Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Trial by Jury in the United States

Day 3 of the Trial

We have all seen it in movies and on TV–lawyers yelling "Objection!" eccentric judges, stone-faced jurors, tearful witness... The experience of serving as a juror is an experience that changed my perspective on many things, educated and moved me and allowed me to file this visual reportage. Serving as a juror is a front row ticket to a real life theatre, complete with pomp, decor, and tradition, except for the play is real and the outcome depends on you.

Multnomah County Courthouse

Last week I headed to the Multnomah county courthouse where I was summoned to serve as a juror. It is hard to describe the annoyance most of us feel on those occasions. We have to rearrange our whole life, take time away from work, families, and the normal course of activities. The jury selection process needs to be random in order to serve justice, which means that some people end up standing in a long line to pass the court house security, fill out paper work, and sit in a big windowless room with hundreds of other citizens waiting and waiting for many hours. Many of us never end up being called to sit on a trial, just serving our role as part of the random selection pool.

The Voir Dire Process

If you do end up being called you will have to go through something called a voir dire process by which a larger group of about 50 jurors gets paired down to 13 or less. Attorneys observe your non-verbal behavior and ask you questions that help them determine whether you could potentially harbor biases or prejudices against situations or a type of person that they represent. It is a fascinating process and you could be asked to voice your opinion publicly on things like whether you think prostitution should be legal or whether you have anything against Californians.

Voir Dire Process during a Civil Trial

The first trial I got called for was a civil trial involving a tenant-landlord dispute. The issue at heart revolved around some pet damage to a rental home. United States is unique in that civil trials could also be decided by jurors. I started feeling the annoyance creeping in at the fact that I had to spend my time potentially listening to hours of details about what someone’s dog did to a carpet. So when during the voir-dire one of the lawyers asked whether anyone in the room felt the US system was too litigious my hand enthusiastically went up in the air. I could see the counsel representing the plaintiff circle my name as a “problem” juror to my delight, as I fumbled through the answer explaining my feelings.

Aiko Ramen House

Having been kicked out of the civil trial that I deemed not worthy of my time I headed to the nearest ramen joint to celebrate.

Human trafficking case

Immediately after lunch I got called once again. This time I felt like I knew the ropes of the selection process. My only hope that it would be some fascinating criminal trial. I got more than I asked for as a trial was about human trafficking and involved lots of gruesome detail, emotional drain and took up an entire week.

Voir Dire Process during the Criminal Case

The Judge

The judge on the case has presided over 500 trials and commanded a lot of respect, but also some fear. During the selection process if a potential juror was trying to wiggle herself out of sitting on the case under various excuses the judge would turn to them with an angry face of a school principle addressing a group of hooligans and raise his voice: “I am not asking you if it is convenient. Can you  follow my instructions and fulfill your duty as a juror?”  The excuses ranged from "I do not believe that prostitution should be illegal" to "I had nothing but negative experiences with the law enforcement" to "I have two kids and just and just do not feel comfortable sitting through days of explicit sex details. To the latter the judge would reply with a stern face: "You are not here to be comfortable!”

Day of 4 of the Proceedings

He inspired us with a history lesson about the trial by jury in the United States. Under the colonial rule Americans were not allowed to practice juried trials, causing great distress among the citizenry. The judge also mentioned that jury duty is the only duty we have as citizens of this county, since the military draft was eliminated in 1973. We were moved, inspired, scared, and curious, and not allowed to talk to anyone or each other about what went on until we reached the verdict.

The Trial

The trial took five days–lasting one more day than anticipated. The State of Oregon has presented its charges against the accused and called on 6 witnesses. The accused represented by two of his public defenders had no witnesses and was himself briefly called to the witness stand.  The jury was subjected to a lot of gruesome and emotional testimony as the trial unfolded. The hardest part was the inability to process it by discussing it with the fellow juror or anyone else outside of the courtroom. 

Cross Examination of Expert Witnesses on Day 3
At some point when an expert witness was testifying in terrifying details about the world of sex trafficking including the particular language that traffickers use, the menu of services, the specific tattoos, and the rules–all of which were incredibly demeaning to women. Just then a whole group of middle school students walked in. They were probably on a field trip to the court house. Needless to say, the timing was very unfortunate, but we were unable to stop the barrage of offensive details coming out during the testimony. 

Day 2 of the Trial

Jury Deliberation Process

After a whole week of listening and observing we were finally allowed to talk about the case in a stuffy room with very basic furnishings. We huddled up together around an old wooden table with a pile of evidence. It was 1 pm on Friday–we weren't sure what would happen if we hadn't reached our verdict by the end of the day, as at least two of the jurors needed to leave town. We had four hours and 21 charges ahead of us.

Jurors 1-5

At least ten out of twelve jurors had to agree on every single charge. Only in Oregon and Louisiana it is sufficient to have ten jurors agree, all other states require all twelve. On at least five charges we barely had ten, although all of us agreed that the accused should go to jail for what he did.

Jurors 6-10

We finished our deliberations with 15 minutes to spare and called the judicial clerk–a charismatic guy Joe with his colorful collection of ties. We walked back into the courtroom. I carried the verdict and got to reply "Yes, your honor" when the judge asked me: "Miss Sabler, has the jury reached its verdict?" It felt epic at the time. The emotions quickly changed as the judge started reading our conclusion on all 21 charges, finding the accused guilty on all but one charge. With every count read we sank lower and lower into our chair with the full understanding of the implications.

Jurors 11-12 and the Clerk


  1. Fascinating reportage Rita!! I am a UsKer and soon to be called to serve on a jury and this helped prepare me. But years ago I was involved in a jury selection (didn't get selected) and we were instructed not to write/read/etc but to sit with full attention. Obviously you were allowed to do quite a bit of drawing? and even painting? in the courtroom. Please say more about how you managed that.

    1. Thank you, Susan! We were allowed to make notes during the trial. Sketching was my way of taking notes. I was a little nervous about it though, the nervousness that prevented me from being as free and expressive as I would have liked. However, it was still worth it. Good luck with your jury duty and happy sketching!

    2. Thanks Rita! Enjoyed your talk at the Symposium last year too.

  2. This is fascinating, Rita. Your sketches and commentary are terrific!
    When I was on jury duty, we had to turn our notes in each day and they were kept by the court. It was disappointing. It's interesting that there's variation in this.

  3. Fascinating is the word indeed! I’m glad you were able to register this in your sketchbook and share it with us! Lovely reportage!!