Jury still out on picking this guy as peer

My father once served on a criminal court grand jury in upstate New York. His lasting impression? He didn't vote for the prosecutor several years later when he ran for judge. The district attorney, my father had said, acted like a horse's behind during the proceedings.

It's a good lesson. Inside the courtroom, the defendant isn't the only one being judged and not everybody appreciates the gamesmanship being played.

So, last week, it became my turn. After 35 years of eligibility, a first-ever summons appeared in the mailbox to report for jury service in the county courthouse at the Robert D. Sumner Judicial Center in Dade City.

Perhaps, typically, human nature begets the question, "How do I get out of this?'' One guy in the west Pasco jury pool told the judge his job was too important to go unattended and asked if he would get in trouble if he just got up and left.

Yes.

We're all busy. Work piles up. There are children to care for, phone calls to be made or flights to catch. The 15 bucks a day remuneration, for those who choose to accept, barely covers gas and lunch – if you're frugal.

But it seems irresponsible to harbor such thoughts the same month we voted for president, recognized Veterans Day and expressed gratitude for being able to gather with family and friends to share a Thanksgiving feast.

Two people came even though they were grieving the death of loved ones. Another told the court she was getting married the following week and had tried to juggle work obligations because she wanted to be there.

Not everyone thinks similarly. Even though attendance is mandatory, more than 25,000 Pasco residents ignore the jury summons each year. No wonder everybody thanked us for serving.

Ninety people arrived before 8 a.m. to be greeted by a line at the door as if it was a voting precinct. Metal detection and obligatory removal of shoes and belts awaited those of us willing to do our civic duty.

Circuit Judge Michael Andrews, via teleconference, briefed us on the do's and don'ts of jury service. Do feel free to ask questions. Don't drink alcohol during breaks. Do use the computer access in the jury pool room. Don't access online media to try to learn about the case. Don't use electronic devices inside the courtroom. Several court officials told of a juror who texted the circumstances of a case to acquaintances to ask their opinion on a possible verdict.

The potential jury of peers included some familiar faces: former Zephyrhills City Council member Alan Brenia; the wife of a school district administrator; and one of my neighbors. We all got tapped for questioning by attorneys trying a civil court case before Circuit Judge Linda Baab.

Thirty of us walked single file into the courtroom. I was eighth in line, and as I entered I saw another familiar face. Hutch Brock sat as co-counsel at the defense table. Brock is the former Dade City mayor who co-chaired the citizens committee that just campaigned successfully for the Penny for Pasco renewal. He also is a soccer dad and the game of futbol draws us together periodically when our children compete against each other.

So I raised my hand, stood and addressed the court when Baab asked if anyone in the jury pool is familiar with the witnesses, the attorneys or the plaintiff.

I know Mr. Brock.

How?

"We sat together last night at a high school soccer game.''

To my surprise, this does not get me booted immediately.

I am escorted to the jury box to the first seat, second row, for voir dire. This is when the attorneys ask questions about our life experiences and pass judgment on our ability to weigh the evidence impartially and to render a just verdict.

Eventually, the plaintiff's lawyer asks about my familiarity with the defense team. I volunteer that I've known opposing counsel for 12 years, interviewed him and recommended his candidacy for public office. Since then, we interacted professionally and talked multiple times this year as part of the newspaper's coverage of Penny for Pasco.

Oh, and something else important to the public record.

"His wife hugged me last night at the soccer game.''

Still, the plaintiff's attorney asked if I could set that personal interaction aside and be fair to his client. This was puzzling. Every day someone accuses working journalists of being biased. Here I was volunteering a potential personal prejudice and the guy with the most to lose talked as if he wanted me to stick around.

But not for long. By late morning, the court excused many of us and started questioning others to try to select a final jury. There is now a letter affixed to my office bulletin board thanking me for my cooperation and providing verification that I did indeed show up for jury service.

The letter includes the circular seal of the circuit court clerk.

It just as easily could have been a picture of a soccer ball.

Jury still out on picking this guy as peer 11/24/12 [Last modified: Saturday, November 24, 2012 3:31am]

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