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Monday, January 2, 2012

Firewalled by the judicial system (for a good cause)

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I was selected for jury duty last month. It was a criminal case, and it went on for almost three weeks. It was roughly split into thirds, between the selection/voir dire process, the actual trial, and then deliberation. It taught me a bunch of things about the realities of participating in the process.

For one thing, for the entire duration, I was unable to discuss any of it with anyone. That means my friends, family, my cat, and also the other jurors. All of us got to be pretty friendly and went to lunch together a bunch of times, but we had to talk about other things.

Think about this: you're hanging out with 14 strangers (there were 12 jurors plus three alternates) and you spend a great deal of time with them. However, most of the time, you are expected to be quiet, respectful, attentive, and processing everything you hear and see as much as possible.

As a result, you may log dozens of hours with these people and still know relatively little about them. It will feel really strange, but it starts making sense when you realize the only time you've had to communicate is at lunch or during breaks in the jury assembly room. Normally when you've spent that much time with someone, you've had a chance to figure them out.

There's more to all of this. For the entire time that I was involved in this process, I was unable to research certain topics. There were also parts of the valley where things had happened, and I had to avoid them. I interpreted this broadly as "stay away from certain Wikipedia pages", "don't look up certain words in the dictionary", and "don't scroll too far over that way on maps.bing.com".

I considered this to be a taste of what life might be like under a restrictive regime where random web sites are knocked out just because they don't meet some arbitrary standard. You might want to know about something, but they don't want you to have it. The difference there is that while court cases end after a bit, evil regimes tend to stick around far too long.

The restriction on communication even applied to jurors after we started deliberation. We were only allowed to discuss the case when all 12 of us were present in the jury deliberation room. If someone stepped out to the bathroom right next door (but still in the locked safe space), we had to turn to ... "cold out there today" or "how about that local sports team?" or similar unrelated topics.

I'd file the whole thing under "awkward yet necessary". You definitely learn a lot about how things really happen. I know I'll never look at another Law and Order type show or court drama movie the same.

It also taught me just how important witness testimony can be. If you see something bizarre going down and figure it might come up later, try to get a second look at the situation. Sometimes, small details can make a big impact. Things like "was the ground sloped or flat" or "was the area clear of debris or were objects present" can make or break competing theories of what really happened.

Don't forget about the image capture abilities of a cell phone. Being able to see what a scene looked like before anyone had a chance to mess with it can be incredibly valuable. The police will take pictures, but they don't arrive instantly and things can change. Some jury (and defendant) may thank you for your attention to detail.

Anyway, that's my excuse for being relatively aloof last month. Stay tuned for more technical tales and sweet, sweet snark!