Jury duty offers an inside look at the criminal justice system

Great things happened in my life this fall, things that I haven’t been able to talk about until now because I was under a judge’s order not to.

Beginning in September, I spent 4 1/2 weeks serving as a juror in a murder trial in Snohomish County. The crime happened close to home, the details were gruesome, the evidence was abundant, but sadly the jury hung 11-1, with an outlier case unable to overcome their 5% unease to reach a verdict of guilt. I won’t share details beyond that, as I hope the state retries the case. If you end up being part of this future jury, I want you to be impartial. I also want you to know what a great privilege it was to perform my civic duty, even though it was a huge, gigantic pain in the neck.

The Snohomish County government campus in Everett, where the courthouse is located, is clean, well-lit, beautiful, and peaceful. Jurors park for free in the underground parking lot, accessible on Pacific Avenue. You take the elevator to the Plaza level, walk through an open space and enter the courthouse. Pro Tip: Don’t wear a belt. This will slow you down as you pass the security checkpoint. After clearing security, you head upstairs to the jury meeting room (aka “the JAR”) where you check in and await instructions.

The JAR offers free coffee, hot chocolate, tea and apple cider. There are microwaves to heat up your lunch as well as vending machines. Pro tip: The coffee in the jumbo percolator is really good, much better than K Cups, but percolator coffee is usually only available on Mondays and Tuesdays.

If your number is called, you are sent to a courtroom for voir dire, which means jury selection. At this point, many jurors are dismissed due to difficulties such as previously scheduled medical appointments or vacations. If they are the sole provider for their family and their employers do not pay them while they serve as sworn, this also counts as hardship. After the lawyers got through the rough patches, they started questioning jurors for bias. In my case, 14 jurors were selected. Both extras were alternates, but no one knew who the alternates were until the end of the trial when their numbers were drawn.

Once you are assigned to a case, you are not allowed to talk about it at all, neither with your family nor with your fellow jurors until the judge orders you to deliberate. You are not permitted to view newspaper articles about the alleged crime, visit the scene, or conduct outside research. Your mind must be pure. The only evidence you consider is what the lawyers present. Pro tip: Dress in layers as it can get chilly in the courtroom.

Being assigned to a case is something of an upgrade, because instead of being one of the JAR masses, you get a private room to hang out with the other 13 jurors. Our room had a view of Mount Baker and the eternal flame that shone over the square. There were two private toilets and a small kitchenette, as well as a large conference table. Pro tip: Listen to the joyous music from the First Presbyterian Church bells at noon.

I wanted to serve on a jury since I was 9 and my grandmother took me to work with her one day. She was assistant jury commissioner for San Diego. I had the honor of sitting in the San Diego JAR and listening to my grandmother welcome the jurors to the service. His impassioned speech about how the very fiber of American democracy rested on juries was so powerful it brought tears to many people’s eyes. She turned a horrific inconvenience into a heroic opportunity to stand by Lady Liberty and ensure justice prevails. That’s what jury service has meant to me ever since.

Now that means something more. The professionalism and expertise of state attorneys, as well as public defenders, was so impressive that I left this experience with a newfound respect for the people who work in our justice system. Lawyers on both sides deserve a standing ovation. I also have a renewed sense of faith in the people of Snohomish County. My fellow jurors represented multiple cities, professions, income levels, and life experiences. It was a pleasure to work with each of them, even the one who caused us so much grief.

Pro Tip: If you are called to serve, remember what my grandmother said. The very fiber of American democracy rests on ordinary people like you and me.

Jennifer Bardsley is the author of ‘Sweet Bliss’, ‘Good Catch’ and more. Find her online on Instagram @jenniferbardsleyauthor, on Twitter @jennbardsley or on Facebook as author Jennifer Bardsley. Email her at teachingmybabytoread@gmail.com.