I got selected for something recently that caught me by surprise — serving on a jury.
A few weeks ago, I was out of town visiting family and attending some work-related events. On one of the daily calls with my husband, he informed me that I received a jury summons for Pecos County in the mail. Of course, it wasn’t like a few years ago where I would be excused easily because I was a student in college; thus, I would have to go.
Leading up to the time that I was supposed to report, I was constantly checking my weather app because we were in the midst of one of the first cold fronts for the year and I sort of hoped it was going to be delayed. However, that brisk Monday morning came — the roads were not icy, it was just cold — and it was time for me to go. I made sure to actually eat a decent breakfast and I packed my bag with snacks, just in case.
A short, five-minute drive later, I arrived at the judicial building. When I got there, I, along with the others who were summoned, was directed down this long hallway to hand my juror questionnaire to one of the clerks and fill out a form stating how I wanted to receive my payment of $20 for the day. We had the option to either keep the cash, direct it back to the county or donate it to a local nonprofit/organization.
I then proceeded to take a seat in the somewhat large courtroom, where I would wait for at least 30 minutes for everything to start.
Eventually, they started taking roll and it was like I was back in college again, in a large auditorium just waiting for my name to be called and I would yell back, “here” or, “present.” People were then given the opportunity to go speak with the judge up at the front to see if they could be granted an excuse; most of them were older, had someone they needed to take care of at home or had a disability that prevented them from serving.
We were then given a break that lasted about 10-15 minutes, but we were explicitly told to not leave the building. The clerk needed some time to print out a new list of names for the people who were still eligible to serve.
After being called back in, we were all told to sit on one side of the room and then when our names were called, we were given a blue laminated piece of paper with a number (different from our original jury number) and an assigned seat on the other side of the room.
At this point, it was time for the voir dire process to begin. What does that mean? It simply means to speak the truth — it allows lawyers and the judge to ask prospective jurors a series of questions prior to selecting who will serve on the jury for that specific trial.
As someone who works in journalism, I was researching the whole jury duty process before showing up on that Monday morning. So, I kind of knew what voir dire was, but in a small town, they did it a little differently. I was expecting for each of us to have to get up in front of the microphone and answer a list of questions individually.
But that wasn’t the case.
The lawyers from each side of the case stood up in front of us — deemed as the panel — and gave a presentation about qualifications to serve on the jury, basic information about the type of case it was for this trial and asked questions to the group. We would raise our blue numbers if we agreed or disagreed and sometimes, we would have the opportunity to answer individually if we wanted to or were specifically called on.
There was also a component of this where they would ask each row if we knew any of the possible witnesses and if so, if we would still be able to be fair and impartial. If not, those prospective jurors were able to go talk to the judge. With it being a small town, it was no surprise that there were quite a few people who knew the potential witnesses.
After the voir dire process ended, we broke for about an hour for lunch — I guess that’s where most of everybody’s $20 came in.
Coming back in, we were in close quarters. While the seats were mostly comfortable, they were cushioned auditorium seats that had very little space in between you and your neighbor.
It was time for them to select who would serve on the jury. The list of names had gone down what seemed like drastically from the beginning of the day, as there were multiple opportunities for people to speak to the judge, pleading for an excuse.
Thirteen was the magic number: 12 jurors and one alternate. When they were calling the names and numbers, they started off as skipping every other person and I thought I was going to be one of those who did not make the cut.
Sure enough, my name and number were called.
It was almost 4 p.m. and all 13 of us were directed to sit in the jury box, while everyone else who was not called were thanked for their time and were allowed to go home.
My exhaustion was getting to me and I don’t remember what exactly happened during this time, other than the judge giving us basic instructions. We were told that the testimonies were going to start the next day by 10 a.m. to allow ample time for two of the jurors, who lived about an hour away, to commute.
The bailiff, who was really kind and a jokester, showed us the room that we were going to report to during the time we were going to serve as jurors. The room was lined from wall to wall with the carpet — the type you would anticipate at a doctor’s office or something. There were two bathrooms, a long meeting table with cushioned rolling chairs and a fridge full of water and sodas.
We were given the OK to leave for the night.
Tuesday: After being sworn in, we listened to the opening statements from each attorney, which were one of the few times that they actually stood up to speak — something completely different from what I’ve seen on TV shows like “Suits.” I was fully expecting that each attorney would stand up, walk around and ask questions, while purposefully looking at us (the jury) to get their point across.
We heard from two law enforcement officials and the victim that day. The evidence that was presented to us was purely testimonies. The victim, who was a child at the time that the alleged incident occurred, was emotional during her testimony. Her emotions were swaying me to her side toward the end of the day.
Being a journalist, I wish I had a notepad to write everything down. It was a challenge to keep up at times.
Wednesday: The judge deemed this day to be “moving day,” which is apparently a golf term for those who know anything about the sport. Basically, it was the day that we were going to push through to get everything done — a relief since we were originally told that they expected for us to finish on Thursday.
We were in the final day of testimonies. We heard from various people associated with the case, including the victim’s father, grandmother, two of her stepsisters and her stepbrother; we also heard from law enforcement from the day prior and an expert witness.
We were released for several 5, 10 and 15-minute recesses on that Wednesday, which was definitely more than the day before. Anytime that counsel (attorneys) wanted to speak to the judge, or vice versa, it was often easier to do it during a recess.
Following several breaks, including an hour-long lunch, we were escorted to the jury room for what seemed to be nearly two hours for those in the courtroom to finalize their closing statements. Each attorney had about 30 minutes or so to give their closing statements to us, again being the only time that they stood up in front of the jury box.
We were then sent to the jury room again for us to deliberate. Once we got to the room, some of the jurors went to the restroom, grabbed snacks or sat down immediately and chatted with everyone. It was up to us how long we were going to take to make our decision, but it had to be unanimous.
After an hour or so, we came to the decision that the defendant was not guilty because we did not have sufficient evidence to say otherwise. Coming into the trial, I thought one thing but afterwards, when it was time to decide a verdict, I thought something completely different.
I am happy with my overall experience serving on this jury. I learned a little more about our judicial and court system.
I also learned that jury duty is nothing like what is displayed on TV shows and movies, at least in my case. There wasn’t anybody who stood up screaming after the verdict was delivered; the foreperson (head juror) did not read the verdict aloud, the judge did; and the trial length was shorter than expected.
Navarro is the editor for the Hays Free Press/News-Dispatch. She can be reached at email@example.com.