by Peg McEntee
EDITOR’S NOTE: A version of this article was previously published in the Salt Lake Tribune. The Bar Journal does not ordinarily publish material that has appeared elsewhere, but given the subject of the column, an exception seemed appropriate in this case.
Last fall, I was talking to a top cop and mentioned I was on a list for jury duty. Don’t worry, he said, they never choose cops, lawyers, or reporters.
The next morning, I reported to a Third District courthouse, where the jury pool was questioned briefly about age, profession, marriage status, children, and residence. Then the attorneys spent about ten minutes deciding which of us to keep. In the interim, the judge read us a brief history of justice, starting with the hunter-gatherers and ending with the U.S. system, which he deemed the finest in the world.
So it was with considerable surprise that, despite my profession, I was named to a six-member jury for a criminal trial. We were sworn in and took our seats. By serving as jurors, the judge told us, we would not only be doing our civic duty, we would be ennobled by the experience. Then we got down to work.
The trial involved allegations that, in the midst of an acrimonious divorce, one person violated a protective order and engaged in criminal mischief. The protocol was familiar to what I’ve seen covering scores of trials. The defense and prosecution offered opening statements and the first witness took the stand, describing what she believed the defendant had done. More witnesses followed, each with his or her version of the chain of events, some in conflict with the others. Periodically, we’d be led out of court and to the jury room by a bailiff who lightened the mood with truly awful jokes, most involving Utah and BYU football players. When we returned to court, the bailiff would proclaim, “All rise for the jury!” For the first time, people were rising for me.
We were released for lunch, and I headed to a diner the bailiff recommended. As it happened, the accuser and who I assumed was an attorney were there, and I took care to sit as far away from them as possible. Back in court, we heard a last witness, and then the defense attorney and prosecutor gave their closing arguments. But before we were led to the jury room, the judge advised us that one of the charges had been resolved. Meantime, the criminal mischief charge had been reduced to a class B misdemeanor.
The moment the door shut, we chose a foreperson, who seemed to really want the job, then started talking. The judge had given us a general instruction on how to consider the thirty-three specific jury instructions. For example, all the jury instructions were equally important and should be thought of in the context of all the rest. We must obey the instructions and cannot reach decisions that go against the law. (It’s worth noting that after the column dealing with my jury experience ran in the Tribune, a gentleman brought me some literature on jury nullification.) Very important: keep an open mind and don’t look at news reports regarding the case. Most important: we must agree that the prosecution has proven its case beyond a reasonable doubt to reach a verdict of guilty.
There wasn’t much discussion about reasonable doubt. We agreed on its meaning and moved on. We talked intently for an hour, weighing the testimony, using common sense to figure out who had done what and why, and referring often to the instructions. Then the foreperson polled us, and we all said we couldn’t get past the standard of beyond a reasonable doubt. Given the testimony, which included some unsavory family issues, we agreed the prosecution’s case was just too weak to convict. We acquitted the defendant.
There are times when one’s acute attention and focus is paramount. In my business, that may be big breaking news that requires absolute focus and the most ethical decision-making. On that Wednesday in October, everyone involved in that trial was fully engaged, and the urgency of the issue was palpable. After our verdict, we were ushered back to the jury room and the judge came in, sans robe, to talk with us about the experience. He listened as attentively as he had in the courtroom, and we gave him the same respect. He also said the case was weak to begin with, and apologized for wasting our time. All six of us said our time certainly was not wasted, and that we had, in fact, been ennobled.
As dusk was falling, a couple of jurors and I walked out of the courthouse together, then scattered to find our cars. It’s likely we’ll never see each other again, but I’ll always remember that day and those good people.
by Peg McEntee