Waiting to Be Summoned

Down at the Moakley Courthouse in South Boston, jury selection is underway for the trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, aka the Boston Marathon bomber.  The process began on January 5 and is supposed to finish by the end of the month, at which point the actual trial will commence.

I will not be on the eventual panel of 12 jurors and six alternates that will decide Tsarnaev’s fate.  However, I sort of wish I were.  And more to the point, I should be.  It’s only fair, and frankly I’m just about the perfect guy for the job.

I certainly could have been summoned, for starters.  I live within the nine-county splash zone that comprises the Eastern Division of the District of Massachusetts, whose residents were fair game for this case.  As well, I am a U.S. citizen over 18 with no criminal record and no “demonstrable hardship” such as a young child or sick relative to tend to.  And although Massachusetts courts normally excuse anyone who has served on a jury in the last three years (as I have done), Tsarnaev’s is a federal case, which means past experience doesn’t count.

Secondly:  For all I have written about the Marathon attack and its aftermath, I don’t have a particular opinion about the case, and I am perfectly willing to be surprised by information that I do not yet possess.

Yes, I have opined at length about various aspects of the whole terrible episode that occurred on April 15, 2013—the bombings themselves, the (over)reaction of the authorities during the hunt for the perpetrators, the psychological underpinnings that could lead an ostensibly normal person to commit an unforgivable crime—but I have very little confidence, in retrospect, that anything I wrote was correct.  I was, after all, relying on what I was being told by news outlets at the time, and we all know how unreliable they can be.

As such—and because of my high levels of skepticism and self-doubt in general—the question of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s guilt—and an appropriate punishment, should his guilt be proved beyond doubt—is one I am still willing to take seriously and with a reasonably open mind.  So far as I can tell, at this stage, I have nothing to gain by being partial.

But the biggest reason of all that I would be an ideal fit for the Tsarnaev jury is also the simplest:  I am completely available.

In addition to having no young children—or any other dependents—I also have no proper hourly job or, for that matter, not that wild of a social life.  I have no major life commitments, no place I absolutely need to be, no routine I can’t drastically disrupt in the service of something important.

In short, I am precisely the person—rare as they are—who could sit in a courtroom for three months or more without my life being completely destroyed.

So why aren’t I?  Why doesn’t the state keep people like me on call for situations like this?  The court needs a panel, I need something to do.  It’s a match made in legal heaven.

The theory about jury duty is that although it’s a huge inconvenience, virtually everyone is compelled to serve at one point or another, so at least it’s fair.  Juries are an indispensable part of our democratic system, and the only way to achieve a true “jury of one’s peers” is through the comprehensive and randomized process we have in place.  As well, it is against the law for an employer to fire someone who has missed work because of jury service, thereby removing the fear of irreparable harm to one’s livelihood.

That’s the theory.  And the reality is that most of the time, the theory is true.  Most trials don’t drag on for more than a few days, after which everyone returns to their regularly scheduled lives, taking with them an enhanced appreciation for the American judiciary and an exciting story to tell their friends.

However, regarding the Boston Marathon bomber, this is not that.

The judge in the Tsarnaev case, George O’Toole, has estimated that the trial—including the sentencing phase, should there be one—will last somewhere between three and four months.  While not quite at O.J. levels, that would be considerably longer than the two-month circus surrounding the gangster Whitey Bulger that consumed the region’s attention two years ago at the very same South Boston courthouse.

Trials of such a length are not unprecedented, but they are certainly unusual, and—to my point—unimaginably disruptive for all involved, particularly for a case as emotionally-charged as this one.

It makes me wonder, then, if our judicial system wouldn’t be better served if we allowed people to actually volunteer for jury duty, rather than simply waiting, fearfully, to be summoned.  Why not make serving on a jury a bit more like serving in the military—that is, as a vocation, albeit a part-time, thankless and low-paying one?  Why should 18 hard-working people have their lives utterly wrecked while less hard-working people like me are just lazing around, begging to be put to good use?

One answer to this—a not-insignificant one—is that the sorts of folks who are especially eager to be impaneled can be, shall we say, a bit suspect.  Lawyers and judges take it more or less for granted that nobody truly wants to spend their days listening to testimony with a group of strangers (I certainly don’t), and so they are trained to treat those with any real enthusiasm with a healthy dose of suspicion.

With the Tsarnaev case, fears of jurors’ “ulterior motives” are especially acute, since the effects of Tsarnaev’s alleged crimes have managed to touch virtually every resident of the Boston metro area in one way or another.  As such, it stands to reason that a handful of the 1,350-member pool might desire to smuggle themselves into the courtroom under false pretenses.  After all, you don’t need to personally know someone who was wounded in the Marathon blasts to harbor a white-hot hatred for the man who (apparently) set them off.

(The question of whether the trial should be moved outside Boston has generated enormous debate.  It’s easy to see why.)

I’d like to think myself more level-headed and objective than that, and more respectful of the American judicial system, which guarantees a fair trial for even the most seemingly guilty among us.  However, I could be overestimating myself, and I would hope, in any case, that a thorough questioning by Judge O’Toole would settle it once and for all.  In any voir dire proceeding, it is the moral obligation of prospective jurors to answer questions truthfully, but it is ultimately the responsibility of judges and attorneys to choose to believe them (or not).

So long as this is the case—that is, so long as human nature remains the same—I propose a jury pool composed at least partially of volunteers—folks who can more easily and dependably sacrifice their time to participate in America’s judicial process, thereby lowering the odds that everyone else will get the dreaded call themselves.

Seems like a fair deal to me.

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