The 70 prospective jurors I watched shuffle into a courtroom at Contra Costa County Superior Court last week looked as if they'd rather be anywhere else. They wore the slumped shoulders and glazed eyes of victims resigned to an unwelcome fate.
Judge Theresa Canepa empathized in her opening remarks, holding up a jury summons she'd received.
"In a few weeks, I'll be sitting out there where you are," she said. "I know what you're going through."
Is there any aspect of our justice system more bittersweet than a jury trial? We cherish the fairness of a verdict decided by 12 unbiased strangers, but we cringe at interrupting our lives and shouldering the burden of deciding guilt or innocence.
Bailiff Pete Moreno sees this civics lesson play out several times a month, when carpenters, homemakers, salespersons -- people from all walks of life -- are transformed into integral parts of the judicial system. He never tires of "voir dire," the process by which attorneys and judges select an impartial jury.
"Do you know what 'voir dire' means?" he asked. "It means 'speak the truth.'"
The judge begins by explaining the complaints against the defendant -- in this case, DUI and hit-and-run -- and how long the trial is expected to last. (Relief was audible when she said only three or four days.)
Next is the preliminary screening with 21 people randomly pulled from the jury pool: What's your name? Your residence? Your occupation? Do you know anyone who's experienced this type of crime? Do you have friends or family in law enforcement? Have you been arrested? Served on a jury? Can you be fair and impartial?
Five candidates were quickly excused and replaced: a medical student knee deep in studies; an airport cop with a bent toward the prosecution; a woman whose friend was killed by a drunken driver; a truck driver stressed about losing his job; a man from another county ("Please update your address with jury services," the judge said).
Voir dire can move at a plodding pace -- one disinterested member of the jury pool was admonished for reading his Kindle -- but its nuances are a reminder of how much is at stake, particularly when prosecution and defense attorneys probe jurors for biases and mistaken beliefs.
The prosecutor gently picked at their definition of "reasonable doubt." He asked whether every witness needed to testify before a crime report could be trusted. Was anyone troubled by the idea of sending a defendant to jail?
The defense attorney asked whether jurors would adhere to the letter of the law, even if it clashed with their sense of right and wrong. Did they understand the presumption of innocence?
"If you were asked to rule on this case right now, what would you say?" he asked a woman. When she said she needed more information, he said, "That's the wrong answer. If you have to rule now, he's innocent. He's innocent until proven otherwise."
Three jurors were excused for cause and four with lawyers' peremptory challenges, including one who sealed her fate when she said, "If you get arrested, there's a reason for it." Included in the final 12 was a replacement plucked from the back of the room near the end of a three-hour session.
Was she pleased to be a vital cog in the legal system?
"I don't know," she said. "All I know is I have a headache."
No one said the search for justice would be painless.
Contact Tom Barnidge at email@example.com.