Most people I know either haven’t been called for jury duty, or they’ve found ways to wriggle out of it. Jury duty pays very poorly (less than minimum wage in California), so that’s understandable. If you can afford to do it, though, jury duty is a fascinating experience.


It starts with a letter like this.juryduty.jpg

The letter tells you to show up, or you’re going to jail.

Actually, it tells you that you may need to show up. You call in or check a website, and that tells you if and when you must be present. As instructed, I checked the website on Friday. My group was selected.

The Hall of Justice

My group assembled in a large waiting room at the Hall of Justice in San Francisco. It’s in a grimy part of SOMA. To get in, you pass through a metal detector and x-ray combination, like in an airport.

The jury waiting room is on the third floor. A window in the back overlooks a highway. I sat and read. My neighbor played a game on his phone.

A guy came in and started a brief video. It tells you about the process, and gives testimonials from people who enjoyed jury duty. This is reminiscent of the videos you see before an airplane flight.

The “jury attendant” asked government employees to raise their hands and fill out a form waiving pay for jury duty. During service, they get normal compensation from the state. A while later, he called out names one-by-one, including mine. We filed into the courtroom.

The Courtroom

The courtroom was windowless, and lit by yellowish fluorescent lights. I had no conception of time in there—like a casino.

The clerk performed roll call. A door at the back opened. The bailiff told us to “all rise”, and then introduced the judge.

The judge told us that he expected this case to be about as short as these things ever are. He asked for a show of hands, how many people would be requesting excusal due to hardship or travel? He dismissed the rest of us, to process those requests.

When we returned, the clerk called 18 names one-by-one. The guy next to me was one of the first called. I thought “what are the chances that two people sitting next to each other get called?” Even though I know statistics, I still fall for the Gambler’s Fallacy.

We got through 15, and then I heard my name. I went up and sat in an office chair near the judge. After all 18 of us were seated, the clerk swore us in, and voir dire began.

Voir dire

The judge had us introduce ourselves. Name, marital status, number of years we’d lived in San Francisco, neighborhood, occupation and occupation of spouse and adult children, had we served on a jury before. He asked for extra details in some cases. It was like cocktail party chit chat (“Oh you’re a student? What’s your major?”), but under oath, in front of a bunch of strangers and lawyers, and recorded permanently on public record.

This was my second time (potentially) serving on a jury. The judge asked about my first time “did the jury reach a verdict?” Juries don’t necessarily reach a verdict. If the jury is split, you can get a hung jury, resulting in a mistrial. This is an intentional protection for defendants, but also a vulnerability in the system. If one person on each criminal trial voted against the rest, and all trials were hung, the justice system would be deadlocked.

Following the standard introductions, the judge asked us additional questions. “Had any of us been the victims of violent or property crime, or known anyone who had been?” Almost everyone raised their hands and spoke. In San Francisco, crime is more common than I realized.

The judge asked us each for details on the crime. Was it reported to the police? Were we satisfied with the response? This was a criminal case in which police officers would testify, so any negative feelings we had towards police could bias us against them.

On that topic, the judge mentioned that we’d have to put aside any feelings towards police that we had due to their portrayal in the media, or for other reasons, and judge their testimonies like we would any other person’s. To the extent that news and other media influence public perceptions of police or other social groups, media can affect trial outcomes.

As we answered the judge’s questions, the attorneys scribbled notes on large seating charts. When the judge finished his questions, the attorneys came up in turn and asked their own.

The defense attorney probed some of us (not me) whether we’d be willing to resist social pressure to convict—if the group leaned that way— and instead vote our own, individual conscience.

The judge and attorneys conferred. When they returned, the judge dismissed some jurors (at this point, still “prospective jurors”), and then the attorneys took turns dismissing jurors. Each attorney wants to rid the pool of jurors who they think will hurt their side’s chances of winning.

I made the cut.

After these excusals, the clerk called more prospective jurors from the stands. The whole group (about 50 people) had been sitting in the room this entire time, just in case they were needed for this purpose. The clerk swore in the new prospects. The judge confirmed that they’d each heard the questions asked of us originals. He had the new prospectives give their own answers. Judge and attorneys performed another round of the excusal ceremony. The process was very polite. The attorneys “thanked and excused” each juror they wanted gone.

The process was also slow. By this point, we were already on day 2. It felt tedious, but you have to remember, this process can have tremendous impact on people’s lives. You can’t rush it. The first case I served on—a low-speed traffic collision—resulted in a high-5-figure award.

Finally, we were left with a jury of 12, plus one or two alternates (it’s been less than a month and I’ve already forgotten if it was one or two).

My first time on a jury I was one of those alternates. This time I was one of the 12 who would deliberate.

Stay tuned for Part 2: The Trial.

UPDATE: this article has gotten some interest, but not enough to convince me that it’s worthwhile to write the rest of the story. If you’d like to hear the rest, drop a comment. Otherwise, check out Denial of Service (DoS) Vulnerability in the Criminal Justice System, which was inspired by this experience.