“You got a surprise in the mail,” my husband said as he put an envelope on the kitchen counter.
Curious, I picked up the letter.
“Congratulations. You’ve been selected for jury duty.”
My stomach sank and I banged my head on the counter. I don’t know of anyone who likes to be summoned for jury duty.
We claim we want to fulfill our civic obligation, but when it comes to actually carrying out that duty, we’d rather have a root canal.
The first time I received a jury summons was in Louisiana. I was barely an adult, so the notice thrilled me. The government believed I was adult ready.
We assembled in a courtroom – just like on television – and there were attorneys chatting around two tables. At the head of the room was a judge sitting behind an impressive raised desk.
The counselor from my high school was sitting in the front row, dabbing at her eyes. When the prosecutor announced we’d be hearing a case about a murder, I knew exactly who they were talking about – the counselor’s late husband.
He’d been killed during a robbery, and we all knew about the tragedy because it happened when I was in high school. The prosecutor asked each potential juror if they’d ever heard of the case and I told him I did and why.
The prosecutor dismissed me, and I later found out the accused tried to assault the bailiff and his own lawyer during the trial.
Conviction. A slam dunk for the jury.
The next time I was summoned was in Fort Bend County. The case involved drunk driving.
The prosecutor asked if any of the prospective jurors abstained from alcohol. I was the only one who raised my hand, and the prosecution dismissed me from that trial as well.
When I received this latest jury summons, I was a little leery. We’re still in a COVID-19 quarantine state, and I remembered that the courthouse was packed on jury days.
The letter assured us that officials were taking all precautions, but if anyone felt uncomfortable, they should notify the court.
I didn’t have a valid reason for not going, and I knew I’d feel like a bum if I didn’t fulfill my civic duty. So I got up early on jury day and headed to Richmond.
Everyone had to wear a mask, and there were blue X’s taped on the floor six feet apart all the way from the front door to the jury assembly room.
The process was orderly and organized, from the scanning machines to the clerk who took our temperatures.
People are usually sitting side by side, but every other row was roped off. Blue painter’s tape created a box on the open rows where people could sit about six feet from each other. The room was filled, but I didn’t feel uncomfortable.
Every step of the process was explained, either by a video or by court officials who were professional, courteous and humorous when the situation called for that.
Five hours later, all but 15 of us walked out of the justice center, and I have to say I felt both relieved and disappointed. All we had to lose was time, but the person on trial stood to lose or gain their freedom.
To know that 12 people are in charge of someone’s fate is a tremendous responsibility, and even though we might complain and look for a way to weasel out of jury duty, the experience was informative and something Americans are charged with doing.
Because of COVID-19, defendants have been waiting months for their day in court, and they deserve a fair trial and to be judged by their peers.
They, and the jurors, attorneys, judges, clerks and deputies, deserve a safe environment to conduct business.
You, the citizen, deserve to see the court system at work.
When you get that summons in the mail, don’t worry. Pack a water bottle, some snacks, a sweater, a book and a comfortable mask.
All you have to lose is some time.
All a defendant has to lose is their freedom.
Denise’s email is firstname.lastname@example.org.