I arrived a little later than I’d planned, the roads and a travelling husband slowed my progress. As I made my way through the “security” at the courthouse, there were a number of prospective jurors checking in. “Follow this hall to the elevators and go up two floors” the police officer checking our summons kept repeating. I asked if I could take the stairs, and there were silent stares, as if I had three heads. Does no one take the stairs anymore?
I check in, needing to give my address and place of employment. The girl taking my information laughs when I tell her where I work and what I do. While I know that serving on a jury is necessary in a criminal justice system which allows an accused to elect a trial by a jury of his peers, I know I’ll never get selected. I have spent the bulk of my adult life providing support to victims of crime, victims of violent crime. I believe the victim, often when no one else does. Given this knowledge, today presents me with a great opportunity to observe those around me.
When I first entered the jury room, I worried that I had arrived late and the hundred or so people in the room already would be called before me. I was relieved to learn that there was no priority given to those who arrive early, and thought that I might yet be finished quickly. The room was about two thirds full, mostly older middle aged white people. It’s been my experience that Ottawa has a great mix of ethnicities, but this was not evident here. Thinking back to what I’d learned about jury selection all those years ago, I wondered if this would bear out in the ethnic make-up of the panel.
Very few people are talking to each other, making nothing more than small talk. You’d think that there would be one or two people who know each other in this room of randomly selected individuals, but it doesn’t appear to be the case. Instead they read (including at least one lady who is reading a “Chicken Soup…” book) or stare at their screens. I look around and see that there are three seats in the room next to power outlets, and all of them are empty. Don’t these people know that this will be a long day? That their devices will die? I grab one of the seats and plug in.
When we are all assembled, the court officer tries to sell the jury process on us. There are many questions, including one about the order in which we are called. She tells us they write our names on cards, throw them in a drum and shake it up. It’s very old school. She continues her script, and there is an audible buzz when she reveals that it is a criminal matter, anticipated to start tomorrow and last six weeks. Now everyone wants to be let go.
We are moved to a courtroom where the lawyers and accused are present. The accused is a woman, and I immediately wonder what she did. Knowing the length of the trial, I surmise that she is charged with murder. We are about to find out, and all rise as the judge is brought in. He goes over, in great detail, the procedures for the selection, emphasizing that we must, above all, be impartial. It’s a murder trial.
The first group of twenty people is called to stand before the judge. They are given the opportunity to explain why they should be excused, and many offer reasons. Some are accepted without comment, others are not. The most common excuses are for personal or financial hardship. There are a few with travel plans or medical appointments. Two women are pregnant and will have given birth before the conclusion of the trial.
Some reasons for dismissal make the courtroom laugh, such as the juror who doesn’t like going out in the winter, and asks if she can come back and serve in the summer; or the person who claims that five people will have to come back from holidays (right now) if he is not able to return to work; or the person who asks if the trial can be moved a week to accommodate her sister-in-law, who is visiting from out of town. In the end, they too are dismissed, and the group is narrowed to ten. These prospective jurors are presented to the Crown and Defense, who accept or reject them, no justification or reasons permitted. Few are accepted by both.
More groups are called, and the process moves along quickly. Almost one hundred people are vetted in the first hour. Of these, nine are empaneled on the jury. With thirty people left eligible for selection, the judge suggests a break for twenty minutes. Knowing that most of us are mere minutes from freedom leads to a few groans from the crowd, but we take the break. It goes long, and we are eventually let back into the courtroom to wait for the judge. The attorneys from both sides chat together as they wait, not realizing that their mics are on, and the remaining jurors in the courtroom can hear them mocking some of the excuses given in the previous session. My seatmate and I discuss whether we should let them know that the mics are on, but decide against it for the entertainment value.
There are ten people left in the seats when my number is called. I line up and wait to address the judge. When he indicates that it is my turn, I say that I cannot be impartial and explain why.
I am excused.