Ten Things I Learned as a Juror: A Criminal Prosecutor’s Perspective on Being a Civil Juror
Even though I’ve tried over one hundred jury trials as a prosecutor, I learn something new every time I try a case. As is the case with most trial attorneys, I love being in trial; it’s the one place you go to leave it all on the field.
Every trial attorney wishes they could be a fly on the wall in a jury room. While the jury is deliberating, we sit in the courtroom wondering what the jury is doing, what they are talking about, and occasionally we wonder why we are hearing peals of laughter coming through the jury room door. We ask the bailiffs and court staff what they thought about the case, and what they expect will happen. But most of the conversation revolves around one subject: what is the jury talking about?
When I got my jury summons, the trial attorney in me wondered if I’d actually make it back into that room where so much of my thoughts are directed to on a weekly basis. I knew it’d be highly unlikely for any prosecutor to sit on a criminal case in Texas. A criminal defense attorney would either establish a challenge for cause, use a peremptory strike, or both sides might agree to excuse the prosecutor from the panel. Needless to say, as much as I knew I’d enjoy serving as a juror, to see the process from the other side, I wasn’t optimistic about my chances of being selected.
The Jury Room
In Tarrant County, jurors generally first arrive at the Central Jury Room. You check in, get your court assignment and are told when to report back to your assigned court. Often, jurors complete these preliminary steps online and report directly to the court to which they are assigned. The week I was summoned, the online questionnaires were not being sent out due to a technical glitch, so I got to experience the long-version, starting down at the Central Jury Room. The whole process ended up being very smooth. While we were waiting to be assigned to a court, they showed a surprisingly accurate video that was prepared by the Texas Young Lawyers that explains the role of jurors and informs potential jurors about what to expect in court.
When I got my court assignment, I found I was assigned to Judge Susan Heygood-McCoy’s court, a civil court. This was a good thing: my chances of being put on the jury went from being practically none to just highly improbable. I knew Judge Heygood McCoy as being my Eldon Mahon Inn of Court Master the previous year, but besides going to her investiture, I had never been in her court. I was excited that I would at least be able to sit through jury selection in a civil case.
During jury selection, the plaintiff’s attorney asked each of the jurors questions. They were simple questions that allowed the attorney to get to know us. This supplemented the questionnaires we had filled out that told the attorneys a little bit about us. In jury selection, we learned that the case stemmed from a car wreck, and the plaintiff was seeking damages for actual medical bills, lost wages, pain and suffering and the value of diminished future income due to the injuries.
I went in knowing both attorneys had seen the questionnaires and they knew I was a prosecutor. The plaintiff’s attorney asked me a few questions about my experiences as a prosecutor. He also asked what some common things that drivers had to watch out for while operating motor vehicles: a great question to pose to a prosecutor who has tried countless driving while intoxicated cases. He continued that line of questioning with the rest of the panel. This ended up being an effective question in a case where he would be arguing the plaintiff’s negligence in operating his vehicle caused the defendant’s injuries.
Both sides presented their evidence and concluded the trial by the second day. The presentation of evidence was concise, and both sides made their final arguments.
After several hours of deliberations, the verdict was for the plaintiff for an amount that was around seventy percent of what the plaintiff asked the jury for.
Top Ten Things I Learned
- You have to win jurors’ hearts and minds. Emotions give deliberations direction. Point their hearts in the right direction so the facts take them to the right conclusion. Simply having good facts is not going to be enough to get them to follow you.
- Jurors consider more than what’s in evidence. In our case, deliberations sometimes strayed to other car wrecks and other injuries, but the jurors that remembered the court’s admonishment steered the conversation back on course. The legal requirement to only consider facts in evidence stands in stark contrast to the reality that everyone views information in the only lens they know: their own, and it is difficult to share opinions without explaining why a person feels that way.
- Jurors want to see you use your exhibits. Our case had photographs and medical records. Neither side published the photographs. Back in the jury room, there were a lot of questions about the underlying liability until a juror picked up the never-published photographs and the jury determined that there was only one version of events that was consistent with the physical damage to the vehicles.
- This may be specific to Tarrant County or car wrecks, but jurors are very reluctant to award damages. Many people felt that paying for pain and suffering would be making the victim “more than whole.” There were even those that believed accidents are just accidents, and no one should have to pay for an “accident.”
- During jury selection most jurors only answer the question asked; they don’t volunteer opinions. All of the jurors were asked if they could award damages if the facts justified it. Some of the same jurors got to the jury room and felt strongly that accidents are just accidents, and someone should not have to pay financially for another person’s negligence in a car wreck. Since in civil cases there is much more latitude in going into the facts of the case in voir dire, a better question might be how they felt about awarding those types of damages in a car wreck case.
- Be reasonable in the damages sought if your case is not a slam dunk. Despite some of the jurors reluctance in awarding damages, the reason that the plaintiff was able to obtain seventy percent of the number he asked for was that he was very reasonable in the amount of damages he sought. While there were a few that thought he did not ask for a high enough number, the majority felt it was an extremely reasonable request and it was much easier convincing the hold-outs that the amount finally agreed upon was reasonable because they plaintiff did not shut them out completely by asking for an extremely high number.
- Jurors laugh to relieve tension, not because they are not taking the case seriously.
- When jurors have disputes, it easier for them to go with whatever the loudest person in the room remembers, rather than certifying a question for the court reporter. Depending on the makeup of your jury and their personalities, you might consider reminding them in closing that if the have a dispute, they can certify a question and get the answer from the court reporter.
- Jurors really want to do the right thing. Our jury referred to the charge many times, really worked through liability and damages in great detail.
- Get to know your potential jurors. The attorneys didn’t know much about us. or instance, if anyone had asked, between undergrad and law school, I worked for Safeco/Liberty Mutual as an insurance adjustor. That might have been a good thing for the attorneys to know on a car wreck case.