Yes, Jury Duty Is Awful

Typically a blog post by a criminal defense / plaintiff’s lawyer about jury trials would start out this way:

The right to a jury trial is guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment, and is a fundamental part of the American system of justice. It ensures fairness as well as community participation in the judicial process…

But, as we all know, jury duty sucks. It’s a hassle for people to take off work and go wait at the courthouse for hours to maybe sit on a jury.  This process usually involves lots of sitting around, waiting, and more waiting. Then, when you actually get on a voir dire panel you have lawyers ask probing questions about random things, or give a thrilling clip-art infused power point presentation on the legal concept of standard of proof.

The goal of most people who show up for jury duty is to get sent home. Sometimes they’re successful, sometimes not. Those people who really really want to serve on a jury can be doing it for the wrong reason.

It should be no wonder, then that many guides exist for getting out of jury duty, including a step-by-step guide with pictures.

Judges have taken notice that people aren’t responding to jury summons, and have typically responded with the stick rather than the carrot. Another judge has taken a different approach and has even drafted a “Juror Bill of Rights” that includes things like “The right to not have their time wasted.” This judge has even brought in home-baked cookies for the jurors.

For those who are actually selected for a jury, the odious boredom continues. They must sit through the lawyer for each side giving an opening statement (more powerpoint slides), witness examination (often taking hours more than necessary), and closing statements (even more powerpoint slides). This can take days, if not weeks.

Assuming the case doesn’t settle or the defendant doesn’t take a plea deal during trial, the jury will then get the pleasure of having the judge read them the jury instructions. In Florida, these instructions are hand-crafted by lawyers, proofread by lawyers, argued about with other lawyers, approved for use by different lawyers, argued over by the lawyers actually in trial, approved by the lawyer sitting as the judge, and then read to the jury. Examples of clarity they are not. Here’s one example:

To prove the crime of Robbery by Sudden Snatching, the State must prove the following four elements beyond a reasonable doubt:

  1. (Defendant) took the (money or property described in charge) from the person of (person alleged).
  1. The property taken was of some value.
  1. The taking was with the intent to permanently or temporarily deprive (victim) or the owner of [his] [her] right to the property.
  1. In the course of the taking, (victim) was or became aware of the taking.

In the course of the taking means that the act occurred prior to, contemporaneous with, or subsequent to the taking of the property and that the act and the taking of the property constitute a continuous series of acts or events.

Force or resistance.

It is not necessary for the State to prove that the defendant used any amount of force beyond that effort necessary to obtain possession of the money or other property, that there was any resistance offered by the victim or that there was any injury to the victim’s person.

Title to property.

In order for a taking to be Robbery by Sudden Snatching, it is not necessary that the person robbed be the actual owner of the property. It is sufficient if the victim has possession of the property at the time of the offense.

That’s the jury instruction for “robbery by sudden snatching” a.k.a. purse snatching. Much of the weirdness of jury instructions come from them including every element of each specific crime, like the “property taken has some value” bit, because they’re written that way in the statutes and the jury has to find that the prosecution has proven each element beyond and to the exclusion of every reasonable doubt. This also results in lawyers asking witnesses weird questions, like “And ma’am did you buy your purse?” “How much did you pay for it?” Meanwhile the jury is either dozing off or questioning the lawyer’s sanity. There are efforts to clean up jury instructions and make them more manageable, but I wouldn’t bet on it happening any time soon. But I digress.

Meanwhile jurors are forced to sit through all this without getting to troll the internet for cat pictures, or even discuss the case among themselves until the absolute end of the trial. There are good reasons for this – we don’t want jurors reaching a premature conclusion together or getting bad information off of the internet. But jurors keep doing itagain and again. What if we need to rethink those ideas?

What if the reasons many jurors want to go online (besides total boredom) are because they think details about the case are being left out, or because the lawyers, judge, and jury instructions are so confusing? What if they just really want a clear explanation of what “robbery by sudden snatching” means?

I believe it’s time to rethink not just how we handle jury duty, but what the role of jurors should be as well. Jurors should be educated about the case, the parties, and what everyone’s job is in simple and easy to understand terms. Jurors shouldn’t have their time wasted. Maybe jurors should even get home-baked cookies. But do we really need juries deciding everythingwithout looking at cat pictures on their smartphone? Perhaps, if we do a better job at explaining the law and stop wasting their time, they won’t be as tempted to do it.