Lessons Learned from Jury Service

by Bill Lewis II

I got rejected today – booted – and walked out of the court room a little disappointed – from jury service. For the past day-and-a-half [in 2013], I was a prospective juror.  Disappointed?  Yes, I was disappointed as I was looking forward to the opportunity of experiencing something new within the courts and the criminal justice system.

I’ve been present in court and testified many times as an officer.  I was once assigned as a trial investigator to assist the prosecutor from the District Attorney’s Office with both a criminal prosecution and civil (forfeiture) case.   I’ve been present in Federal Court as a defendant and an expert witness.  For almost two years, I served as the court liaison officer in a relief position – reviewing and logging  in-house criminal cases, taking those cases to the DA’s office for review and recommendations, and filing most of the cases afterward with the courts.  I’ve read many depositions and court transcripts.  But, I’ve never served on a jury.

In California, full-time peace officers are not required to participate in jury service and can be excused through a notification process by mail.  Two years ago, when I was summoned for the first time for jury duty since my retirement, I learned that “retired cops” are not exempt from service.  I arrived and was part of a jury panel being considered for a sexual assault case with a minor victim.  I never made it to the “jury box” to be questioned as a prospective juror.

When I eagerly arrived at court yesterday morning, I was sent out early with a panel as one of the prospective jurors to the court room where the defendant had been arrested by a neighboring agency and “accused” (I was reminded the defendant is “innocent until proven guilty”) of being “under the influence of a controlled substance” (meth).  After hearing the charges, I knew I would not be selected for this jury based on my previous training, experience and many drug-related arrests I made as an officer.  However, secretly, I still hoped for some judicial miracle to give me the chance to see another side of the system so I could listen to and participate firsthand with others to deliberate and hopefully reach consensus.

You might be wondering at this point what lessons did I learn.  A little patience, please.  Remember, I’m still suffering from the rejection earlier today….

As part of the jury selection process, and a phase of a trial that I had never encountered until two years ago, I was able to sit and listen to questions from the prosecuting attorney and defense attorney directed to prospective jurors to ascertain their suitability and fairness in helping to decide the case to be presented based on the evidence.  It was an interesting process.

For many years, I’ve reminded the attendees in my [Canine Liability 360] classes that they must be constantly aware of the presence of potential jurors within their respective communities.  The jury pool consists of many different people from many different walks of life – many with different backgrounds and various views and opinions who’ve had many different life experiences.  A jury pool has a wide range of ages, education and ethnicities.  And, many of these potential jurors have had different and varied experiences with law enforcement

I’ve listened for the past two days as prospective jurors answered questions posed by the judge, the defense attorney and the prosecuting attorney about their views of “the police” and experiences with “the police” as it relates to being impartial with respect to the defendant’s right to a fair trial.  Some experiences involved a contact or an arrest and some involved a friend or family member.  Some experiences were firsthand and positive and some were not.  I was proud to have been a police officer when listening to most of the stories and then embarrassed and a little upset when listening to a few other stories.

You might be asking “Did any of these prospective jurors sharing their negative experiences do any wrong or was it all one-sided?”  Overall, “the police” did well on the scorecard and I think some of the prospective jurors made mistakes, and admitted their wrongdoings.  They appeared to be good people – taking time away from work willingly or not to serve on a jury if needed.

Most jurors want to believe police officers will tell the truth – there are some recent surveys that disagree – but some jurors may be a little skeptical based on their own negative experiences or experiences shared by others.  They all agreed in court that they would be fair and honest when considering evidence from a police officer for the purposes of the case, and I didn’t think otherwise, but I suspected the negative stories and opinions being shared about “the police” in this court room were probably being shared outside this court room.   And, that’s what left the biggest impression with me today about those people in the potential jury pools in our communities and it was a valuable lesson learned.

I learned that boundaries do not exist with respect to a potential jury pool.  Negative experiences with the police – perceived or real, sustained or unfounded – are not restricted to and maintained within your own community.   People travel – and they take their experiences and perceptions with them.

I learned if an officer or deputy makes a mistake or critical error in judgment involving a civilian or conducts an unfavorable contact – despite its scope and significance – that incident may travel beyond and be shared outside the community, the county, or the state.  And, the influences and repercussions of those negative experiences that are shared with others – as firsthand or secondhand accounts – may be to the detriment of the jobs we all need to do from start to finish – from arrest to successful prosecution.

I learned it’s difficult – but maybe not impossible – to overcome serious distrust issues and repair previous damages when negative police experiences occur.  It might be true that we only get one chance to make a “good” first impression.

I don’t believe our jury system is perfect and, yes, sometimes juries render the wrong verdict.  That’s another discussion for another time.  However, when looking at the jury system from a new perspective as I have been afforded, I strongly believe that our conduct and contacts must always be professional and beyond reproach because the people we are contacting, the people they know or may meet, and the others who may be watching and/or listening, may be the members of the next potential jury pool.

Rejected?  Yes, I was rejected – sort of – because the prosecuting attorney asked that I be seated as part of the jury.  Disappointed?  Yes, I’m still disappointed – but I completely understand and I forgive the defense attorney who smiled as she held up both her hands to me as if to say “What choice do I have?” when she thanked me for my service and asked the judge to excuse me from further service.  Learn anything new?  Absolutely – and I hope you did also.  And, I hope to get summoned again next year to give it another try – even though I’m not real optimistic about my chances for a criminal case.

I have a friend who is an attorney that represents officers and deputies and their city and county employers.  When speaking about juries, he used to say “Who’s on the jury?  Twelve people not smart enough to get out of jury duty.”  I used to laugh – but no longer.

Bill Lewis II © June 2013