Thursday, September 15, 2011

What You Really Need to Know Upon Being Summoned For Jury Duty

Reflections of a criminal lawyer trying to get on a jury
James L. Paisley

I got summoned! I write this as I sit in the jury gathering room. It appears there are a couple hundred of us, and I believe I am the only person here that would rather be here. I mean that. I’ve been a public defender, a prosecutor, and now a private defense attorney and love what I do for a living. In my opinion there is no better person suited for a jury than myself, but any lawyer that picked me as a juror would be an idiot. I myself would never let a practicing criminal lawyer sit on my jury – way too risky.

The jury room is quiet, large, and full of those like myself that are summoned for their civic duty. Nobody talks to each other, and most of us appear to be working from the Fulton County Courthouse. If you get that summons the best thing you can do is be prepared. Along with no talking, there is a lot of waiting and doing absolutely nothing. They ask you to arrive at 8:00 A.M., and right now it is 9:52 A.M. and not a single person has had their name called to go into a courtroom. I see people with books, magazines, iPads, and very active thumbs texting on their smart phones. If you have a smart phone and like to text, bring your charger. At this rate the happy texters will be out of battery juice by . On the jury summons, they tell you to bring a light jacket in the event you get chilly, and that’s great advice, but generally it’s pretty warm with so many people in the room at once.

Enough about being prepared; Most people I know that get summoned for jury duty are not excited. They think about the work they are missing and their kids they need to pick up at a certain time. Then they find out they are only getting a $25 check for their service--how insulting. They might as well not even pay you. At least then you might feel like you volunteered for an important public service. Many good people for good reasons detest the idea of spending a day, a week, or even longer on a jury. They will ask me “what should I say to make sure they don’t pick me?” The right answer that I am supposed to give you is “just be honest with the questions and answer all the questions to the best of your ability – candor is most appreciated during jury selection.” My friends know me better than that, and they will dig deeper.

I have heard many opinions on what the average person thinks they can say to escape the actual trial. There is the 30 Rock strategy with Liz Lemon dressed as a Star Wars character telling the Judge that she is delusional. Her effort was fruitless last time she tried it. I have heard other friends try to ramble on about their many encounters with law enforcement to embellishing levels. Even in Georgia, responses to questions that indicate you tend to believe a person wearing a uniform and a badge might be more credible than someone not wearing one will not automatically strike you from a panel. My sweet, adorable sister even once said she would just consult God as her legal advisor in rendering a verdict. Although she was not selected, her response alone would not automatically excuse her in some Georgia courts. If you make ridiculous embellished answers to questions, the judges and lawyers see through it. They know you don’t want to be there. They might follow up with questions that rehabilitate you to force the other lawyer to use one of their few strikes as a tactical decision. In some jury trials I have done, I have personally seen very choice attire given the occasion. One of my trials, a young gentleman wore a black T-shirt with nothing but a noose on the front. The judge kept him on the jury as a third alternate with no intention of ever letting him deliberate even if a third alternate was needed. The young man sat on that trial for two days, stuck listening to us boring lawyers litigate. Be tasteful about your wardrobe selection.

In my lawyerly opinion there is one sure way to get excused from jury duty. A potential juror would just about always (nothing is guaranteed in law) be stricken from a panel if something along these lines came from his mouth: “Based on the circumstances I have been through in my life and what I know about this case and this Defendant right now, I cannot be fair or impartial in this case.” They might ask you to explain, but if you explain, stand strong and insist on your inability to be fair and impartial, it would be “reversible error” to not strike you for cause from the panel. According to case law, rehabilitating a potential juror after those remarks is almost impossible. It sounds so simple and trivial but those are the magic words. Of course, my advice to everyone is to be truthful with the Court, but I believe nobody can be completely fair and impartial. It’s a lofty goal but we are all human.

I digress… My jury experience ended uneventfully today. I was called up to a civil/non-criminal trial and was quite thankful I was not picked on a car accident case where the Plaintiff was representing herself. Typically I love a good train wreck but this was a time bomb. The Defendant’s lawyer was polished and the panel loved him. The Plaintiff didn’t ask us a single question. She had dozens of medications and medical documents on her table, which I knew she had no idea how to present into evidence. Most of the panel including myself thought she was a fool. I heard a judge once tell a Defendant who wanted to represent themselves, “he who represents himself, has a fool for a lawyer.”

I guess I wasn’t so fair and impartial after all. –JLP

James L. Paisley is the owner of The Paisley Law Group, L.L.C. located in Marietta, GA. He practices in the metro Atlanta area in the areas of criminal law including DUI’s, traffic citations, federal crimes, drug cases, and all other criminal matters. For more information about his practice please visit