I wonder if law students are taught to dismiss columnists from prospective juries.
Because last week, I joined Herb Benham among the ranks of Californian columnists to have been swiftly excused from jury service by the Kern County Public Defender.
To say I was disappointed is a severe understatement.
I was actually excited about jury service.
Jury service might be second only to voting as our most important civic duty. Our concept of justice hinges on the premise that we are each presumed to be innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt by a jury of our peers.
So, despite the apologies of the judge and both attorneys, I never considered my time in the jury box as a burden. It was an opportunity to fulfill my civic duty. And one that I didn’t take lightly.
Plus, I’m a big fan of the Serial podcast.
The podcast debuted in 2014 and became part of the zeitgeist as reporter Sarah Koenig told the story, week-by-week, of the 1999 case of Adnan Sayed, who had been convicted and sentenced to life in prison for the death of his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee. Sayed had always maintained he had nothing to do with Hae’s death.
Koenig dug deep into the case, sifting through thousands of documents, listening to hours of trial testimony and police interrogation, and talking to anyone she could find who remembered what happened between Sayed and Hae. The detailed and nuanced first-person reporting is at the heart of the appeal of Serial.
Serial returned for Season 2 in late 2015. Koenig investigated the case of Bowe Bergdahl, a U.S. soldier who had been a prisoner of the Taliban for nearly five years before being released as part of a prisoner exchange. The case and setting couldn’t have been more different from Season 1 and Adnan Sayed, but the storytelling and intrigue were just as compelling.
This past September, Serial came back for Season 3. But instead of telling a single story over the course of the show, Season 3 follows many different stories — ordinary cases working their way through the justice system in Cleveland, Ohio.
The producers chose Cleveland because they were given an unusually high level of access to record. This season includes recordings from inside courtrooms, judges’ chambers, hallways and attorneys’ offices. Koenig and a fellow reporter spent more than a year in Cleveland, looking at everything from cases involving marijuana possession and disorderly conduct to more serious felonies. One episode shares the tragic story of a five-month old who is killed in a shooting, the unintended victim of senseless gang violence.
If I started with a slightly-above-average interest in jury service, listening to Season 3 of Serial took it to the next level.
While the Kern County Superior Court is nearly 2,500 miles from Cleveland’s Cuyahoga Justice Center, the center of Serial Season 3, I now wanted, more than ever, to take part in the justice system.
“Every case Emmanuel and I followed, there came a point where we thought: ‘No, this can’t be how it works,’” Koenig said in a statement before the release of Season 3. “People who work in the system, or have been through the system, they know this. But millions more people do not. And for the past year I’ve had this urgent feeling of wanting to kind of hold open the courthouse door and wave people inside. Because things are happening — shocking things, fascinating things — in plain sight.”
There are two sides to every story, though. And, despite her claims and (I’m sure) best intentions to represent both, I take everything Koenig says — and basically every other media personality, for that matter — with a healthy dose of skepticism. Today’s criminal justice reform activists can often neglect the importance of seeking justice for victims of crime.
In the end, while there was nothing shocking about my experience, there was plenty to fascinate.
Shortly after I was dismissed, I texted a friend of mine who works in the District Attorney’s office about being let go. As it turns out, being a “public figure” is a common way to find yourself released from the jury box. So is counting the District Attorney and a handful of her deputies among your friends.
A few days later, I visited the Superior Court website to check on the status of “my” case. On both charges, the defendant had been found guilty. It even looked like the trial took one day less than had been estimated.
Maybe next year, like Herb, I’ll have better luck.
It shouldn’t be that hard to find me. I’ll be the eager-looking guy sitting in the lobby of Jury Services.
Contributing columnist Justin Salters writes on politics and current events; the views expressed are his own. His column appears on the first and third Tuesdays of the month. Reach him on Twitter @justinsalters or email him your thoughts: firstname.lastname@example.org.