Answering the Call of Duty

One man’s experience of being called to serve Jury duty.

Wait, what the hell is that?

Jury duty, in the Republic of Ireland, is where, as a citizen of the country, you may be called to serve on a jury in a court of law. You sit and hear a case in the court and then after deliberations and discussions with your fellow jurors, your aim is to reach consensus on a verdict for the case (guilty/not guilty). It sounds so simple but it proved to be anything but.

As a member of the jury, you sit in the court while a case is being tried. You hear from the prosecution (the people bringing the case to the court), the alleged victims, the defense and the accused. You often get several instructions from the judge presiding over the case also but these mostly relate to the jury’s responsibilities in the context of the court case – listen, debate and deliver a verdict to the court. In this case, we also heard from medical professionals and members of the police.

While I won’t go into detailed specifics about this case, I will say it was a violent assault case that took place several years previously but due to a backlog in court cases arising from covid-19, is only being heard now.

I had very little expectations going into this process. Indeed this was the first time I had ever been called to serve on a jury, ever. Every single person that I spoke to about this, that had been called up from the general public, not one of them were ever selected to actually serve on a jury in a case. To ensure randomization, most people initially called were dismissed that morning, once a group of twelve people had been successfully empaneled. On the way to the court on that first morning, in the knowledge that more than likely I will simply be dismissed by lunchtime, I verbally committed to the universe to remain open to the experience ahead and if selected, I committed to doing my best. A simple thing to do, yet afterwards I had a strange feeling of contentment or maybe alignment that I was doing exactly what I was supposed to be doing that day.

Let me back up a bit and start from the start. It all starts with a letter through your postbox indicating that you have been summoned to serve on a jury on this date in this court. On that day, I showed up in the court, along with about sixty other people. We were greeted by jury minders, people who’s job it is to look after those selected from the general public to serve on a jury. On arrival, I was checked in and shown to a large open plan room to take a seat. I was actually pretty excited here at this point but after about two hours of sitting there with very little going on, my excitement started to wane a bit. Just then, all the wall mounted tv’s came to life with a live feed from a courtroom. I could feel everyone perking up from their slouched seating positions in anticipation of this thing kicking off and there was a nervous energy in the air. The judge informed us of the likely running order for the day and that jury selection will start shortly. Call disconnected, that’s it, tv’s are back to black.

We did not have to wait long for another spike of adrenaline. Soon after the tv’s sparked back into life, with the same courtroom except this time in wide angle view we could see the accused and their legal team in shot. The judge requested a plea from the accused to which they responded “not guilty”. It was showtime. The court registrar began to randomly select names from a drum. The first six or seven names were selected and those people made their way from the waiting room to the court. Each one were asked to approach the front of the court and take an oath by placing their hand over the bible (or refer if the bible was an issue). Bear in mind this was a case of assault on a female, and there were three females in the first group called up. Each one was dismissed by the defense by using what they call a “challenge” which basically means they don’t like the look of you and don’t want you on the jury. They can do this seven times only. Interesting strategy though right?

When my name was called out by the registrar, I was quietly not surprised, although I should have been given that there were sixty people to choose from that day. The next part seemed like an out of body experience, as I entered the court, walked up, swore my oath with my hand on the bible and took my place amongst the jurors. My heart was pounding with nervous excitement and energy.

Assembling the remaining jury took some time as the defense executed all seven challenges and more and more people were called up from the waiting room, but eventually the twelve were in place. The trial began the next day and continued for several days as we heard the evidence presented in the case, witness statements, statements from the prosecution and the alleged victim. The defense chose to remain silent for the entire case. The plea of “not guilty” that was made on day one were the only two words we ever heard from the accused the entire time. I am aware that they were most likely acting on direction from their barristers but to me if I was innocent, I would state that loud and clear and explain why I am innocent. Their silence raised more questions than answers for this jury.

Once we had heard the case and all the evidence, the judge instructed the jury to retire to the jury room and begin deliberations to reach a verdict of guilty or not guilty based on what we had seen and heard.

This is where the rubber hits the road in so many cases. Achieving a consensus amongst twelve people is not easy, especially when there are lots of things you simply do not know about what happened. We deliberated back and forth on many aspects of the case. As with any group, there are people that will come to the fore and those that recede to the shadows. The debates went on for hours and by the end the day, we were all mentally and physically exhausted.

Each day loosely followed the same pattern and at various different intervals the judge called us in to see if we had made a decision and if not, are we making progress. At this point the jury was split 8/4 in favor of guilty but strong arguments hung in the air from the not guilty side. Like the tobacco industry, the defense had chosen a strategy of “doubt is our product” by remaining completely silent rather than providing the jury with clarity and honesty in the face of the accusations, a decision which this jury picked apart at great length in discussions. On the day when the trial was expected to conclude, we were still hung at 8/4 even with some people switching sides over night.

I requested from the group that we hear from the rest of the table as the same few people were talking most of the time, but we needed to hear from some of the quieter members of the not guilty group. One guy stood up, let’s call him Peter and spoke about how on the fence he was about this decision, outlining with amazing clarity his current state of mind and what is influencing his current verdict. He outlined some points that had not been discussed before, points which actually made some of the remaining not guilty gang sit up a bit taller in their seats. By the time he was finished, I think we were done. He had talked himself and the rest of the group into a final decision. I could sense a change in the air and I suggested we move to another revote, but before we do, have a hard think on this and make your decision (the sub text here was this was going to be the final decision we make).

8 to 4 slipped to 11 to 1 in the blink of an eye and a guilty verdict was reached. There was audible gasps in the room and an unbelievable sense of a weight lifted. A brief discussion was had but we were all acutely aware that we needed to register this verdict now before someone opened up the discussion floor once more. That was it, that was how it played out in the hidden rooms of a jury deliberating on a verdict in a trial.

To conclude, we were summoned once more to the court to deliver our verdict. As “guilty” was being read out, everyone on the jury watched the accused intently to see their reaction. There was none. Not even a flinch, not an eyebrow raised or a shoulder dropped and a distinct lack of care, respect or engagement in this decision. It may not have been their first time or maybe this verdict was expected but it was certainly met with a coldness that made us all feel that we had arrived at the correct decision.

It felt really good to perform a civic duty like this, to play one small part in the massive legal wheel of the justice system and help deliver, what I believe, was the right verdict.

Till next time.