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The verdict is in: Jury duty is a rewarding experience

March 29, 2004

A slim white paper arrived in my mailbox:  “Salt Lake City Justice Courts Summons for Jury Service.”

One morning two weeks later, Cory, the jury coordinator, welcomed more than 20 of us.  He helped us fill out our forms, answered our questions and told us that only four jurors would be chosen; the rest of us would be allowed to leave once the selection was made.

We watched a video about how in the beginning everyone is desperate to get out of jury duty but by the end they’re all delighted to have participated.  Then Judge John Baxter came in.  He told us what the day would be like for the jurors, and he invited everyone else to stay for the trial or visit any of the other courtrooms anytime.  “It’s open court,” he said, “stay and observe the process.”

Officer Jim, the cheerful bailiff, moved us around quite a bit, taking us here and there.  Judge Baxter asked us questions, meeting with several people one-on-one while everyone else waited.

Cory had told us in advance to bring books or projects to keep ourselves busy during downtime.  It was a snowy day and I had a coat, an umbrella, a pair of gloves, my briefcase, two newspapers and my purse.  Each move I made was a ridiculous climb over my fellow potential jurors.  I stepped on their toes and smacked them with my projects as I passed.

The judge asked if we’d ever been victims of a crime, any crime.  My mind raced.  Let’s see, my tax dollars are paying for an unjust war, the last presidential election was stolen, my car has been broken into.  I decided to remain quiet.

By 11 a.m., I was one of the four jurors chosen, and everyone else was dismissed.

Immediately we were in the courtroom to hear a domestic violence case.  I feared that the muscular defendant was there to answer for hurting his small, scared-looking wife, but in reality, he was charged with assaulting his adult nephew.  Somehow that made it easier.

We heard arguments and testimony for two hours.  The city of Salt Lake, represented by Doug Johnson, wanted to show that the defendant threw the first punch in a fight with his nephew, who was also his tenant.  The defense attorney, Mark Flores, wanted to show that the uncle/landlord was the victim.

Everyone was well behaved in court, but at home, this family is apparently a circus of bad behavior.  In no particular order, here are the events as we heard them:

Uncle demands to know why nephew is late with rent, an argument ensues, and he eventually punches nephew.  Nephew repeatedly hits uncle, attempts to strangle him, kicks him several times while he’s lying on the ground and possibly tries to run him over with his car.  Aunt intervenes, coming at nephew with a chair.  Nephew spits into aunt’s face, calls her a whore, uses the f-word, throws a speaker through a glass window and maybe breaks a door.  Grandfather arrives to break up the fight, nearly has a heart attack.  Ambulance and police are called.

We adjourned for lunch, overwhelmed.

Our jury of four was Al, retired from Xerox and a saxophone player; Hans, a retired chef and honest-to-God former member of the Swiss Army; Sherry, a pretty fitness expert; and me.

Late in the afternoon, we finally retired to deliberate.  The uncle was on trial for assault.  What about the nephew?  He wasn’t charged with anything, even though a great deal of the nasty behavior was apparently his.  We would have liked to charge him with a thing or two.  Spitting on your aunt, really.

With one or more peace nerds and a guy from Switzerland on our jury, there was probably never much hope of a guilty verdict.  We deliberated 30 or 40 minutes before finding the defendant not guilty.

Who knows what the real facts of the case are?  Who knows what makes the most sense?  We were concerned for the family.  We wanted to do the thing that would give them the best hope of being a family again.

After we rendered our verdict, we went back to the jury room and sat around discussing the case with the judge and both lawyers.  Judge Baxter, who swears that any political inference we might draw from his collection of Rush Limbaugh ties would be counteracted by his collection of Jerry Garcia ties, seemed to feel we did the right thing.  But he’s a judge, so who knows what he was really thinking?

We were there until after 5 o’clock.  We were each paid $18.50 for our day, the same amount that our fellow potential jurors got when they were dismissed that morning.

It’s a duty of citizenship in this country to serve on a jury, and it’s a duty that a lot of us don’t really want to carry out.  I never dreamed of having to make a huge decision for a troubled family.  There were moments when I desperately wanted to get out of it, but that video we had seen wasn’t wrong.  It was a hard day, but I met a lot of caring people and, in the end, I was delighted to have participated.

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Barb Guy works for a nonprofit corporation and lives in Salt Lake City.  She has written several columns for The Tribune.
 

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