It’s kind of like a heist — think Ocean’s Eleven. You assemble a rag-tag team of 12 to 14 professionals to carry out your operation. There’s just one problem: they have no skills. Even if they do, they are expressly forbidden from using their skills during the heist. They can’t research the heist online or talk to reporters about the heist. It’s really best if they don’t know anything about the heist before it begins.
That’s jury duty: a random selection of citizens without specialized legal knowledge who are assembled to give a verdict on a case. Anything from shoplifting to capital punishment is deliberated on by this rag-tag team of strangers.
It’s equal parts inspiring — a testament to egalitarian democracy — and totally bat-shit crazy.
The process in the Los Angeles Criminal Courts begins with 40 to 60 potential jurors stuffed into their assigned courtroom. From the disparate array of attire it’s clear that no one really knows how to dress for jury duty. A sleek suit jacket sits next to a t-shirt with an image of Dwight Schute from The Office, dirty Adidas sneakers shuffle next to sparkly gold heels, tailored slacks are finely creased by a pair of ripped sweatpants, meticulously curled hair glistens near dry locks scrunched in a messy bun.
For all but the most media-frenzied cases this is by far the highest occupancy the court will see during the trial. A random group of 12 is escorted into the blue cushioned juror box and the remaining citizens dwell in the gallery. Legs twitch, arms cross, phones are surreptitiously checked in pockets. There’s an abundance of irritated sighs. These people are desperate to get back to their regularly scheduled programming, but for at least a few more hours they’re stuck in an inexplicably frigid room with wood walls and jarring florescent lights.
In today’s trial Judge Mark Arnold begins by explaining the rules of the trial. He explains that the charges are not evidence, the prosecution’s burden of proof, presumption of innocence, and the standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Then the heart of jury selection begins: voir dire. In this instance voir dire simply means “a preliminary examination of the jurors.” I like the word. It sounds posh, the verbal equivalent of mahogany.
Arnold then conducts a perfunctory interview of the 12 individuals seated in the jury box — jury ID number, area of residence, marital status, occupation, occupation of spouse, and prior jury experience. Their lives run the gamut: single mother, college student, entertainment marketer, ballroom dance instructor, data analyst, cold storage supervisor, post office worker, physician, retired, sales associate, and documentary producer. It’s hard to imagine any other scenario in which this specific group of people would convene. Not even a bus stop — at least a third of these people look too chic for public transit.
It’s the lawyers’ turn to address the potential jurors, Deputy Public Defender Stephanie Friedenreich and Deputy District Attorney Tal Kahana trade off turns at the lectern.
Friedenreich has thick dark hair glistening with grey. She wears a blazer and has a brassy tenor to her voice. She moseys around the juror box, hands in her pockets. “Does anyone watch the police procedural shows like Law and Order?”
Friedenreich is not the first lawyer I’ve seen ask some version of this question. Although it seems like a trivial opener, it’s not only endearing, it’s potentially insightful. For most members of the jury this is their first time seeing court in person but they’ve witnessed many dramatic trials through their television. Law & Order, The Practice, L.A. Law, Suits, The Good Wife, How to Get Away with Murder, and Better Call Saul — each one of these programs shapes how we conceive of public defenders and prosecutors.
A bespectacled young man in the jury box tells Friedenreich that he’s seen Law & Order. Friedenreich casually tilts his way. “When you watch those shows do you see the strong government lawyer? How about the defense attorney? How are they portrayed?” The young man murmurs “They’re not portrayed as strong.” Friedenreich smirks. “I’ve noticed that.” Her point’s well taken. It’s difficult to think of a TV program that doesn’t portray defense attorneys as incompetent, morally questionable, or outright criminal.
The rest of Friedenreich’s questions are aimed at discovering which of the potential jurors might consider it incriminating if her client doesn’t chose to take the stand and about how they might respond to her style of defense. “Some people think I’m mean. How would you feel if I was questioning a witness aggressively? Would you be mad at me?” All the jurors shake their heads. They respond they would understand that she’s just doing her job. What they might not realize is that her job has already started.
When Kahana stands her tone is professorial. She wears a plaid dress with one ruffled sleeve and gesticulates with her black-framed glasses in hand. Her questions are more straightforward. She asks if one parent should be able to take a child from the other without reason. No’s all around. Then she addresses the physician and the nurse, asking if they could base their verdict solely on the evidence presented and refrain from bringing their expertise into the jury room. Both respond in the affirmative.
Then the game begins. Jury selection is exactly like picking teams for dodgeball but both team captains are picking the same 12 players, the game could last for weeks, and the team will ultimately decide the verdict in a criminal case. So not exactly like dodgeball, but close.
The lawyers begin removing potential jurors from the jury box, first by challenges for cause and then peremptory challenges. The challenges for cause require a legal basis for a juror disqualification — something like inherent bias, inability to understand the trial or prior knowledge that would prevent impartial evaluation of the trial. Challenges for cause are unlimited.
This case involves allegations of domestic abuse so each potential juror is asked if they or anyone in their immediate family has been a victim of domestic abuse. One young woman’s eyes well with tears. She bravely describes the abuse she survived as a child. A well-manicured woman behind her shakes as she recounts her sister’s abusive marriage. Both are excused, leaving the court with red eyes and wet cheeks.
Peremptory challenges follow, the rejection of jurors by the prosecution or defense without a stated reason. In this case both sides are allowed 10 such challenges. The jury box loses a physician whose husband is a public defender, a staunch feminist who is uncertain that she could give the male defendant a fair trial, and an astrophysicist who is a cringe-inducing know-it-all. When asked if there is a side he prefers he looks the lawyers up and down and smiles at Kahana. “The prettier one.”
As the seats empty, jurors from the gallery are called at random to take the open chairs. In turn they’re asked similar questions and similar challenges are made. It takes two days for the defense and the prosecution to accept the panel of jurors. By the end of the judicial game of musical chairs we’ve lost the ballroom dancer, the physician, the sales associate, the cold storage supervisor, and many others who took their spots after them. We’ve gained two college students and two nurses.
The remarkable thing about a jury trial is that, unlike a heist, its success is not measured in execution or monetary accomplishment; it’s measured in justice. Even a hung jury is justice in a sense — relaying an incapacity to come to an actable conclusion. While the lawyers and the judges and the expert witnesses and the officers and detectives spout their legalese and occupational jargon, the jury keeps the trial planted firmly in the ground of civilian understanding. The jury stands strong in their Adidas sneakers and gold-glitter heels, their sleek suit jackets and Office themed t-shirts, their tailored slacks and ripped sweatpants, their meticulously curled hair and scrunched messy buns.