fauxklore (fauxklore) wrote,
fauxklore
fauxklore

Happy Birthday Number Seven

I have written about past experiences with jury duty (in 1997 andin 1999) but those experiences were in Los Angeles. But this week was my first experience of jury duty in Fairfax County, Virginia.

The system here requires you to call the night before to see if your group (identified by a number on the summons) has to go in. Mine did, so Tuesday morning saw me rushing off to Nottoway Park to vote in the special election for Chairman of the County Board of Supervisors before driving to downtown Fairfax. I managed to find the court complex (and, more significantly, the correct parking lot) without too much trouble. The security screening at the entrance to the courthouse is fairly obnoxious. I got yelled at for not wanting to walk through the metal detector until I saw my bag go into the x-ray machine and I suspect my bag got extra scrutiny as a result. (My reason for waiting has to do with a theft I witnessed at SFO a few years ago.)

Anyway, there was the usual "hurry up and wait" in the jury assembly room. I had two books and a stack of Saturday crossword puzzles (i.e. the tough ones that I suck at), so had plenty to keep me busy. They showed a video about jury duty and started calling panels. Eventually, my name got called (and badly mangled).

Because it was a criminal case, we were all assigned numbers and never referred to by name in the courthouse. This strikes me as being a good practice for jury protection. The jury pool consisted of 21 people, with another 6 there in case any of the pool was disqualified. (Which two people were on the grounds of hardship, both involving child care arrangements.) The case turned out to involve drug possession. The voir dire here was somewhat different than my past experience, in that nobody asked any of the generic "getting to know you" type questions that they usually asked in L.A. They started out focused on anyone who might not be a native speaker of English. There was one man who knew the defendant and he was asked to approach the bench to explain that to the lawyers and judge. (In the end, he was allowed to stay and, in fact, was selected for the jury.) A few people were asked about their employment (based on information from the jury questionnaires we had mailed in weeks earlier). In general, that had to do with the exact nature of their employment, e.g. a guy who worked for the FBI was asked if he had any involvement in drug enforcement. There were several people who had to explain their family history with respect to drug abuse. The only question I had to answer had to do with my past jury service.

I have no idea how the lawyers decided on who to choose, but I ended up being on the jury. We were sworn in - and I should note that the form of the Virginia oath is "Do you swear or affirm ..." and does not include "so help you G-d." This strikes me as being nicely religiously neutral. Then we heard opening statements and the witnesses for the prosecution.

In short, a policeman arrested a man who he saw in a parked car chewing leaves, which the man identified as "veggies from my country" and the policeman identified as qat. The tricky part here is that possession of qat isn't illegal in Virginia - but possession of cathinone, which is one of the active ingredients of qat, is. So the whole case depended on whether or not the defendant knowingly possessed cathinone. We heard a lot from the forensic scientist who examined the qat - and who answered a lot of questions about the breakdown of cathinone into other substances (which are also not illegal). At the end of his testimony, the defense asked for the case to be dismissed and we got sent into the jury room. When we came back in, the judge told us he had decided to dismiss the case since no reasonable person could conclude that the defendant knowingly possessed cathinone.

Obviously, the flaw here is in the Virginia law. I was pleased with the result, not least because it aligned with the way I was thinking about this. If the Commonwealth of Virginia is concerned about qat, then they should outlaw qat.

Anyway, I still need to call next Monday and there is a (small) chance I could have to go in again next Tuesday. The exemption period here is 3 years, so it should be a while before having to serve again. All in all, it was a relatively painless experience.

By the way, during the morning break, we discovered it was one juror's birthday. We hadn't learned one another's names yet, so when we sang to her, we sang, "Happy Birthday Number Seven!"
Tags: jury duty
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