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  • Writer's pictureDr. Vin

Jury


 



I recently completed service as a juror on a four-week-long civil case where a woman laborer fell and was injured at her job at a nuclear power plant.

 

Forty prospective jurors entered the courtroom and were given a summary of the case. We were then individually polled by the judge for both the plaintiff (injured worker) and the defense (corporation). In this formal court arena, the judge wanted to discern if we could be objective and listen to all the evidence before rendering a decision.

 

The judge leaned forward in her chair and addressed one potential middle-aged male juror:

 

Q. Can you be objective?

A. I don’t think so.

Q. Do you believe that both sides have a right to be heard in a court of law?

A. Yes, I guess so.

Q. Then can you listen to both sides and weigh the arguments before forming an opinion?

A. No. There are too many frivolous lawsuits.

Q. Can you see that both sides need to be heard? Can you be open to listening?

A. No. Not really.

(This juror was dismissed as being too biased against the plaintiff)

 

After a long day of jury selection, two people were unable to be open to the plaintiff and were dismissed. Two people were unable to be open to the defense and were dismissed.

 

We all have biases. Some of the 12 of us jurors who were chosen, started out leaning toward one side or the other. During three long weeks of endless medical, economic, and safety witnesses, I found myself pushed one way, only to have cross-examination, pull me the other way. For example, the defense tried to paint a picture of the plaintiff as not a hard worker. They listed on an easel all the hours she worked over ten years. Indeed, there were some years with very few hours. I drew a star in my notebook and wrote “point for the defense”. Then plaintiff’s attorney cross-examined and went through all those years of low work hours. “What was (plaintiff) doing in 2003? She had a baby. And here in 2009? She had another baby. And 2010-2014? As we reported before, she was caring for her sick and dying father.” He then looked straight at us jurors and asked, “Is this the worth of a woman? To be thought less of for caring for her children and sick father?” I gulped and drew a star in my notebook with the words, “point for the plaintiff.”

 

After all witnesses were heard, and closing arguments were made, we jurors retired for deliberation into a small backroom behind the courtrooms, with a table and 12 chairs. We had to answer six questions about liability and decide on damages. Since this was a civil case, only 9 out of 12 had to agree, with a standard of “preponderance of evidence” (enough facts are presented to make it more likely than not to be true). We began shyly, voting anonymously on yellow post-it notes, using my hat as a container. Our foreman read aloud the first question, “Was the corporation liable?” (7 yes, 5 no). People explained their vote as others nodded. We voted again. (10 yes, 2 no). We listened to the “no” answers and went on to deliberate on all the other issues. The tone was respectful and cooperative. At one point someone argued strongly for the plaintiff and another juror interrupted, “We can only go by the evidence, not our gut feelings.”

 

We spent time discussing whether witnesses were believable, credible, charming, and/or corrupt. One time I had a clenched jaw and tight belly, being wedded to my view that the plaintiff did not need lifetime household help in the future. A nurse in our group said, “She has to have knee surgery in ten years. This is a result of the accident. These costs are reasonable.” I changed my vote.  

 

For three days, we were influenced by each other and sometimes changed our views. It makes me reflect on the nature of human bias. Bias may be related to my sense of attachment or belonging to my tribe - whether it be my family, my ethnic group, my religious, or political group. Any of these can make me feel seen, protect me from my fears, and make me feel safe in the bosom of their love or their ideology.

 

When our cold hearts, hiding in a blanket of comfort or familiarity, can cast off that blanket, and risk being influenced by someone else’s view, we are better citizens of this world. In closing arguments, the plaintiff’s attorney said, “I look in the mirror at my face in the morning and I see it, both the beauty and the blemish.” All of us have both. The blemish to be close-minded at times, and the beauty to be open-minded. In a time of unremitting political polarization in the USA, this experience has renewed my belief in our legal system and made me appreciate its moments of strength.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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