I the Jury (Not)

By Louise Ure




Today I am not the jury. But that wasn’t the case four weeks ago. At the end of March, I appeared for a jury summons and joined about three hundred of my fellow San Franciscans in a massive effort to lie, cheat or steal our way out of doing our public service.

We were told that this would be a long case — two and a half to four months — and that the only excuses for hardship were:

  • taking care of a child or elderly relative at home
  • being a student with a daytime class schedule
  • having vacation plans in place for which you could show that you already had purchased nonrefundable tickets

About fifty people said they were free to serve and were released for the day and told to return in two weeks. The rest of us — poor schmucks who thought that not being able to make a living for four months was hardship — remained in place to plead our case. The Court Clerk dispensed with our excuses at a dizzying pace. “That’s not a hardship, that’s an inconvenience.” “Sorry, your employer is on record as paying your salary during jury service.” “Taking care of a sick dog at home is not a medical emergency.”

Almost two hundred of us were told to return to the courtroom in two weeks time. I wasn’t worried. What were the odds my name would be called? One in fifteen? And what were the odds that the lawyers would then want a mystery writer on the jury? One in a hundred?

But then the odds all went wobbly. They called my name and for the next four days I was potential juror number five in a cold case murder trial from 1984.

The seats emptied and refilled around me. They got rid of the homeless guy who lived in Golden Gate Park and the San Quentin prison guard. They replaced them with an Asian retiree who spoke English so badly that he just answered “yes” to everything, and an ex-District Attorney. They booted the Catholic priest who said he could never sit in judgement of anyone (huh? I thought that’s what they did for a living) but they kept the  mystery writer in the back row.

They had lots of questions for me, of course. “Do your books focus on a particular crime?” the judge asked. “Murders,” I said, sure that that was the super-secret Abracadabra word to get me off the jury. She simply nodded.

“Can you tell the difference between what goes on here in the courtroom and what you write when you go home?” the prosecuting attorney asked. “Can you tell the difference between what you do in the courtroom all day and when you go home to watch Law & Order?” I answered.

They wanted to know how I did research. I told them about field trips and expert advisors and learning about DNA and blood spatters and bullet wounds and fingerprints and police procedures. For some ungodly reason, they still thought I was the ideal juror.

Now, I’m not entirely against jury service. I’ve done it four times before and would do it again, but this time it felt like a big ask. I’m already avoiding writing. Why would I want to take on a four month full time job, pay ten dollars a day for parking and have to buy lunch out — all for the princely sum of $11.66 a day in jury service fees? It felt like an unnecessary delay in getting on with the rest of my life.

But it was truly an interesting case; one I think I would have been pretty good at understanding and evaluating. (I looked up the details online days later.) A 27-year old murder case. Matching DNA and blood data found in 2006. A scandal plagued criminalist who had been given immunity to testify. What’s not to like?

What finally got me off the jury? Jan Burke and the Crime Lab Project.

“Are you a member of any law and order or justice related group?” the judge asked. “The ACLU,” juror number four said. “Neighborhood Watch,” number eleven replied.

“The Crime Lab Project,” I said, telling them about the nonprofit organization dedicated to increasing public awareness of the problems facing public forensic science. We fight for better forensic science — for funding, for education, for responsibility and honor among criminalists. (If you aren’t already a member of CLP, I urge you to join immediately. Not only is it a worthy cause, but Jan’s summary emails with forensic news are the best “idea starters” in the world.)

Now, just imagine that a person who belongs to the Crime Lab Project organization is going to be evaluating a case where a disreputable forensic specialist who was convicted of stealing cocaine was going to testify. It was like clicking my heels three times and saying, “There’s no place like home.” In the blink of an eye, the prosecuting attorney stood and said, “Juror number five is thanked and excused.”

Thank you, Jan!

But my ‘Rati pals … what would you have done? Would you have wanted to be on that jury?

35 thoughts on “I the Jury (Not)

  1. Reine

    Hi Louise… still trying to stop laughing about your Catholic priest, not sitting in judgment, comment! All those childhood hours sitting in the box, "Bless me father for I have sinned. It has been one week since my last confession, I accuse myself of having impure thoughts 17 times, lying 22 times, disobeying the teacher 159 times…," hahahahaha!

    Steve has served on 12 juries since we were married. Our kids have served on juries. Auntie-Mom and Uncle Bouffard have been on juries in twelve states. All four of my grandparents served on juries. I have never been summoned – not once.

  2. Sarah W

    I was called to jury duty last year. There were two cases, one murder and one civil malpractice.

    It turned out that the physician being sued was my old GYN-OB (which frankly, didn't surprise me). I was dismissed after the first question, but had to hang around in case I was needed for the other case.

    After the initial instructions, they took twelve people a at a time for interviews. I was never called in,though the people who were dismissed were nice enough to tell me the kinds of questions they were asked.

    So i didn't get to serve, but I took notes. And since I was there the entire day, I'd brought my WIP. I finished a chapter and outlined the next two. So I can't say it was a waste of time.

  3. Alafair Burke

    Unfortunately I will never be allowed as a juror, especially on a criminal case, given my prosecutor turned law prof status but I think I'd like it …once.

  4. Thomas Pluck

    (Un)fortunately for me, I know enough good and bad cops who've committed both heroic and vile acts, and enough people who've been arrested and convicted both reasonably and unreasonably, that I only have to worry about civil court cases.

    I'd love to sit on a case. Who doesn't like to mete out judgment? When the punishment is Our Fathers and Hail Mary's, it doesn't weigh so heavily on the conscience. I'd hate to have to judge someone who came from a cage of whipped dogs and victimized an innocent person. I know how easy it is to go bad. I know how hard it is to go right, after you've been branded by the foolish mistakes of youth that can never be undone. I hope I'd be Henry Fonda, in 12 Angry Men, if that were the case. And I hope if the case of guilt were more cut and dry, that I could sentence him to life in the animal factory, as Ed Bunker called it. But I just don't know. Maybe that doubt would make me a better juror than someone so sure of themselves. If I ever get tapped for it, and my past experiences don't preclude me, I'll let you know.

  5. Dana King

    I've been called for jury duty a few times, never selected to serve. I don;t think I'd like the responsibility–especially in a murder case–but I'd do it, in only for karma. I hate the idea that I could be on a jury of my alleged peers that really consisted of people who had nothing better to do, or were too dumb to find a way out. I think I deserve better than that, and so does everyone else, victims and defendants included.

  6. Tammy Cravit

    As someone who can't presently serve on a jury (though, my Application for Naturalization is pending now, so in 9 months or so that'll change), I've never faced the issue head-on. My spouse has been called for jury duty a couple of times, but so far has been excused because of a medical issue.

    Honestly, I think I'd enjoy being on a jury, but I doubt it'll ever happen. Defense attorneys don't seem to like those with legal training on their juries, from what I hear, and both the fact that I'm starting a new career as a mediator and conflict facilitator, and the fact that I hold a certificate in paralegal studies and have worked as a paralegal would probably weigh against me. That, and the fact that I volunteered for seven years as a rape crisis advocate.

    But it'll be interesting to see what happens.

  7. Louise Ure

    Reine, I think your family has done all the public service it needs to. You're excused. (And I apologize for mis-spelling judgment.)

    Sarah, I don't know where you live, but it would be weird to be asked to sit in either/or a civil or criminal case. Here in San Francisco they're in different buildings, so you know in advance what kind of case it is.

    Alafair, I think you'd make a better judge than juror.

  8. Louise Ure

    Thomas, it sounds like you've lived a full life. I have no doubt that you'd be a better juror than one so sure and righteous.

    Dana, your comment reminds me of the juror sitting next to me who said, "It's only four months out of my life, but could be the rest of his. It's important to do this right."

    I think you're free from jury service, Tammy. But you'd be good at it.

  9. Irene Vernardis

    Quote: "“Can you tell the difference between what you do in the courtroom all day and when you go home to watch Law & Order?” I answered." > LOL, that was brilliantly answered (wiping tears)

    I've never been summoned for jury. And frankly, I wouldn't want to be. I would be analyzing every detail so much that I would drive everyone crazy, including myself 😀

    Thank you for an interesting post 🙂

  10. Sarah W


    I live in a small Illinois county with a single "Justice Building" (county records are maintained in the "County Building"). If it helps, the different trials were on different floors . . .

  11. Murderati fan

    Honestly, I think for the most part we try the law rather than the person. The only jury I would really be interested in sitting on would be in one of your books. How fun could that be!! And creepy. Probably my best chance of meeting a man.

    I used to look for tall dark rich and available; now I look for good insurance and pension. Ah a reflection of the age.

    There is nothing better than starting the day with one of your posts. It’s amazing how funny you write…or deeply sensitive…or highly introspective…or keenly observant and always insightful and entertaining.

    Does it help during the selection process of you chant “Judge not that you may not be judged” while running the rosary beads through your fingers?

  12. Louise Ure

    Irene, your attention to detail is what the defense is usually counting on!

    Sarah, I like your Illinois system. You're part of the "jury pool," not just being called in on a specific case.

    Murderati fan, the only guys you'd be likely to meet in my fictional courtrooms are date rapists, kidnappers and murderers. Stick with your pensioners.

  13. Kane Gilmour

    I got called for Jury Duty once. As it happened, I was going to be out of the country in Sri Lanka. I called them up and told them so. Even offered to do it for a different set of dates. They said they'd call back but I never heard from them again. Moral: if you want to Jury-Duty dodge, travel abroad. Best excuse ever. Plus, you get to travel.

  14. Louise Ure

    Kane, it sounds like your city is not as hard up for jurors as mine. In San Francisco, if you can't make the date they've summoned you, you're allowed to set another date within six months. But it's only a one-time get-out-of-jury-service-free card. You can't reschedule a second time.

  15. Allison Davis

    Louise, I've done lots of jury trials, and only once sat in a jury pool, where I knew all of the lawyers. I went to the plaintiffs' lawyer and said he should excuse me (it was in cases and against lawyers I regularly tried) and he said no. So, I started chatting with the other jurors, because I couild and gossiped about the lawyers. I was out of there in about 10 minutes. Funny. In SF, we actually have lots of lawyers sit on juries — because they get paid and most of the time it's fine (Alafair, you could find yourself on an asbestos trial here, regardless of your background)…

    But thanks for reminding me about the Crime Lab project…meant to join, slipped my mind.

  16. David Corbett


    Ah yes, the old conundrum — those with the life experience or intelligence to be truly good jurors get bounced promptly and summarily. You lasted longer than most with your background. I always get dinged — know too many defense lawyers (and their clients) and cops to make a comfy fit for either side.

    But you reminded me of the Top Five Rules for Negotiating the Legal System that we devised when I worked as a PI.

    1. Money buys justice.

    2. Never take what the client says at face value.

    3. Don’t so much as pick up the phone on a case until the retainer’s cleared the bank.

    4. Inside the courtroom the rules of gravity no longer apply.

    And, of most relevance to today’s topic:

    5. God save me from a jury of my peers.

    Great post, Ms. Ure. Gee, I’ll bet you’re a writer.

  17. Louise Ure

    Allison, you're dangerous.

    But not as scary as David's Rules. They are, alas, sad but true.

  18. Reine

    Louise, I always misspell judgment. My autospeller picks it up before I know what I'm doing, and sometimes that can be humorous. Like the other day I was emailing someone at Medicare about a billing – ahem – error. Instead of "falsity" my autospeller wrote "falsies," and I didn't notice until I saw the response: "You have a breast prosthesis?"

  19. pari noskin taichert

    I was called for jury duty last summer and didn't make it past the voir dire. The trial was for a doctor who'd been accused of writing illegal prescriptions. The DEA was involved heavily in her arrest.

    When asked if anyone had opinions on the war on drugs, I couldn't lie. I told the judge that I thought it was an utter failure.

    Click. Click. Click.

    What amazes me though is that our parking was provided, lunches and food would be too, and we got paid more per day than you mentioned. All that in little ol' Albuquerque.

  20. Louise Ure

    Reine, your "falsies" auto-correct is a howl!

    Pari, I'll bet most small and mid-size towns treat their jurors better than big cities. But you would have been a good juror.

  21. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    I've been a juror on a murder trial and it was one of the best experiences of my life. I would love to do it again. However, there's no way I could afford a four-month detour from putting 100% into my next book. I've been to the LA Crime Lab with Jan and it's an absolutely worthy cause. Now I've got an even better reason to become a member.

  22. Reine

    The first time my husband was called for jury duty in California, we were sure he wouldn't get past voir dire. When asked if he had any connection to law inforcement, he said that I was a patrol officer in Kern County. No one had a problem with that, however, and he was on the jury for a drug dealer. I am still surprised.

  23. David Corbett

    Reine — they are so desperate for jurors in California I'm surprised they don't take pets. (It could hardly hurt, given some of the juries I've seen.)

  24. Reine

    David…aaashahahaha! Yes! As a cop, I only had to appear in court once. I wasn't a cop very long, because I decided to go back to school and study law but soon realized I wasn't really suited to that and switched my interest to psychology. But the one court experience I had was just awful. It was just a traffic offense, speeding 10 mph over. I was surprised at having to be there, but when I walked in I saw the girl, a teenager, and her father – my husband's department head. He said hello. She was all upset and crying. The judge sent her to traffic school. And silly me felt bad. Several years later she was at a party I attended, and I told her I felt bad, because she had to go to a special traffic school that lasted several weeks and caused her to drop out of her school activities for the semester. I know speeding is serious, and teen years are critical and all that, bit it just seemed harsh. I also think school activities are very important for kids. She gave me a huge hug and said thanks, that it really had helped, and she learned a lot. She'd been upset, because it was her first ticket, and her father had to take time off to be there. Wow… one good moment in cophood.

  25. David Corbett

    Reine: I think you made a wise choice moving on from law enforcement. You sound like far too much of a softie to wield the big stick. We find our ways to our true vocations through interesting detours along the way. Yours sound particularly intriguing — and well spent.

  26. Louise Ure

    I agree, David. Reine sounds like she found her calling. (And Reine, that court case must have been difficult for you.)

  27. KDJames

    I'd love to serve on a jury but I've never been asked. I suspect they know I'd be likely to interrupt the proceedings and ask questions of my own. I'm not even kidding. I imagine it ending… badly.

    When we lived in GA, my then-husband was summoned to serve on a grand jury. They sent a sheriff's deputy to our house to serve the summons in person. When I saw him park his Official Vehicle in the driveway and stride up the sidewalk, my first thought was that he was coming to tell me someone had been killed in an accident. "No ma'am," he said. My husband wasn't home and the deputy was extremely serious in a very badass way and refused to tell me why he needed to talk to him. Bastard. Said he'd come back later and asked when was a good time. Let me tell you, of all the horrible terrible scary no-good-can-come-of-this thoughts that went through my writerly brain in the interim, a summons for grand jury duty was never even a glimmer of possibility.

  28. Reine

    David… Louise… Heh. Yes, it was! The law, in any of its incarnations, is definitely not me. I love the other spots I've found, though. Oh, and my kids would disagree on the softie eval – not that they have any idea what a tough parent is, or anything.

  29. Sylvia

    There are specific cases where I wish I were on the jury. In general, I would like to perform jury duty. Alas, I'm either excused the night before (not calling juries that day) or I go and the nature of the case (financial/securities or drunk driving) and I'm excused (had my securities license for years so know more than they want me to; had a family friend who was 9 mo. pregnant with twins killed by a drunk driver).

    I'm willing, able and even if it weren't a financial/securities or drunk driving case I would likely be tossed.

    It really is annoying that most of the time I see people selected who can't read, barely speak the language or look like I couldn't trust them with making a substitution on my grocery list let alone help settle a legal matter.

    As far as I'm concerned – they should flippin' pay for parking. No parking, no serving.

  30. Sylvia

    ok – here is my other rant. I honestly believe they should have potential jurors provide some form of a work and education history and then give a pop quiz. Nothing too difficult but weed out the cruft who really don't have comprehension skills. If you find the test hard, you can't serve. You try and cheat??? Well, Mr. PhD, how is it you can't pass a simple little test? We think you cheated – you're serving. ha ha ha.

  31. Louise Ure

    KD, they serve grand jury summons in person? Yikes. If I saw that sheriff, I'd think I was being arrested.

    Reine, kids always think their parents are too strict.

    Sylvia, you would scare the bejesus out of the attorneys. How about an essay question for potential jurors? "Why I would be a good juror on this case." That could be very revealing.

  32. Kirsten

    I sympathize. I have called for jury duty twice and both times I was disqualified for one reason. I was asked if I was inclined to accepting the police's testimony. I respect the police in our community and said yes. Once they asked me if I was angry at the police for being pulled over for speeding. I said "No. Why would I? It's his job. I WAS speeding."

    Three EMTs were disqualified because they worked sometimes with said police. It's very disgusting that I am not allowed to serve because I respect police officers.

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