A Day on Jury Duty
This past Wednesday, I left the house just after 7AM in order to be able to report for jury duty promptly at 8:30AM at Quincy District Courthouse. I left the courthouse that day around 4:30PM, sharing handshakes, well wishes, and gratitude with the other six members of the jury of which I had been forewoman.
I had delivered our findings in a clear, calm voice to the court, and I didn’t even have to peek at my left wrist, where I had written our findings in the event that I was unable to remember the specific dollar amount to the penny.
Here’s what happened.
I received my summons a few months ago. I live in Brookline, Massachusetts, a convenient four miles from Boston’s Suffolk County Courthouse, and an inconvenient fifteen miles from the closest courthouse in Norfolk County, of which Brookline is a part.
I was summoned to appear at Wrentham District Court a cool thirty miles away in a town neither I nor my computer’s spell checker had ever heard of, but applied for and received a hardship transfer because according to the court’s own website, there are no public transportation options to get there. I originally applied for a delay, as I thought I’d have access to a car, but eventually applied for the hardship transfer. Applying for and being granted both, albeit via an ASP site, was relatively straightforward.
Reporting for Duty
On the morning of my service, I had relatively good luck with the T, and arrived early enough to be able to get a coffee at Coffee Break Café, which I recommend. Armed with caffeine, I reported to jury duty, received a card with an ominous ‘1’ juror number on it from the court officer, and took a seat in a comfortable but cramped waiting room with the rest of the jurors.
One of the judges entered and explained the docket for the day: two criminal cases and one civil case. Any of them or none of them might go to trial that day and require our services. Attorneys were currently attempting to resolve that, and we would likely know within a couple hours which cases would go to trial. Meanwhile, all we could do was wait.
The judge left and the court officer played an introductory video about what the expectations were for our service, which ended with everyday individuals like ourselves enthusiastically declaring that they’d ‘do it again,’ which of course they would, because it’s required by law.
There was Wifi, on a network called ‘VIRUS’, so whilst my fellow potential jurors read the news or a book, or buried their noses in their phones, I typed away answering Slack messages from my engineers and futilely attempting to get a few SQL queries to run over the molasses-in-January-slow connection.
A couple hours later, the court officer reappeared and asked us to follow him into the courtroom.
‘All rise for the jury,’ he announced as we entered and took our seats. The judge introduced the case and the parties involved. We were called by number, asked to declare ourselves present, and seated on the jury panel. The judge or either of the attorneys summoned us to the bar to ask us questions, and several jury members were dismissed, returning to their original seats in the courtroom. I was asked some questions, but answered them satisfactorily and honestly declared that I would be able to be impartial in judging the case.
Once the jury was confirmed, the judge went into a little more detail about the case and explained the agenda for the day. It was the civil case, and should be short, he said. We heard opening arguments, witness testimony, cross-examination, and closing arguments in just over an hour.
After the closing arguments were made, the judge declared that I would be the forewoman of the jury, ‘Not because you were paying the most attention, but because you are seated in the first seat,’ and provided us with our instructions.
We were escorted to a jury panel room and given menus from which to order lunch. We were not allowed to leave the jury room, but could knock for the court officer.
We ordered lunch, used the restrooms off the back of the room, and made small talk before I suggested that we should do introductions.
Margaret, John, Ralph, Will, Meaghan, Bill, Lily.
Only one of us had ever been summoned before, and none of us has ever been impaneled. I reiterated our instructions:
- Determine whether there was negligence on the part of the defendant
- Determine whether there were injuries sustained as a result of this negligence
- Determine what a fair compensation is for injuries sustained as a result of this negligence
I was write down and affirm on a piece of paper what the sum of fair compensation was and deliver it to the court. Only six of the seven of us had to agree in order for us to be able to reach a verdict. I could also submit written questions to the judge to be answered.
Unlike a criminal case, in which the prosecution has to prove ‘beyond a reasonable doubt,’ a civil case is decided on whether something is ‘more likely the case than not the case’, reasonable doubts withstanding.
We had an evidence binder, which consisted of court exhibits that were mainly medical records, but also photos of the car accident and sums of medical expenses. The case was relatively straightforward, but still had some interesting things for us to take into account.
We were easily able to agree that there was negligence on the part of the defendant, as he admitted to fault and declared such.
On one of the pieces of scrap paper we had, I made a matrix of medical complaints and medical appointments, as the plaintiff had medical issues that were not related to the car accident. I wished we had a whiteboard, but all we had was paper and pens. I wanted to make this matrix on my computer, but I was unsure of whether I was allowed to use it. We also considered looking up certain medical terms on our phones, but were again unsure to what extent we were allowed to educate ourselves about these things.
We all agreed on the extent of the injuries that were sustained as a result of the negligence in the car accident, and I cross-checked the evidence binder to tally the medical costs related to those injuries. We now had a hard sum.
We weren’t sure what to do next. What were we to take into account in determine what ‘fair compensation’ was? What was fair?
I suggested that we ask the court two questions:
- To what extent we were to take into account future pain and suffering as a result of injuries sustained
- And whether there was guidance on determining fair compensation
I write these questions on a piece of paper, confirmed them with my fellow jurors, and knocked to ask the court officer to deliver them to the court. A little while later the officer returned to escort us back into the courtroom, and we sat whilst the judge answered our questions.
- We were to take into account past, present, and future physical and mental or emotional suffering as a result of injuries
- We were to use our ‘good judgement and common sense’ in determining fair compensation
We returned to the jury panel room. We had a good account of past and present medical expenses, and the plaintiff was in good mental and emotional health, but we still weren’t sure what was fair.
How do we determine future pain and suffering? We weren’t sure.
Who pays? Will the defendant pay? I suggested this was irrelevant to our considerations.
Should an estimate of legal expenses be included in any way? No idea.
‘Well, jury forewoman,’ John said, ‘What would you do?’
I wasn’t sure that it mattered what I would do, but it amused me that even in this room of people twice and thrice my age, I was still being looked to as a leader. Wherever I go, I end up a leader. Maybe my impatience has something to do with it. I wanted to wrap this up, and somebody had to go first.
‘Well, we have a figure. I think that we should take that figure, determine some multiplier, and award that amount of money.’
What should the multiplier be, though? Surely this sort of thing has been determined before, and we wished that we had received some guidance of that form so that we could fairly determine where this case fell on some pre-established scale.
Ralph chimed in that he had heard these sorts of things were settled with multipliers in a range, and from that range, we determined and discussed potential rewards.
We settled on a multiplier, I did the math on scrap paper, wrote down our findings, and signed and dated the slip of paper. I stood to knock on the door.
When we declared our findings, both parties seemed unhappy, which I took as a mark of fairness. The plaintiff didn’t wink at me when I walked by as he had done before, which several of my fellow jurors had noticed, and asked about. It wasn’t the first time I had been winked at that day.
We parted ways outside the courthouse, said what a pleasure and honour it had been to serve with each other, and faded back into the anonymity of our daily lives. We were all a little surprised that we had been given the weighty responsibility to determine something that would impact the lives of our fellow citizens when we felt somewhat ill equipped to do so to the best of our abilities, but the deed was done.
Overall my experience was positive, but I would change several things:
- Provide better materials for deliberation. Scrap paper was enough, but poor; even just a whiteboard would have been better.
- Clarify what technology jurors are allowed to use when deliberating, including what reference materials we are allowed to consult.
- Provide context that is unlikely to bias the jury and will guide them on making fair determinations compared to other similar cases that have been settled. This is akin to judicial precedent: inform us of what has been decided before in order to provide context in which we can come to a fair decision.
After researching similar settlements, I would have come to a different decision, but I cannot go back and change what we decided. I conducted and concluded this research within just a few stops of the T from Quincy Center, and I would have been able to conduct and conclude the research well within the expanse of our deliberations. I wasn’t sure if doing so would be grounds for a mistrial, however, and I wanted to err on the side of caution in this case.
It felt weighty; it felt like it mattered. I understand the awesome power granted to juries in the United States, but I worry that jurors are uninformed or under-informed, unable to access materials that would allow them to make more informed yet still unbiased decisions, and ultimately not the best solution for determining something that will have permanent effects on the lives of their fellow citizens, at least not in the way that the current court system operates.