On Nov. 18 I had my biennial jury experience.
I arrived at the D.C. Courthouse at 8 a.m. and, along with 49 other men and women, was shepherded into a large third-floor courtroom. The judge introduced himself and then asked each of us two questions:
Had we been the victims of violent crime?
And, were we related to or friends of the defendants, or related to a police officer?
When my turn came, I said I had once been held up at gunpoint in front of my apartment in Northeast Washington. Notwithstanding this experience, I told the judge that I thought I could be an impartial juror. One of the lawyers must not have been persuaded, though, because I was dismissed.
This happens every two years. I am called for jury duty, and after telling my story I am sent home. The District should place an asterisk next to my name in its files and stop calling me. It would save both of us (okay, me) a lot of trouble.
To be fair, though, I'm not sure the holdup story was the problem. I may have been dismissed simply because I'm a white man. This possibility entered my mind as I watched the jury being impaneled. For at least an hour, the prosecutor and the lawyers for the defendants (two young black men charged with a gun-related offense) battled over the composition of the jury. By the time it was over, they had gone through the whole pool of 50, and all the white men had been dismissed. This was no small accomplishment, because at least 10 white men were in the pool.
I don't know what the lawyers call this, but it is racial profiling, clear and simple. No doubt people of a particular age, sex or race are more likely to sympathize with the prosecution or the defense in particular cases, so you can't blame the lawyers for trying. But why allow it?
The lawyers have several types of challenges. They can challenge for cause -- for example, because the potential juror is a friend of the defendant. Or they can use a limited number of peremptory challenges, which they don't have to justify. Peremptory challenges aren't supposed to be used to exclude people based on sex or race, but no mechanism seems to be in place to stop lawyers from doing so.
Lawyers obviously want to improve their prospects in a trial. But how can that justify discrimination based on sex, race or age?
For most of us, serving on a jury is an inconvenience, but we understand its civic importance and do it willingly. But to waste a day so that lawyers can engage in a game of demographic chess makes no sense.
In this case, 50 people had to give up a day so that a jury of 13 could be seated. The rules should be changed.
-- Paul Offner