Jury Duty in Toronto – Part 2

In my last post I told you about what it’s like to sit around in the jury panel room, waiting for something to happen. I ended the post with my panel being called for jury selection. This week, I’ll describe what happens during that phase.

Okay, so my panel was called for jury selection. I read on other blogs that the panel moved to a smaller room on another floor. We went straight into a courtroom. So where you go apparently depends on whether you’re needed immediately or shortly.

Before this experience, I’d never sat in on a trial, so I had all sorts of preconceived notions from what I’d seen on TV—and mainly on US shows. I thought the jury was selected before the trial began. Jury selection actually takes place during the trial. When we were called out of the jury panel room, we went to an upper floor and directly into a courtroom. The judge, the court registrar, the court reporter, the Crown (what Canadians call the prosecutor), the defence counsel, and the accused were already present. The judge decided he wanted more prospective jurors, so the blue panel was also summoned. We waited for them to arrive.

Once everyone was seated, the charges were read, and the accused (two of them for this case) entered their pleas. Not Guilty. All right, then, the trial will continue, so we need a jury. I’d estimate that there were around 180 prospective jurors, and we only needed 12. Should be quick and easy to choose a jury, right?

Wrong.

Before jury selection began, we were told how long the trial was expected to last (two weeks), and then another round of people who wanted to be excused began. Remember, back in the jury panel room, people had been asked if they couldn’t stay that week. People who had appointments the following week, or who couldn’t afford two weeks without pay (in Ontario, you don’t get paid for jury duty for the first 10 days), could now plead their case. Also, now there was the issue of whether anyone knew the accused, the lawyers, any of the witnesses that would be called (they read us a list), or if they had relatives in the police force.

By the time the judge called for people who fit into those categories, it was a little after noon. It took until around 3:00 to go through everyone who wanted to be excused (we did break an hour for lunch).

I was quite surprised that people who wanted to be excused for a medical reason had to tell the entire court about it. They had to approach the bench and speak into a microphone. Privacy is a hot issue these days, and I was floored that people were expected to go up and reveal private medical details in front of a bunch of strangers. I understand that the judge, the lawyers, and the accused have a right to hear why someone doesn’t want to sit on a jury, but why not dismiss everyone else from the courtroom when the judge calls for those who want to be excused for medical reasons?

All right, so just after 3:00, we were ready to select jurors. The judge explained the procedure to us. After he was finished, I turned to my neighbour and raised my brows, and he did the same. In other words, “Say, what?” It sounded horribly complicated, but in practice, it was straightforward. Rather than cause you the confusion we felt, I won’t try to explain it to you. I’ll just tell you what happens.

Remember those scraps of paper with our details that I mentioned in the last post? Well, those scraps of paper are now in a wooden drum that’s in front of the court registrar.  Here we go:

1. The court registrar (female in our case) reaches into the drum, draws out a slip of paper, and calls out that person’s jury panel number, name, and area of residence (for example, East York, North York, etc.) That person goes to the front of the courtroom. They won’t be a juror. They’ll be a temporary trier. Let’s call him Joe. Joe is asked if he wants to swear or affirm that he’ll execute the duties of a trier to the best of his ability. If he wants to swear, he then chooses from a selection of religious texts, and he holds the selected text in his right hand. If he wants to affirm, he raises his right hand. The registrar reads him the same text either way, except she’ll use “swear” or “affirm,” depending, and she’ll end with “I affirm,” or, “so help me God,” or  “so help me [other god/goddess].” Joe now sits in the jury box.

2. The registrar draws a second name. That person will be the second temporary trier. Let’s call her Sally. Sally is sworn/affirmed and sits in the jury box.

3. The registrar now draws the name of the first potential juror. Let’s call her Sue. Sue comes forward and goes into the witness box. Sue swears/affirms to truthfully answer the question she’s about to be asked. The question has been agreed upon by the judge, the Crown, and the two defence lawyers (each accused had his own lawyer).

4. The lawyers take turns posing the question, which in our trial, was about whether the potential juror will be impartial given the race of one of the accused. So, whoever’s turn it is reads the question, and Sue answers it.

5. The two triers confer and say, “Acceptable,” or, “Unacceptable.” If unacceptable, Sue is excused.

Everything up to this point is optional, because there doesn’t have to be a question. If the lawyers don’t want to pose a question to screen prospective jurors, there are no triers. When your name is called, you’ll go straight to step 6.

6. If acceptable, Sue is then asked to step out of the witness box and move closer to where the accused and their lawyers are standing. The registrar says something like, “Juror, look upon the accused. Accused, look upon the juror. What say you?”

7. Starting with the Crown, each lawyer says, “Content,” or “Challenge.” If content, then the lawyer would accept Sue as a member of the jury. If challenge, the lawyer does not want Sue on the jury and she’s excused. Each lawyer gets a specific number of challenges, as spelled out in Canada’s criminal code.

8. If all the lawyers are content, Sue is told to face the registrar, and she’s now sworn/affirmed as a jury member. She becomes Juror #1. She replaces Joe, the first temporary trier, in the jury box. Joe is now excused. Sally and Sue are now the triers. Sue now swears/affirms that she’ll exercise her responsibilities as a trier to the best of her ability etc.

9. Rinse and repeat. The second juror chosen will be Juror #2 and replace Sally as a trier. The third juror chosen will become Juror #3 and replace Juror #1 as a trier. Juror #1 will now move to her proper place in the jury box. Juror #4 will replace Juror #2 as a trier, and Juror #2 will move to his proper place in the jury box. We continue this dance until we have 12 jurors.

Therefore, how long it takes to choose a jury will depend on how many “unacceptables” and “challenges” there are. In our case, there were a lot of challenges. As the afternoon progressed, the groans grew louder with each challenge.

By 4:20, they’d selected six jurors. Court usually adjourns at 4:30. I was slumped in the back row, ready to go home, and thinking, “Great, we’ll all have to haul our asses back here tomorrow, but they should finish selecting the jury by 11:00, and then I’ll be done. Yay!”

At that point, the registrar reached into the drum and pulled out a slip of paper. Guess whose number she called?

I couldn’t believe it. In fact, when you hear your number called, it’s a good job they also call your name, because your brain goes into OMFG mode. Freaking inside, you somehow manage to walk to the front of the courtroom, get into the witness box, swear/affirm that you’ll answer the question honestly, and then do so. But you’re on automatic.

Now, right before I was called, the lawyers had challenged a whole bunch of people in a row. I figured my chances of being challenged were pretty darn good. So when the registrar told me to face the accused etc., I fully expected to hear “challenge.” Instead, I heard, “Content. Content. Content.” And I thought, “Are you freaking kidding me?”

In a daze, I turned to face the registrar, swore/affirmed to execute my responsibilities as a juror to the best of my ability etc., and as Juror #7, took my place next to Juror #6 as the newest trier. Then the judge said, “It’s 4:25. Let’s adjourn for the day.” And I thought, “OMG, if only he’d done that five minutes ago.”

On the way home, still dazed, I thought about who they’d challenged and who they hadn’t. I concluded that they wanted a young to middle-aged jury (they challenged everyone who was retired or had gray hair), with no Asians on it. I deduced (correctly, as it turned out) that the victims of the crime must be Asian.

I think I was the oldest person on the jury. Maybe my hoodie, jeans, sneakers, my thick head of hair that has only a sprinkling of gray, and the knapsack slung over my shoulder made me appear younger than I am. Who knows?

The next morning, we resumed where we’d left off, except this time I entered the courtroom through the jury door with the other six jurors. We started at 10:00, and it took until almost 11:30 to choose the other five jurors. One lawyer ran out of challenges. Based on what I’d concluded, I could predict pretty reliably who they’d challenge, but a couple of challenges did puzzle me.

When we were done, the judge dismissed those who hadn’t been selected. The registrar then called out each juror number in turn, to confirm that everyone on the jury had been sworn/affirmed. When she called your number, you had to say, “Sworn,” if you’d chosen to swear, and “Affirmed,” if you’d chosen to affirm. She then read the number who’d been sworn (7) and affirmed (5) into the record—a balanced jury from that point of view.

After that: bam! The judge started to give his opening statement. Poor Juror #12 hardly had time to catch her breath. After lunch, she told me she was still in a daze. I said, “That’s how I felt last night.” At least Jurors #1-7 had an evening to get used to the idea.

Remember I said things weren’t computerized? Well, when the judge excused people before jury selection started, their slip of paper remained in the drum. It wasn’t unusual for the registrar to call a number, get no response, and then wait for the lawyers and judge to shuffle through their papers and check whether that person had been excused, which prolonged the process. If everything was electronic and the summons had a barcode, a computer could randomly pick people, rather than the registrar, and when someone was excused, their summons could be scanned and they’d be removed from the pool. Will it ever happen?

In my next post, I’ll tell you in general terms a bit about the trial and how it differed from what I’ve seen on TV. (Read about it here.)

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