I knew it was coming. Every time I checked the mail I feared the inevitable: my jury duty summons. Having spent the entirety of a Monday afternoon at court for an open container summons (for a hard cider consumed on the Fourth of July, I mean come on), and witnessing the painfully slow methods by which they process even minor offenses, I can’t say I blame myself. A day in court is a day spent in the ugliest building ever built, which smells like pee, and within which you are treated like a hardened criminal even if you’re wearing a really cute pencil skirt and you actually washed your hair that day.
Court sucks, and I imagined jury duty would suck too, especially when you have a fervent distrust of the racist, oppressive police force and judicial system of This Great Nation. I can’t claim that I am a prison abolitionist, a prison reformer, or that I have ever actively done anything to subversively affect change within said system. However, if anything good is going to come out of this jury duty business, maybe it’s that I’m about to kick my ass into gear. I thought there might be some of you who are in my boat: the “I hate the Prison Industrial Complex but don’t know what to do about it” boat. So, I did a little research and spoke to some real live prison abolitionists about what to expect on our respective days of reckoning. The first thing I heard was that some people believe participating in jury duty is tantamount to complicity in the system and gives it validity, and so choose not to participate. One can imagine these same people are then charged with failure to appear and, if they eventually face their day in court, probably wish there were more anti-racists and skeptics of the judicial system on their jury. Though the punishment for this crime is relatively minor, let’s assume for now we are all pro-attending mandatory Jury Duty.
Your Greatest Most Secretest Weapon: Jury Nullification
The first most interesting tactic I learned was a little (big) something called the right to nullify. Jury nullification is when a jury votes “not guilty,” even if the law has been broken, either because they believe the defendant has been charged with the wrong crime, or because they believe the law is unjust. Jury Duty enthusiast J.F., wrote about this little known right in The Economist :
Juries do not only decide guilt or innocence; they can also serve as checks on unjust laws. Judges will not tell you about your right to nullify — to vote not guilty regardless of whether the prosecution has proven its case if you believe the law at issue is unjust. They may tell you that you may only judge the facts of the case put to you and not the law. They may strike you from a jury if you do not agree under oath to do so, but the right to nullify exists.
So, if you manage to make your way onto a Jury, you can then inform your other jurors of this right, and you can exercise it like the badass you truly are. If that fails, and you’re okay with being the most hated person in the room (in the name of justice, mind you!), you can always vote “not guilty” no matter what, resulting in a hung jury and impeding the efficiency of the courts. Okay, so that’s a tactic to use once you’re on the jury, but how do you find yourself there in the first place?
Be A Jury Selection Ninja
This can be difficult, especially if you’re a person of color. See, considering we are incarcerated at extraordinarily higher rates than white people, we’re seen as being distrustful of the government, and thus are often excluded from juries. A 2010 report entitled “Illegal Racial Discrimination In Jury Selection: A Continuing Legacy” by the Equal Justice Initiative highlights this trend:
Today, peremptory strikes are used to exclude African Americans and other racial minorities from jury service at high rates in many jurisdictions, particularly in the South. In courtrooms across the United States, people of color are dramatically underrepresented on juries as a result of racially biased use of peremptory strikes. This phenomenon is especially prevalent in capital cases and other serious felony cases.
So, the odds are stacked against you if you’re African American, Hispanic, Queer or Trans. The jury is out on whether there is significant discrimination against Asians, however there is apparently a prevalent stereotype that Asian Americans are conservative and law-abiding. What you may be wondering is if, during the selection process, you should lie and say you’re totally neutral on the topic, or play by the rules and tell them how you really feel.
To get an idea of what to expect and how to respond, I spoke with Olivia Nicole, a one-time student of law enforcement turned prison-reform activist who currently volunteers for Picture the Homeless, and works as a Program Fellow at Color of Change, an organization that focuses on changing the way Black and brown folks are depicted in the media. Olivia wants to make it abundantly clear that “whatever face you do decide to present as a [potential] juror, you decide that from the moment you get that screening questionnaire, because I think that face (one of “fuck this system,” one of “I’m prepared to participate civilly at most costs,” one of “let me see how far I can take this,” etc.) will absolutely determine how you address jury nullification if you ever experience it in the future.” Even asking Olivia about civil disobedience within the court had me dreaming up nightmare scenarios in which I was the angry black woman being dragged from the courtroom screaming “FUCK THE MAN!” or worse, clamming up entirely and simply doing what I am told. So, having a solid understanding of where your beliefs lie is important moving forward. In short: don’t whip up an outrageous lie about what a dedicated American you are, but maybe don’t tell them you think cops are dirty pigs. Use your best judgement. There are ways to express your gratitude about the rights you are afforded now, instead of expressing distaste for the rights you know you deserve.
This is not a manual on how to turn the system on its head. One is not always going to run into a situation where jury nullification is possible, necessary, or reasonable. Most importantly, we just want more people like us on juries: people who are skeptical of the efficacy of prisons and who see racism as a living, breathing problem. Fortunately for us, there are plenty of people trying to get out of jury duty.
What To Expect When You’re Expecting (to wait around for 8 hours under florescent lights)
Make sure you dress comfortably and bring snacks. Bring a cellphone charger. You are going to be doing an extraordinary amount of sitting around, waiting. The less irritable you are, the less prone you might be to inciting a race riot before you even get to the questionnaire.
You might be asked any number of questions ranging from your physical ability to attend the court proceedings, to your relationship with any of the participants, to your feelings about the American Justice System. You might be asked if you have ever been the victim of a crime, what newspapers you read, your ethnic background, your union status, your education level and area of study, what you watch on television, whether you or anybody you know is publicly affiliated with organizations that deal with criminal justice issues, if you know any criminals, if you or anyone you know works in law enforcement, if you own a gun, and according to Olivia, “whether you or your family has ever practiced martial arts and to what extent”… no, I’m not joking, and the list goes on.
Olivia warns that the most important questions to answer carefully are “those that pertain to your personal feelings about law enforcement agents, medical professionals, basically anyone who is part of a larger institution that the government holds as credible.” Ultimately, your answers should be weighed on a case-by-case basis. “I feel like I can only say you should be careful, and not that you should be totally honest or tell bold-faced lies about your opinions, because all this depends heavily on how you feel about the case in question… I can say that while you never want to betray your instinct or experience, this would be a space in which your ability to be ‘politically correct’ so much that you pass the muster to be a juror, is going to be tested.” These questions might be more difficult for somebody like Olivia to answer, given her very public affiliation with prison reform organizations, especially in the age of the Internet. She adds, “Beware! I’ve heard that in this great age of social media, lawyers have been known to check the Facebook and Twitter accounts of potential jurors to get a feel for their political opinions.” So, I should probably take down the Facebook status where I made a public call for “Prison Abolition friends” to weigh in on an article I’m writing about how to pass the jury screening process. I should also probably not be writing this article while in the juror waiting room, but hell, I live life on the edge.
And All For The Low, Low Price of $40!
If you’re worried about being compensated for your jury service because you have to miss work, you should be. According to the New York State Unified Court System Jury Information For Employers pamphlet:
Employers are encouraged but not required to pay an employee’s full daily wage while the employee is reporting to serve as a juror. Employers of more than 10 employees must pay jurors the jury fee of $40 or the employee’s wage (whichever is lower) each day for the first three days of jury service. If the juror’s daily wage is less than the jury fee, then the State makes up the difference. The State will pay the jury fee of jurors who work for employers of 10 or fewer employees if the jurors are not paid at least the jury fee by their employers. After three days, the State pays the jury fee to jurors who are not paid at least the jury fee.
As cryptic as that sounds, what I’m basically understanding here is that I get paid a measly $40 a day to sit in court all day doing my civic “duty” to a system I don’t believe in while I could be getting paid more to do my job that I actually really enjoy and that doesn’t endanger the lives of Black and brown people. The payment also differs from state to state. I’m not trying to discourage you from attending jury duty, but I am agitating your rage against the system. If I have to sit here all day for little to no money, I might as well have fun doing it. And I can think of nothing more fun than giving the courts a little dose of civil disobedience.
A Nap And A Sushi Snack
Unfortunately my day in court was entirely uneventful. I arrived at the courthouse at 8:30 am, and walked into a massive room of potential jurors watching the screens located throughout, lauding us for our profound patriotism simply for showing up to Jury Duty. A judge (I’m pretty sure he was a judge?) then spoke to us over a microphone, explaining in detail how to fill out the various forms and identification cards we had been given. He then announced that if anybody felt as though they didn’t have “a basic understanding of the English language” they should “line up and head to the room next door. He repeated this maybe five times while approximately 50% of the room filed into the room next door. As soon as the final juror trickled out, he shouted “That means if you could understand what I just said to you, you probably have a pretty basic grasp of the English language. Get back in here!” Who knew the judge would be so full of LOLz? Funnier (and scarier) still, the judge warned us against tweeting or posting on Facebook about any of the court proceedings, because that is super illegal. “We have an app for that, actually” which we all thought was hilarious until he proceeded to read two tweets that had already been sent from the courtroom, pointing out the section in which the offending tweeters were seated, one of which read, “Oh hell naw I ain’t stayin here until 5 oclock. #catchmeifyoucan.” This was also funny, I guess, but in case you weren’t sure about government surveillance, Big Brother is really watching y’all. I was called in for screening on one case, but it was settled out of court before they could even question the potential jurors. I spent the rest of the day in a heavy slumber, shifting from one impossible position to another, until the clock struck 4:30 and the judge told us we could all go home and don’t come back for another eight years.
If anything, I’m now better informed, and hopefully you are too. If you do find yourself in a position to sit on a jury for an important case, you have some tools to help you exercise your rights in a meaningful way. Plus, you can spend that $40 on some really good sushi during your lunch break.