group probably had between 25 and 50 potential jurors.  I was not asked a question in any of the voir dire proceedings and sat there wondering how long before I would be released.

Sometime in the afternoon, those of us not chosen for a jury were allowed to leave.  However, we were to report back on the following day, a Tuesday, to go through the entire process again.  Tuesday was like Monday with one exception.  We were shuffled into a court room where I noticed a good friend of mine was sitting at one of the tables.  He was a drinking buddy.

The judge asked if any of us knew the lawyers or parties to this case, which was a contract obligation written on a bar napkin between two drinking buddies.  I had to raise my hand.  The judge asked me who I knew.  “I know the plaintiff,” I said.  “How do you know the plaintiff?” the judge asked.  ‘Shit!’ I thought.  I don’t want to say we were drinking buddies, so I mentioned that we met occasionally at a restaurant in our hometown (I was living in Martensdale at the time, a village 17 miles from Des Moines).  It was a restaurant, but it was also a bar.  So, I didn’t lie.  However, I think the judge saw right through it.

Tuesday evening was the same as Monday.  Come back on Wednesday morning.

Wednesday morning, a group of us who somehow were never good enough for any of the other trials, were led into yet another courtroom to go through the motions.  This trial was a criminal trial, and the prosecutor, a young man, asked if anyone knew what “beyond a reasonable doubt” meant.  I raised my hand.  He wasn’t going to choose an ACLU employee in a criminal matter, anyway.  I gave him the definition as close to Black’s Law Dictionary’s as I could.  “Correct,” he said.  Next thing I knew I was one of the jurors in this trial where a man was charged with the crime of “carrying weapons.”

Before I go into the trial, I must segue into a matter that disturbed me deeply.  Those of us jurors who were chosen had to be sworn in (when others said “swear” I said “affirm”).  The judge began with “repeat after me . . ..”  And at the end he said: “So help me God.”  I must have had my mouth wide open in shock.  No, I didn’t repeat that after him.  Years later, I ran into the district’s chief judge and asked him why that archaic swearing was still used.  I am not a Jehovah’s Witness, but I am not going to have the wrath of God hanging over my head because I may have made a mistake.  The chief judge said, “I don’t know.”  Truly, I thought they did away with that.

Back to the trial.  A woman bought a pair of boots for her brother (the defendant) and her boyfriend.  The boots for her brother did not fit, so he took them back to the store to exchange them for a pair that did fit.  When he arrived at the store, he picked the box up out of the trunk of the car and brought it into the store.  He sat the box on the counter and said he wanted to exchange the boots.  What he didn’t know was that the box was not the box with the undersized boots, but the boyfriend’s box with a broken, non-functioning .22 caliber pistol.  The clerk saw the gun and called the police.  Meanwhile, the defendant was looking at boots.  When the police arrived, he was arrested for “carrying weapons.[1]”  Only 3 people testified, the clerk, the policeman, and the woman who bought the boots.  The defendant did not take the stand.

We elected a man who was an assistant manager at a Hy-Vee grocery store to be the jury foreman.  He had been on a jury once before.  I never said a word during deliberations but let everyone else have their say.  It was a sensible, rational, logical, and civil discussion.  It didn’t take long to come up with the decision that the man was not guilty.  That’s when I raised my hand.  “It’s almost noon.  I think we should not rush into this decision but have them buy us lunch and come back to make sure everyone is okay with this verdict.”  My recommendation was accepted unanimously.  We went to lunch at Johnny’s Café in the Court Avenue District.  We were marched back to the jury deliberation room, and I had one more suggestion.  “Let’s wait at least fifteen minutes before we inform them that we have reached a verdict.  We shouldn’t make anyone feel that we went to lunch just because we could.”  Another unanimous decision.

The defendant was found “not guilty,” and the jury was dismissed.  It was too late to go back to the Capitol.  I deserved to have the rest of the week off, and so I did.

I’ve been summoned for jury duty four times since.  Two times were for Polk County.  The two summonses came back-to-back.  I called the courthouse when I received the subsequent one because I knew you shouldn’t have to serve twice in a two-year period.  In my call, I discovered that the first time they summoned Martin Ryan and the second time they summoned Marty Ryan.  I was not called either time.

The other two times I was summoned it was the federal district court.  I never had the chance to even walk into the federal courthouse for either of the two.  Evidently, cases were settled out of court.

My thoughts on jury duty were brought about because of a bill in the Iowa Senate.  Senate File 2235 was a bill on the Iowa Senate Calendar that would allow a person to “be excused from Jury service if the person is a least seventy-two years of age and notified the court that the person is at least seventy-two years of age and wishes to be exempted from jury service.”  The bill is dead for the year, but if it was enacted, the courts will not hear from me.  If called, I will serve.



[1] 724.4 Carrying weapons. 1. Except as otherwise provided in this section, a person who goes armed with a dangerous weapon concealed on or about the person, or who, within the limits of any city, goes armed with a pistol or revolver, or any loaded firearm of any kind, whether concealed or not, or who knowingly carries or transports in a vehicle a pistol or revolver, commits an aggravated misdemeanor.  [Aggravated misdemeanors are the most serious class of misdemeanors, generally punishable by up to two years in jail and a fine of between $625 and $6,250. For example, carrying a gun without a permit is an aggravated misdemeanor.]

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