IT HAPPENED TO ME: I Served on a Jury for a Domestic Violence Case

I thought for sure my periphery experience would lead to me being dismissed, but if they had used that as criteria, there would be no jurors left.
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Erin Russell
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I thought for sure my periphery experience would lead to me being dismissed, but if they had used that as criteria, there would be no jurors left.

Jury duty happens. I’ll admit it: when the official-looking envelope arrived, my first thoughts were not excitement to participate in the democratic process. They were, How can I get out of this so I don’t waste too much of my life?

My previous experience with jury duty consisted of me checking the “HAHA I’M EXEMPT” box or reading in a waiting room for several hours before being dismissed. But given my increasing adultiness and a new, computerized process, it seemed less likely I’d be off scot-free. I clicked through a brief online questionnaire before the website spat out a date and time: Monday, noon.

After the always-fun adventure that is finding parking downtown and navigating a state building, I arrived after the bailiff was already calling out names. Having queried my social media for tips on how to appear unfit as a juror (which incurred a scolding from my lawyer friends), I felt confident the likelihood of me being picked was low. But when the bailiff designated me potential juror number 5, I realized things were not looking good.

We shuffled into the courtroom where a young man sat before the judge, who then announced that this court generally hears domestic violence cases. 

Oh hell no.

One of my friends was in an abusive relationship for years. Then she was in another one. Both had incidents where bystanders called the police. The last time, she called me crying, asking if I could watch her dog because she was scared her boyfriend would kill him. It’s difficult to describe how I felt toward the jackasses that gave her bruises and bite marks, but “murderous rage” comes close. 

Fuck that guy whose eyes couldn’t meet ours in the courtroom. I wanted to be on that jury.

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For this misdemeanor trial, there would be six jurors chosen from a pool of 36. It was immediately apparent from the cattle call why lawyers go to such great lengths to avoid a jury trial: many of your “peers” are idiots.

The first question asked by the prosecutor was, “Do any of you know me or my colleagues?” to which one man in the back (somewhat defiantly) said, “Yes, you convicted me of domestic violence. Twice.” He proceeded to add several helpful comments during voir dire, like, “I don’t believe it’s possible to have an injury without a mark.” 

Other extremely relevant offerings by prospects in the selection process included, “Is the defendant illegal?” and “I would be biased against him if he didn’t speak English,” because he was Latino. Cool, guys.

The most illuminating moment came when the prosecutor asked each of us if we had any experience with domestic violence (giving the option to sidebar with the judge). Almost everyone had a story: an ex-girlfriend, a sister, a classmate. One woman could only choke out, “My cousin was killed,” before dissolving into tears. You hear that one in three women are victims of physical violence by an intimate partner, but it doesn’t really sink in until five people in jury selection have to leave the courtroom because they are sobbing inconsolably. Suddenly, having such a large pool of potential jurors than needed made sense.

I thought for sure my periphery experience from my friend would lead to me being dismissed (when asked if I could be objective, I answered, “I guess”), but if they had used that as criteria, there would be no jurors left. 

Once I was selected, I was surprised by how chill the actual trial was. The judge asked us what time we wanted to start in the morning. The bailiff gave us his cell number in case we got a parking ticket while serving. We got breaks and lunch, and it turns out if you spend time in a room with six other people, you’ll probably get along. I got the life stories of several of my fellow jurors, and two of them connected to work on a project together. It really was not the hassle I was expecting.

However, it was far from easy. Anything I learned as a journalist about how to be respectful and sensitive to survivors of domestic violence goes out the window during cross-examination. 

“Is her face red because he slapped her, or because she just had bad skin?”

“You had car keys, why didn’t you just leave?"

"He must not have treated you that badly if you didn’t leave.” 

These were all things the defense attorney thought it was perfectly acceptable to ask, while I wondered how he slept at night. He also spent 20 minutes asking her questions about how the incident started (“He was lying on the bed on his right side? And you walked in from which direction? And he had his right arm under him?”). While I understand it’s his job to instill doubt, it was infuriating.

The trial was clearly terrifying for the survivor; in addition to facing her abuser in court and having her credibility called into question, she mentioned his family threatening her. We can go on about self-love and acceptance, but pointed questions during a trial can undo all that work in minutes. I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to testify against someone you loved, even if they abused you. We had to take a break a couple of times so she could compose herself,

Before my trial, my boss told me of an insurance dispute that kept her on a jury for three weeks. I figured a domestic violence trial would be long and drawn out — but it wasn’t. I was in court from 9 a.m. to 4:45 p.m., our deliberation took 20 minutes, and I was out in time for a 5:30 happy hour. In my mind, this is not a problem because the guy was clearly guilty, but it does concern me that I affected someone else’s life in a major way in such a short period of time.

At the end of the trial, I was proud of having performed a small patriotic duty. I felt slight vindication for a system stacked against survivors like my friend, seeing courts in action made me more informed, and I felt... useful. I’m not saying I’ll be jumping for joy the next time I get a jury summons, but it’s not something I’d dread either. I’m definitely better for the experience.