Courtroom Diary: Justice in Action

My eyes welled up as I chanted: "Say it loud, say it clear, refugees are welcome here" at the San Francisco International Airport, following President Trump's Muslim ban. As the daughter of refugees/immigrants, I have intense feelings about this issue.

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My eyes welled up as I chanted: “Say it loud, say it clear, refugees are welcome here” at the San Francisco International Airport, following President Trump’s Muslim ban. As the daughter of refugees/immigrants, I have intense feelings about this issue. So, it was a great relief when a federal judge issued a stay against President Trump’s travel ban. It also was an important reminder about the vital role our third branch of government, the judiciary, plays in our democracy.

We all have friends that have groaned about receiving a jury summons in mail, accompanied with sighs of dismay. According to a study released in 2015, San Francisco had a 9.6 percent juror no-show rate. But what they may not stop to think about is that the justice system serves a vital role in our country. The courts depend on people stepping up to participate in this critical responsibility of citizenship.

I have been watching the coverage about the next Supreme Court Justice, the discussions about the travel ban, and hearing about the role of the courts in our democracy. It was very much on my mind when I opened my mail and saw my jury summons. My reaction? I can’t wait to participate in the process! I really wanted to serve and do my civic duty as an American Citizen.

Many Americans perceive our legal system through television shows such as Law and Order, Boston Legal or one of my favorites: Ally McBeal. However, what viewers don’t experience is the reality of sitting in the jury box and seeing where the intimate questioning of jurors occurs, the passing of notes from jurors to the judge, all eyes focused on the witnesses at all times, and the overall gravity and intensity in the courtroom. Our jury system may not be perfect but it is a check and balance on the power given to one person.

It was this sense of duty and yearning to be part of our civic process that I happily stood in line with many others to enter courthouse to start the jury duty process.

Day 1: All but two names appeared to be present in the Assembly Jury Room 200 as we watched the video presentation stressing the importance and privilege to serve on a jury. The court employees were courteous and our group was called to two different court rooms. The Clerk took attendance and the Sheriff explained that all electronic devices had to be turned off at all times while in the court room and all hats removed. We rose when the honorable Judge entered the court. After welcoming remarks, we were asked if we had any “excusable reasons” where we felt we couldn’t serve. Since I didn’t have one, I was dismissed for that day and told to come back the next morning.

Day 2: I got called to sit in Seat #3 in “The Box” based on a random selection. The Judge asked us to answer a series of questions about our jobs, marital status, kids, people living in our homes, and prior jury experience. The District Attorney (aka “The People”) started with her follow-up questions and the Public Defender (aka “The Defense”) proceeded with more probing questions and started with the icebreaker question “who would rather not be here?” where most hands went up. He stressed the essence of this case: to differentiate between “intent” and the “act” itself. The judge reminded us many times that we must follow the law; the accused is innocent unless “The People” prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt; and that we must keep an open mind. During the jury selection process or voir dire, I watched the judge follow this process as closely as the two attorneys. She questioned us first but took notes as intently as the two attorneys. After a two hour grilling session and a few private meetings between the judge and the attorneys, only a few people were dismissed. I was pleasantly surprised when I was asked to stand and was sworn-in with the other members of the jury.

Before we left, the judge instructed us not to try to be “Perry Mason”...that we should not talk to anyone, search online, or conduct our own investigation. We were told to base our decision on what we hear in the court room only and not be biased by anything we see outside of the court or possibly read in the news.

The case unfolded on Days 3 and 4. We were given notebooks to take notes but couldn’t take them out of the court room. The guy next to me and I took copious notes; I even asked for a second notebook! We heard testimony from many witnesses and the accused. I was surprised that we (the jurors) were able to ask our own questions after the attorneys finished their questioning by scribbling our questions on our notepad paper with our Juror Number. These were handed to the bailiff and brought up to the dais to be vetted by the judge and the attorneys. Most of our questions passed muster and were answered by the witnesses and we could go back with a series of additional questions if needed.

We adjourned for a three day weekend break and the judge again reminded us not to talk to anyone and not to search online or research any aspects of this case. I normally make decisions based on extensive research, meetings, conversations, and consulting with experts. Needless to say, I didn’t sleep well all weekend thinking through all the testimony by the witnesses and it clogged up my head not to be able to talk to anyone about the case. As a public figure who posts consistently throughout each day on many different social media platforms, it was hard not to post about this interesting case. However, I followed the instructions from the judge and I didn’t post much that week.

Day 5: We came back Monday morning for two last defense witnesses and closing statements by both attorneys. Both used a power point presentation to remind us of what we heard and the rules for our decision making. The judge handed us a package of papers listing the various rules and code sections for our reference. We were finally released “for the deliberation process” into a back room with a large table and 12 chairs. Our first order of business was to choose a foreperson. After that, we were able to discuss the case. Everyone chimed in excitedly since we had been holding back all our thoughts about the case for days. Eventually we came to a unanimous consensus and we were able to report back to the court on our decision.

We had 12 diverse jurors from all different backgrounds, ages, perspectives and life experiences. We all heard the same testimony and arguments yet we all ultimately came to the same conclusion of “not guilty” on both counts.

I am honored to have served on this jury to participate in the justice system. It wasn’t just something I had to do as a duty to my county; it was a privilege to serve and an opportunity of a lifetime.