Asked extremely personal questions about sexual assault at jury duty.
March 25, 2011 2:25 PM   Subscribe

Blindsided by having to disclose very personal information at jury duty. Is this typical? Is this information recorded anywhere? And can I avoid this happening again?

I was called into a courtroom with a pool of 50 or 60 other potential jurors for a murder trial. After preliminary screening, an initial round of us was called into the jury box for more intensive questioning. The judge asked whether any of us had ever been a victim of any crime, large or small. I was sexually assaulted over 15 years ago, so I raised my hand along with a few others...and the I realized that each person was being asked to recount the details of the crime, in front of an audience of 50 plus people. When it was my turn, I asked if I could approach the judge (even though this was never presented as an option.) I stood in front of the judge, surrounded by the three attorneys, the court officer, and the court clerk (all male.) Although only the people nearby could hear what I said, I think the whole courtroom could hear what the judge was saying in response, such as when he clarified "it was a rape?" The judge asked me several questions about the crime (which I answered, near tears, in about the tiniest voice imaginable.) Finally he asked whether any of this would affect my judgment. I said yes, mostly so that I wouldn't have to be in the same room with any of these people again. I was dismissed and left the courtroom.

This was the most uncomfortable I have felt in a long time. Before approaching the judge I had been asked to state and and spell my name and where I worked, in front of the full courtroom. Although it rarely factors into my day-to-day life anymore, there was a lot of secrecy around my attack (which was never reported) so "telling" has always been fraught. The judge was writing down everything that I said on a grid with each juror's name. For those of you who have been involved in court proceedings, do you know what happens with this information? Does it become part of the case record? I don't think the stenographer was taking down what I said, but I was too dumbfounded to really notice.

I really really regret raising my hand, but for whatever reason I felt compelled to answer truthfully. Is this normal jury selection procedure? Now that I know that this is a standard question in jury selection, is there a way to avoid this if I am called again for criminal court?

Throwaway email:
posted by anonymous to Law & Government (29 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Yes, this is standard. Next time tell them you have a family member in law enforcement, you'll most likely get dismissed.
posted by fixedgear at 2:31 PM on March 25, 2011

It was normal for me, in the selection processes I've been through, which included one murder trial. Although in our courtroom, the judge made it clear that if there was a reason you felt you couldn't serve but didn't want to discuss in open court, you could go into chambers. A few people did this, and it involved the judge, the attorneys, and the clerk. I can't remember if the bailiff went too.

As far as I know, there's no way to avoid being called for jury duty for criminal court. I'm sorry this happened to you and upset you so much.
posted by rtha at 2:34 PM on March 25, 2011

fixedgear's suggestion of perjuring yourself in court is probably unwise.
posted by 0xFCAF at 2:35 PM on March 25, 2011 [38 favorites]

question is standard, although normally when i have been in the jury pool a juror gets a little more privacy than that, as in noone but the judge can hear.
posted by domino at 2:36 PM on March 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

As far as I know, there's no way to avoid being called for jury duty for criminal court.

Don't know how it works where you live, but it's simple where I reside: Don't register to vote. The data is pulled from voter registration rolls.
posted by fixedgear at 2:42 PM on March 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

If you feel uncomfortable about it you are under no requirement to go into any details. All you need to say is that you were assaulted and if pressed for further details, simply say that you don't want to discuss it.
posted by JJ86 at 2:44 PM on March 25, 2011 [18 favorites]

Don't register to vote.

I was talking about criminal vs civil jury duty specifically.
posted by rtha at 2:48 PM on March 25, 2011

Like Rtha, the judge at my trial made it clear that people could speak to him privately in chambers, I'm sorry you weren't given that option.

Also, having a relative in law enforcement will not get you dismissed. A huge proportion of my jury pool answered yes to that because of some large prisons in the area. Some of them served, as well as the father of the new Asst D.A.
posted by saffry at 2:52 PM on March 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Yes, it's standard, but the judge could have had more discretion in giving you privacy. Next time you might say, "I'd prefer to discuss this privately in chambers rather than in public." You could also write a personal letter to the judge -- or even call him -- to let him know how this affected you.

I'm sorry this was so painful for you, but hopefully it helps a little to know that this whole process is intended to ensure an impartial jury.
posted by yarly at 2:52 PM on March 25, 2011 [6 favorites]

And not registering to vote won't get you out of potential federal jury duty.

But yes, it's standard to ask that in cases where sexual assault is a part of the case...not as common to ask for details aside from severity and how it effects your ability to be impartial.
posted by inturnaround at 2:53 PM on March 25, 2011

This level of detail was not expected when I was a juror in a criminal trial. The judge asked who had been a victim of a crime. He asked each person what the crime was, but "I was assaulted" would have absolutely sufficed.

We also ticked boxes off on a card with the major categories for potential exclusion, and the bailiff made it clear that we could address questions about the process/the judge to him.

The only person who got himself interrogated was the guy who made a Big Show out of his unwillingness to serve by impatiently raising his hand for every single question, even if contradictory.
posted by desuetude at 3:03 PM on March 25, 2011

Mod note: Few comments removed - please keep this from an early derail about voter registration? Thank you.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 3:03 PM on March 25, 2011

Anon, I've had very, very similar experiences to yours on the two occasions I've been called to jury duty. Both times I was offered the option of approaching the bench to discuss it more privately, which I did. The first time it happened, I don't recall whether the officer or the clerk were within earshot of the conversation -- I do recall the attorneys and the judge -- but I remember feeling like electrical currents were running through my body, I was so freaked out, particularly the point when the judge asked "Why didn't you report it?"

I empathize with you, and I'm so sorry that you were put in that position. If you're put in that position again, I think you have every right to ask to speak in the judge's chambers if that would make you feel more comfortable.

(Anecdotally: This was in Brooklyn and Queens. Both occasions I was dismissed, and the second time it was implied that I might be removed from the criminal jury duty pool altogether. If that did happen, I still doubt that what I said became part of court record -- I'd bet there's an administrative code they use or something.)
posted by cowboy_sally at 3:08 PM on March 25, 2011

particularly the point when the judge asked "Why didn't you report it?"

I am not you, nor the OP, but when it gets to that point of questioning to be a juror I think I would have to ask whether it was really relevant. Just saying you've been assaulted should be sufficient.
posted by asciident at 3:14 PM on March 25, 2011

Yes, as others have said, this is standard practice. However, the judge's handling of it, by not making it clear that you could discuss sensitive things privately and conducting the "sidebar" in a manner which other members of the jury pool could hear, was not very good. Some judges are very professional and know how to deal with this, others are still learning how to conduct jury selection (from that side of the bench). Also, I recently had a judge ask for this level of detail about a person's experience as a victim of a crime and we were in a civil trial that didn't have anything to do with crime or physical injuries at all.

Your responses, assuming you saw the court stenographer typing away (or they were using a remote recording system), were "on the record" and are a part of the trial transcript. Most likely, the only people who would ever see those transcripts are the lawyers and the appellate courts. And even then, they will not ask for the transcript to actually be typed up unless they plan on claiming that something in the jury selection process was mistakenly decided and should be appealed. The notes you saw being taken were most likely just the judge's personal notes on the case and nobody will ever see them but him or her. The lawyers also took personal notes for their files but nobody will ever see those, either. In my state, Illinois, the jury questionnaires which are distributed to the lawyers for selection are taken back afterwards and I believe the jury commission destroys them.

What happened to you was terrible, and what happened to you in court was very unfortunate. However, if you imagine what it would be like if someone you love had been accused of a crime and an assault victim (who may or may not be unfairly biased against all criminal defendants) was seated on his jury without his knowledge, you may understand why the system has to bring these issues to light. A good judge who knows how to take care of a jury will do so with the least amount of pain possible, but judges are human (actually, they're lawyers).

As you saw, you should inform the judge that your involvement with a crime was a very sensitive matter that you would prefer to discuss privately and you will almost certainly be accommodated. Lying in an attempt to get out of jury duty is a terrible idea, for two reasons: (1) you are under oath and that would be perjury, a crime, and (2) lawyers can spot BS a mile away and it takes a whole lot of it to get you rejected from a jury, because as soon as one person gets excused for a little white lie, everybody else in the room tries to tell the exact same one.

If you say you have a relative in law enforcement, be prepared to say how you're related, where they work, what they do, how frequently you talk with them about their work, etc. It's never that easy to get off a jury.
posted by MrZero at 3:19 PM on March 25, 2011 [5 favorites]

I don't know the answer to your question, but I just wanted to say that I'm sorry the court handled the situation like this. One would hope that a judge would be sensitive enough to use some discretion when a potential juror is asking to approach the judge. Clearly there was a good reason for it, one that would warrant him not clarifying the details of your sexual assault loud enough for others to hear.
posted by Sal and Richard at 3:40 PM on March 25, 2011

As to fixedgear's suggestion of mentioning that you have a family member in law enforcement I've done this every time I've sat on a jury (because it's true) and I've been picked every time, so YMMV. Also, they always ask questions like this.
posted by togdon at 3:50 PM on March 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

I had to deal with this myself this very week. I was called to jury duty and the trial had to do with incest and statutory rape.

Our judge made it clear he was not trying to pry into our personal business and people were able to be discreet in how they answered. One person in the jury duty pool was very upset (I won't go into details but this dredged up very personal issues in her own life) another juror persuaded her to give a note to the bailiff during the break, making it clear that her issues were severe (otherwise they'd make you wait and state in open court. ) The judge dismissed her without her having to share her business publically.

As for myself, they did ask whether I knew anyone who had been a victim or a perpetrator. In my position helping a friend with her ministry I was indeed privy to these sorts of details and I simply told the prosecuting attorney that it was privileged info and I could not ethically go into detail. They respected that.

It seems that it must really depend on the judge and the courtroom. My courtroom was incredibly respectful altho some people did indeed feel very free to state exactly why this case was not a good one for them to be seated on.

(PS the prosecutor rejected me fwiw.)
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 4:15 PM on March 25, 2011

(PS-as far as I am concerned your judge was very very very unprofessional with this. )
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 4:17 PM on March 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

fixedgear is full of bad advice. Don't lie to the court, and every state I'm aware of pulls from voter registration records AND drivers' licenses ... and often from other records, including property ownership records and so forth. (And the more people who try to spuriously avoid jury duty, like fixedgear, the wider the states cast their net and the more records are pulled in ... and the harder it is to postpone jury duty even for legitimate reasons.)

I suggest, if you feel you can, writing to the chief judge for the circuit and letting him know how unprofessionally this was handled. Judges should be more aware than most people of the pain and difficulty of discussing sexual assault in public, and this was handled appallingly. The chief judge should be made aware of it.

If you need help finding information on the chief judge for the court you were dealing with, feel free to memail me, and I'm happy to help you find that.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 4:55 PM on March 25, 2011 [12 favorites]

Another one who's done jury duty twice with a relative in law enforcement. I laugh at this suggestion. If you want off, I get the impression that having expertise in the matter at hand is what will usually get someone booted.

Think of it this way: had you covered it up and not said anything, you may very well have ended up on a jury where you had to hear traumatizing details. I am very sorry that the judge wasn't more discreet with you (and god knows he should have been), but even if you had to admit to something like that in public, it could have been worse for you if you had ended up on that trial. At least you didn't, right?
posted by jenfullmoon at 5:55 PM on March 25, 2011

I second the idea of writing a letter to the judge about how this made you feel. You might be able to help others from being put in a similarly uncomfortable situation and to help the judge be more aware of the pain he caused. Every time I've been called for jury duty, the judge has specifically told everyone that they can answer questions in chambers if there's something they don't want to discuss in open court.

As I understand it, prospective jurors can be held in contempt for refusing to participate in voir dire, but courts have held that jurors do have some right to privacy during the process. Once you've made it clear that this is a deeply emotional matter for you and you wouldn't be able to fairly hear the case, asking you further questions is just harassing you and doesn't advance the cause of jury selection. Judges aren't really in the business of throwing perspective jurors in jail, so I'd imagine that if you're respectful, answer the initial questions to the best of your ability, and then say "It's really hard for me to talk about this and don't see how I can hear this case," most judges are going to bounce you at that point.
posted by zachlipton at 6:54 PM on March 25, 2011

It happened to a guy in my last bout of jury duty-- we were given the option of going back to chambers to discuss specifics. He took them up on it and was selected anyhow-- it was a DUI trial and, as he admitted to us later, he'd had a DUI himself.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 7:00 PM on March 25, 2011

Your question is very timely for me as I just helped pick a jury yesterday for a trial. I was thinking about all the personal answers we ask of jurors and how embarrassing it can be at times.

To answer your questions: Yes, it's typical pretty much anywhere, as far as I know. Some judges and jurisdictions allow jurors to be interviewed individually, or up at the front like you did, or in chambers. You can always say you're not comfortable with whatever is going on. You can also give vague answers that indicate your personal discomfort with the question. "I don't think I could be fair." "Why not?" "Because my own life experiences would make it impossible to give this person a fair hearing." Unless, of course, you don't believe that, in which case, you should try to do the in-chambers option.

If you are going to write a letter to the judge (which is a good idea, in my opinion), keep in mind that case-related mail is often forwarded to the attorneys in the case as well so that the judge cannot be accused of ex-parte communication. Don't put anything in there you wouldn't want those other lawyers (or their client) from knowing. And don't put down that you said yes merely so you wouldn't have to be with the other people in the courtroom - dishonesty in jury selection is a crime in many jurisdictions and you don't want to bring any trouble on yourself.

Finally, I don't know whether your answers will go down in any permanent record. In Oregon, all proceedings are recorded digitally and available if a party request them, but never made part of a written record unless the case is appealed (and even then, unless the appeal involves jury selection, your name would never show up.)
posted by Happydaz at 10:08 PM on March 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm sorry that happened but please do write the letter, it would serve others well! Just in the life-advice category, think about protecting yourself -- no matter who in "authority" is doing the asking -- when confronted. Your judge was out of line. It happened to me, where I was asked to get specific in front of 50 strangers about a health-related matter to see if it would hinder my objectivity about the case. I politely gave generic answers to the questions (aggressive lawyers speaking to me as if I were on trial, not being interviewed for the jury) and then the judge bored in on me for details and I looked him dead in the eye and said, I am no longer comfortable with these questions (believe me, not easy to do or say in that forum!) He gave me a raised eyebrow and moved to the next person. I was not chosen, obvi!
posted by thinkpiece at 5:13 AM on March 26, 2011

Mod note: From the OP:
Just want to say thanks for your thoughtful comments. It's been very helpful to hear about other people's experiences, and somewhat heartening to know that at least some judges are more sensitive to this issue. It sounds like it is relatively standard procedure (or at least good practice) to acknowledge the personal nature of some of the questions and give the option of privacy. Considering that rape was one of the crimes the judge specifically mentioned when ticking off a list of things we should disclose, it seems really clueless that he wouldn't address this (I'm grateful that it occurred to me to request a "sidebar" anyway - thank you, LA Law.) I agree that simply saying I was assaulted should have been enough, but I was really taken aback and intimidated when he pressed for details. It wasn't inexperience on his part, as he was all to eager to point out that he's been "doing this for 30 years." Oh, great.

Eyebrows McGee, thanks for the suggestion to contact the chief judge - I plan to do that. Thanks also to MrZero for the lawyerly insight about transcripts, etc. And thanks especially to everyone who shared a personal story. It's very, very much appreciated.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 7:27 AM on March 26, 2011

For those of you who have been involved in court proceedings, do you know what happens with this information? Does it become part of the case record? I don't think the stenographer was taking down what I said, but I was too dumbfounded to really notice.

What you said was being taken down by the court reporter. Whether it is ever transcribed may depend on whether, in any subsequent appeals, a party contends that an error of law was made during the voir dire process. I handle a fair number of criminal appeals for defendants and voir dire is rarely an issue so the voir dire usually isn't transcribed. But sometimes it is. Even if it is transcribed the only people who will likely see it are the appellate counsel and the appellate court.

I know the process upset you, and that's unfortunate, but this doesn't sound like it was handled particularly unprofessionally. Keep in mind that the foremost concern of the judge is to protect the rights of the defendant and the interests of the parties in a fair proceeding. There are considerations (such as the importance of the court reporter being able to hear everything) that, unfortunately, must override the particular sensitivities of a member of the venire. The importance of a fair trial is paramount, and a certain amount of discomfort is to be expected in disclosing things that may bias a potential juror (and subjecting those things to adversary scrutiny). It doesn't sound like the particular details of your case were aired in front of the panel (for all they knew you were talking about the rape of an acquaintance). A juror's role is just as important in a criminal trial as a witness's -- and witnesses are often put through fairly severe cross-examination that they absolutely don't want to go through. I guess what I'm saying is that it doesn't sound like this was really mishandled, and discomfort and even embarrassment may be a necessary cost of an adversary criminal justice system that at least aspires to protecting defendants' rights to fair trials.
posted by jayder at 10:50 AM on March 26, 2011

I know the process upset you, and that's unfortunate, but this doesn't sound like it was handled particularly unprofessionally.

I think you provided some useful information about what happens with the transcript, but I would say that if jury duty is handled in a way that makes the OP feel "the most uncomfortable I have felt in a long time," there is something very much wrong with the process. No one is saying that the rights of the defendant and the need for a fair trial are unimportant, but there are basic practices that weren't followed here like informing the jurors that they can request to answer questions in private if there is a sensitive matter they don't want to talk about in person. A sexual assault victim absolutely does not deserve to be embarrassed as a result of being called for jury duty beyond the minimum amount of sensitive questioning to establish whether he or she is able to act as an impartial juror. Not humiliating the jurors is a reasonable thing for a judge to be concerned with, and it's awfully condescending to dismiss the OP's obviously real discomfort as part of the price of a fair trial. Certainly, greater sensitivity on the part of the judge wouldn't have prejudiced the defendant in any way.
posted by zachlipton at 12:45 AM on March 28, 2011 [4 favorites]

Anon, you may wish to contact the Victims' Assistance Services in your city when you write the judge--they may be able to help you both with info to include and let you know if there's anyone else you should contact about this.

I'm so sorry you had to go through this, and I really admire your bravery in being honest, standing up for yourself, and going forward to contact the judge to let him know how it affected you.
posted by min at 7:21 AM on March 31, 2011

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