{Guest Column} Jury duty in Rio Blanco County: one woman’s experience

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By Kaye Sullivan
Special to the Herald Times
RBC | Receiving a jury summons can feel intimidating especially because recipients don’t receive any information about how long their duty might be required or the subject matter in dispute. Having been summoned to the first jury trial in our new judicial building, I learned much about our county’s “trial by jury” selection process.
Rio Blanco County citizens should feel proud that all potential and final jurors selected, without hesitation, agreed to fulfill their and our obligations as jurors. If any of us ended up in court to have our issues legally resolved, we would value the time spent selecting an impartial and willing jury.
The new judicial building, whether you agree with the location or funding, is beautiful. The courtroom and entire facility is modern, very clean, functional, and full of lovely wood finishes. The courtroom benches are just as hard as the old court. We’re here to conduct business, not be pampered.
The courtroom is a very quiet environment, especially after the judge informs all potential jurors we must listen to all the proceedings in case we are called to replace one of the initial people who will be queried. For this jury, about 75 citizens were summoned, 17 at a time were queried, and seven selected in the end. I don’t know why it is seven and not 12 jurors. You don’t get to ask questions.
The audience is very respectful, trying hard to follow the judge’s description of events to come and how the law works. We learn how long the trial is supposed to take causing the audience to calculate lost work income, childcare or other responsibilities that would be sacrificed to be a juror.
Individual names are called one at a time to occupy the jury seats. Seventeen names are announced and the rest of us breathe a sigh of relief. I was previously called as a potential juror in Rio Blanco County for an axe murder trial. It was gruesome in every regard, thus I am not happy to be back in court again. This is a different case and I try to attend objectively.
Along with other standard queries, the judge asks each potential juror to answer 10 questions posted on a flip chart. Some are simply factual; others inquire about one’s media habits. People sit in public describing their jobs, family and backgrounds. A choice to disclose to judge and attorneys in private is provided.
The jury selection system is rigorous, but not inhuman. The judge is very practical in excusing jurors who operate businesses dependent on their presence along with a few other personal circumstances making jury service a hardship. You don’t get off duty easily, but the reasons must truly be a hardship.
When the judge asks the potential jurors if they know each other, the entire audience laughs. Almost everyone knows some of the group selected but agree they can work together. Even the judge had to admit that acquiring a completely impartial jury in a small community is impossible.
Then the attorneys get 30 minutes each for their voir dire or examination of the prospective jurors. Their questions include many elusive “what if” scenarios along with some intrusive personal questions concerning beliefs and experiences related to the case.
Along the way, the attorneys for each side sketch out the trial to come. Each attacks the other side in some way. Each lays out some potential information about stuff to come. It is a whiff about the evidence to be presented later and designed to help them select the final jurors.
Four hours in, the attorneys make their picks which means “striking” names which they literally complete on a sheet of paper, crossing out names one by one. Not a sound can be heard in the entire court as we wait. Without explanation, the judge calls names and those folks are excused. Regardless of the judge’s comments not to take it personally, exclusion still feels like a failure to measure up to one’s obligations as a citizen of this country.
The remaining seven are sworn in as the final jury then the rest of us are dismissed. That’s how jury selection works. We trust they will make the best decisions possible. It isn’t an easy job and we should all feel proud of their service.