As I sit down to write about jury service, I realize that I am a day late and a dollar short. Or actually a month late (July was Juror Appreciation Month) and $12 short (the amount paid by the court system to jurors for their first day of service). In my 22 plus years working in the District Attorney’s Office, I have had many opportunities to see jurors and to observe and take part in the jury process. But it struck me recently that we really should all be thankful to those that serve on juries – those who contribute to “our democratic way of life.” (North Carolina Pattern Jury Instructions, 100.22, Introductory Remarks.)
In our system, we have two types of juries: Grand Juries and Petit Juries. “A grand jury is a body consisting of not less than 12 nor more than 18 persons, impaneled by a superior court and constituting a part of such court.” (North Carolina General Statutes 15A-621.) Grand Jury proceedings are secret, and they are not recorded. Basically, generally in more serious matters, the Grand Jury determines whether there is probable cause to believe that a certain defendant committed a certain crime. If the answer is yes, the Grand Jury returns what is called a “True Bill of Indictment,” and the case moves on to Superior Court. If the answer is no, then a “No True Bill” is returned, and the case does not proceed to Superior Court. Grand jurors meet usually part of the day, once a month, for a year.
A Petit Jury is a jury made up of 12 members who hear evidence in a particular case and deliberate to decide whether the defendant on trial is guilty or not guilty. Prospective jurors for both Grand Juries and Petit Juries are selected from a master jury list which is made up of names taken from the list of registered voters in the county and from records of persons with drivers licenses supplied by the Commissioner of Motor Vehicles. (North Carolina General Statutes 9-2(b).) Names from that list are randomly selected for jury service.
To be eligible to serve on a jury, one must be a citizen of the state and a resident of the county, cannot have served as a juror during the preceding two years, cannot have served a full term of service as a grand juror during the preceding six years, must be at least 18 years of age, must be physically and mentally competent, must be able to understand the English language, cannot have been adjudged incompetent and cannot have been convicted of a felony (unless his or her citizenship has been restored pursuant to law). (North Carolina General Statutes 9-3.)
When attorneys are going through jury selection, we are focused on one thing – getting the best jury for our case. We ask thoughtful and sometimes pointed questions to make sure that we are getting a fair jury. We ask jurors about their backgrounds, their experience with the court system and their views on certain subjects, depending on what type of trial it is. I always explain to prospective jurors that I am not trying to embarrass anyone, but that I just want to make sure that I get a jury that is fair to both sides. I think we often go through the motions of jury selection without truly considering what it means.
But two things happened recently that have made me think more about jury service and what it means to be a juror. First, we had a recent term of court where a large number of the people summoned for jury service did not show up. This led to the judge having to summon people for jury duty in the middle of the week with little notice to be in court.
Second, I sat in the courtroom and watched the process where the Judge appointed new members of the Grand Jury. Before appointing those jurors, the Judge asked for anyone who could not serve for whatever reason to line up to talk to him. And what struck me was this: The Judge had just explained to the courtroom that Grand Jury meets once a month for a whole year, and when given the opportunity to line up to possibly get out of it, the majority of the prospective jurors kept their seats. The majority of the prospective jurors understood the importance of their roles in our society and the obligation of their citizenship.
Now I know that some, if not all, of those that lined up had legitimate reasons for not being able to serve, and I am not criticizing those people in any way. The law allows for people to be excused or deferred for “reasons of compelling personal hardship or because requiring service would be contrary to the public welfare, health or safety.” (North Carolina General Statutes 9-6(a).)
But as for those summoned who did not even show up for our term recently, I am disappointed. As the jury instructions state: “This call upon your time does not come frequently and may never be repeated in your lifetime. It is one of the obligations of citizenship. It represents your contribution to our democratic way of life. It is an assurance of your guarantee that if chance or design brings you to a court of law in any civil or criminal entanglement, your rights and liberties will be regarded by the same standards of justice and protected by the same considerations that you discharge here in your duties as jurors.” (North Carolina Pattern Jury Instructions, 100.22, Introductory Remarks.)
To those that kept your seat that day back in July, thank you. It is the public policy of our State that “jury service is the solemn obligation of all qualified citizens,” and it is necessary for our system to work. (North Carolina General Statutes 9-6(a).) I am thankful that there are people who take the responsibility seriously.
To all of you that have served on juries in the past, thank you. You have performed “one of the highest duties that can be imposed on any citizen.” (North Carolina Pattern Jury Instructions, 100.22, Introductory Remarks.)
And to those of you that have yet to be summoned – we look forward to seeing you around the court house.
Sarah Kirkman is the District Attorney for Alexander and Iredell counties.