Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Is this a good thing, or a bad thing?

I was rejected twice yesterday.

The second rejection I not only understood but positively courted. I was in a jury pool for a medical malpractice trial that was slated to last two months or more. The details of the case involved a premature infant who did not survive, doctors who may or may not have made good care decisions, a mother who may or may not have smoked a pack and a half a day during the length of her pregnancy, disputes about causation, disputes about medical judgment, etc., etc.

Since I know more than I care to and have rather strong feelings about malpractice law, action theory, medical paternalism, and the ethics of maternal substance abuse, I felt no guilt about sharing my extensive education and strong convictions concerning the disputed facts of the case.

The principles bid a hearty and cheerful adieu to me and my strong convictions.

But the first rejection, I have to admit, stung a bit.

It was for a criminal case involving a charge of Driving While Impaired and Running a Red Light. It was only supposed to last a day and a half. The judge gave a stirring lecture about the solemn responsibility of jury duty, giving each party a fair hearing and participating most directly in our democratic process and so on, and I was rather . . . ok, I admit it, moved. I really wanted to do this.

The jury selection started with some very general questions designed to weed out people with clear and insurmountable biases.

Have you ever been the victim of excessive force by a police officer, such that you would have problems believing the testimony of this police officer?
One gentleman had been the victim of police brutality as a teenager--he even remembered the officer's name, thirty-five years later--but didn't feel any general prejudice against police officers, so he was retained.

Have you ever served on a jury before, and was there anything in that experience that gave you reservations about the criminal process?
Several had served on juries before. All thought it was an acceptable criminal process.

Were you the foreman of the jury on which you served?
None had been. But I took quiet note of the question. What did this have to do with removal for cause? Why would serving as the foreman be cause for dismissal?

Have you ever been charged with this offense?
None had.

Have you ever lost a loved one to a drunk driver?
Two people had, and confessed themselves unable to think of the defendant as innocent, even without hearing any facts in the case. The judge lectured them sternly about burden of proof and the defendant's right to a fair trial, but they persisted in the face of his disapproval and got themselves removed for cause.

Another man claimed to have lost four college friends, but he believed himself able to give the evidence its proper weight and had no partiality for either side. He was retained.

Do you know any of the parties in this case?
One woman knew the defense attorney, because he was her brother-in-law's attorney as well. She was not immediately dismissed, however, because she was not privy to the details of her brother-in-law's case and felt no bias toward or against the defense attorney.

And so on.

And then we were asked about our places of employment and our spouse's place of employment. The prosecutor asked various clarifying questions of us all: Do you like your job? In the course of your job, do you evaluate other employees and make decisions about hiring and firing? (Again, I quietly noted the question.)

And then she got to me.

DA: Please state your name, your marital status, your occupation, and your spouse's occupation if appropriate.
Me: My name is Sarah Sours; I'm married; and my husband and I are both students at Duke.
DA: What do you study?
Me: Theology and Ethics.
DA: Your Honor, the State would like to thank Ms. Sours for her time, and ask that she be excused.
Judge: Thank-you, Ms. Sours, for your time; you are excused.

Well. That was an adventure. The gentlemen who thought that their past experiences might not be a hindrance to their objectivity were fine, but my occupation--which is, of course, a preoccupation with the relationship of justice and mercy, precisely the drama that would be played out in miniature in that trial--was enough to prompt a peremptory challenge. She used one of her few peremptory challenges on me. Because I study theology.


It wasn't the student part. She kept a med student, an undergrad, and a technology student.

It might have been the "strong leadership" part. If they were weeding out jury forepersons and people who hire and fire, they might want to weed out someone with enough leadership and personal presence to stand in front of a large classroom. And, actually, as soon as I said, "Theology and Ethics," about five of the potential jurors swiveled their chairs around to look at me. But then again, they kept the investment banker who had served as a marine infantry officer.

I suspect it was the theology part.

We don't want pastors and theologians deciding matters of justice and mercy. 'Specially not women pastors.

No siree. That would be dangerous.

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