Issue: April, 2007
Author: Mary Angell
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A Juror’s Oath – A Juror’s Responsibility
“You do solemnly swear you will well and truly try and a true deliverance make between the People of the State of Wyoming and the Defendant at the Bar, So Help You God?”
The only people who speak ill of serving on a jury are those who have never served. At least that’s the opinion of a retired financial consultant who served as a juror in a murder trial in Laramie County about seven years ago.
“It was a great experience,” Ed Osborne told the Wyoming Lawyer. “I’ll never forget it as long as I live. I’ve never talked with anyone who has been on a jury who wouldn’t do it again.”
Osborne said there’s no such thing as a boring case. “When you go into jury deliberation, you know you have the fate of that defendant right in your hands,” he said. “You know you have the justice of a victim in your hands.”
In an effort to recognize the importance of the jury system, the Wyoming Lawyer spoke with Osborne and others about their experiences as jurors. Most said while their jury duty was challenging, they came away from it with a greater understanding of America’s judicial system and renewed faith that justice is usually served in its courts.
“I think it was an awesome process to be a part of," said Jennifer Gore, a juror in the 2006 Aaron E. Smith murder trial in Second Judicial District Court. “I would love to do it again for a different trial.”
Laramie County Clerk of District Court Gerrie Bishop said people are usually positive about their jury experiences. “Jurors are so apprehensive about it, but once they serve, they feel they have had an educational experience. They are not so frightened of it,” she said. “They learn a lot about the court.”
The selection process is a source of anxiety for potential jurors who either fear they will be selected or worry that they won’t.
“My dad is a cop. I thought ‘There’s no way I’ll get picked,’” said Gore, who added she had other reasons to doubt she would be selected to serve on the Smith trial. “I actually work with the defendant’s son’s grandmother,” she said. “His ex-wife works right across the hall from me. It’s a very small world.”
Ed Osborne recalls being in the jury pool numerous times, but each time it would be a federal case, usually involving drugs. “I’d tell them I served 32 years in the Air Force, and the defense attorney would kick me off. I guess they feel like military people have no tolerance for drugs.”
Of course, there are those who make up excuses or even lie to get out of jury duty.
“I’m sure that happens all the time,” Bishop said.
She said people who ask to be excused because their religious convictions prevent them from passing judgment on others are immediately dismissed. Because it’s impossible to determine whether a person’s excuse is sincere or contrived, one may question whether the jury system still works as it was intended. Bishop says it does; her staff works hard to review potential jurors’ excuses under the requirements of Wyoming Statute 1-11-104.
But the courts’ diligence in evaluating excuses doesn’t stop people from trying to get out of jury duty.
“One time I went down (in the pool) and the case was a bank fraud,” Osborne said. “One guy said, ‘I hate bankers. I don’t think I could be unbiased.’ Sometimes I think they make up little things they know will get them excused.”
Other potential jurors want the opportunity to serve so badly they hope they’ll be selected despite potential biases.
Because the defense in Smith’s trial planned to argue he was not guilty by reason of mental illness, jurors in the pool were asked whether they had any relatives with a mental illness. One juror, Michael Hanschen, indicated that his brother, now deceased, was paranoid schizophrenic. Asked if he thought that would impair his ability to be objective, Hanschen said he thought it would likely make him more sensitive to Smith’s condition. More pertinent to the case, however, was his fierce opposition to the use of the insanity plea, which was not revealed.
“During the jury selection, I was sitting next to a person who was a psychologist. (She was not selected.) I whispered to her, ‘Are they saying the jury is going to be asked to decide whether the person is mentally ill?’ and she said, ‘Yes, I think so,’” said Hanschen.
“At that point, I actually wanted to be on the jury,” he said. “I answered the questions honestly. I confess I had a bias that I didn’t believe the insanity plea should rule out guilt, but they didn’t ask me that question point blank. Perhaps they should have.”
Once selected for the jury, average citizens face a setting most likely unfamiliar to them.
“I had no idea what to expect," said Donna Porter*, another juror in the Smith trial. “I had never experienced a jury trial in my life, other than watching them on T.V.”
Many Americans develop their perceptions of courtroom proceedings from movies and television shows, but at least one of the jurors who spoke with the Wyoming Lawyer said he was relieved that reality did not parallel fiction.
Osborne served as foreman in the Laramie County murder trial of a Cheyenne man convicted of the stabbing death of a romantic rival. As he entered the jury room to begin deliberation, he was thinking of the classic Henry Fonda movie “12 Angry Men.”
“I thought, ‘Oh my God, we’re going to have 12 angry people.’ But no one was railroaded a bit,” he said. “Everybody said how they felt when we voted, and everybody said he was guilty. Everybody was so conscientious. They wanted to make sure the victim got the proper justice, but they also wanted to make sure the defendant was properly given a fair trail.”
“I’d never known how the jury deliberation system worked,” he added. “To be foreman the first time in a trial, a murder trial, and have this guy’s whole future in our hands was an awesome responsibility.”
Weighing the evidence is a challenge, jurors said, particularly when the prosecution and defense both present strong arguments.
“During the whole trial, you keep changing your mind. You have to fight to keep an open mind,” Osborne said. “When the prosecutor does his questioning, you think, ‘He’s definitely guilty.’ Then the defense gets up and shoots holes in things and you start thinking, ‘I’m not sure.’ Well, saying ‘I’m not sure’ is the same as a reasonable doubt.”
Porter said she took notes during the opening arguments, then reviewed them at the end of the trial to ascertain whether the prosecution and defense had provided adequate evidence to support each point.
“The most difficult thing I experienced was day to day as we went through the trial, I was always wondering, is he guilty or not?” she said. “Really, at night I found it hard to sleep because I couldn’t put it to rest. I personally didn’t make a decision until all the evidence was presented with the closing arguments and we were sent upstairs to decide.”
Most of the jurors interviewed said they believe justice is usually served in America, although one believes there is plenty of room for improvement in its judicial system. After his experience on the jury for the Smith trial, Hanschen not only opposes the insanity plea, but also questions the wisdom of requiring the jury to determine the defendant’s sanity when licensed psychologists are unable to agree on the subject.
All of the jurors believe a jury of one’s peers is effective in administering justice.
“Overall, I was pretty impressed with the whole process,” said Mike Lockhart, another juror on the Smith trial. “I have learned that we have a criminal justice system that works pretty well. It may be pretty big and cumbersome, but there’s a lot of protection for people out there who are accused of something.”
The attorneys on both sides of the case did an exceptional job of presenting information and testimonies for the jury to consider, he said.
“When you get basic people off the street and provide them with that kind of information and background,” Lockhart said, “I think the right thing usually happens.”
* Some names have been changed to maintain anonymity.
Mary Angell is a freelance writer from Cheyenne, Wyoming, and a frequent contributor to the Wyoming Lawyer.
Copyright © 2007 – Wyoming State Bar