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Are Your Jurors Comfortable Beyond a Reasonable Doubt?

by Kurt Schlauch / May 17, 2018

What are the odds that two court planning consultants, each with over 20 years experience in the same small company, had NEVER been called for jury duty? Further, what are the odds that they both would be called to serve for the first time at the same small county courthouse within several months of each other? AND both be selected to sit on the jury?

Last year, my colleague Alison Jones recounted her first experience with jury duty. I thought it would be fun to compare our experiences as I reflect upon my own recent jury service debut. As court planning consultants, Alison and I have each worked in hundreds of courthouses throughout the U.S. and several territories. We’ve seen historic courthouses and brand new buildings, urban skyscrapers and small courthouses centered on the quaint town square. We’ve gained an understanding of how the American justice system is designed to work and how the spaces within a courthouse can either help or hinder the way judges, jurors, counsel, and litigants fulfill their respective roles and responsibilities. But until receiving our recent summons, neither of us had seen a courthouse from the perspective of an actual participant.

I hope these first-hand observations will provide some meaningful insights concerning the important role facilities play in the administration of justice.

Jury Duty – Just Show Up!

As Alison noted in her blog, many courthouses are located in busy downtown locations, and it can be a daunting task to find the courthouse and parking. This can increase already elevated anxiety levels for many individuals who find themselves having to show up at a courthouse. We were both relieved to find plenty of parking and signage that clearly pointed the way to our county courthouse and its parking areas. I arrived at the security screening area early. In fact, based on my professional experience, I had allotted 15 extra minutes to navigate the screening process. I’ve seen more than my share of courthouses where just getting inside conjures images of a bad day at the airport – long lines of impatient people, multiple trips through the metal detector, removal of belts, shoes, and jewelry, and of course the requisite verbal abuse by screeners.

I’m happy to say I didn’t experience any of that on this day. In fact, I was surprised to be literally the only person in the screening area upon entering the courthouse. The court security personnel were cheerful and courteous. My clueless demeanor evidently betrayed my not-so-secret mission – “You here for jury duty?” I confirmed this as the purpose for my visit and – after a quick trip through the metal detector – was directed to the 2nd floor.

Jury Facilities Orientation – Getting the Scoop

To accommodate jury assembly, courthouses typically provide rooms adequately sized for larger jury pools, with comfortable seating, coat and personal property storage areas, restrooms, and vending. Magazines and televisions are often provided to occupy jurors during a long waiting period.

Alison was taken to an orientation room that was rather small and crowded, with restrooms all the way down the hallway and no water made available.

My jury assembly experience was also not the best, though it was very different from Alison’s experience, despite being held in the same courthouse (which is a newer “annex” to the original, historic courthouse). After clearing security, I followed the guard’s directions up a flight of stairs to the 2nd floor. Juror check-in was handled at a wooden table temporarily set up in an open foyer area between the entrances to two courtrooms. I identified myself, signed in, and was handed an envelope containing my fee for that day’s service. The clerk handling check-in was cheerful and polite, which placed me at ease.

I don’t know if the jury assembly room Alison referenced was being used for another trial on this day, but the clerk directed me to the adjacent courtroom. I joined the other prospective jurors in the narrow rows of benches comprising the gallery (i.e., spectator seating area). It was quiet. TOO quiet. A more open area with some entertainment options would have been preferable to the awkward silence!

For the next 10 minutes or so, members of the jury pool continued to trickle in. The silence was eventually shattered by two extremely chatty ladies who came to the simultaneous realization they had been selected in the same jury pool as their good friend. From that point on, everyone in the courtroom was able to catch up on the details of these ladies’ family drama, kids’ milestones, and recent medical appointments. Maybe the silence hadn’t been so bad after all!

As this scene might suggest, the courtroom did not work well for jury assembly. Despite the warm greetings at the juror check-in table, the awkward silence in the courtroom seemed to set everyone on edge. Then the ladies’ inescapable conversation made the dynamic uncomfortable in a different way. No mention was made of the location of restrooms and, as with Alison’s experience, there was no access to water or coffee. (OK, Alison was only on the hunt for water. But I need my coffee!)

Mercifully, the jury commissioner arrived on time to begin our orientation, which she delivered in a personable and efficient manner, supplemented by a video. The shortcomings of the space did not obscure the important information the orientation provided. However, the experience would have been considerably better if it were held in a properly sized, dedicated jury assembly area.

Jury Selection – Wait, Me?

Both Alison and I took part in jury selection in a courtroom. For me, interestingly, the trial was to be held in the historic county courthouse, rather than the annex where orientation was held. After orientation, the prospective jurors - led by the bailiff - walked down the stairs, out the door of the annex, and across the street to the much older, but well-preserved, historic courthouse in the same downtown complex. Physically moving a 60-person jury pool from one building to another, through public hallways and across the street, caused a fair amount of commotion and certainly created a security risk.

Upon reaching the historic courthouse, we scaled a steep, narrow set of stairs (a challenge for several prospective jurors) and were ushered into a large courtroom that evoked a sense of history and decorum. The bailiff arranged us all in order by juror number and seated us in the gallery, which was separated from the well by a wooden railing.

Two microphones were positioned in front of the railing (one in each of two aisles) for prospective jurors to use during voir dire. Jurors would line up behind the microphones to provide responses to the judge’s questions as appropriate (i.e., “Have you, any family members, or close friends ever been a victim of theft”?). The objective of voir dire is to ensure a fair and impartial jury panel.

Similar to Alison’s experience, the courtroom space worked well in terms of sightlines and acoustics and helped us feel like important participants in the legal process. And like Alison, jury selection concluded with my being selected to serve on the jury in a criminal case and seated in the jury box!

Jury Trial - The Main Act

As covered in Alison’s blog, sightlines, acoustics, and juror comfort are extremely important elements of the courtroom environment during a jury trial. For the trial on which I served, the sightlines and acoustics were generally good. One of the witnesses was occasionally asked by the judge to speak directly into the microphone, but otherwise we were able to hear testimony clearly and gather any necessary non-verbal cues from witnesses.

In terms of security, the bailiff was stationed next to the jury box and another deputy was stationed at the rear of the courtroom. The trial involved a business relationship gone awry, and tensions escalated slightly, but not to the extent Alison noted for her assault trial, in which the prime witness became extremely hostile towards the defendant and defense attorney.

The jury box in our courtroom had wooden chairs, but they at least had cushions. The seats were fine for an hour or two – and fortunately it was a short trial – but they would have been uncomfortable for much longer. I agree with Alison that a better option would be padded swivel chairs.

Jury Deliberation – Getting to the Verdict

The jury deliberation room was the least functional space I encountered in my trial. During the one-day proceeding, the jurors probably spent more time in the jury deliberation room than in the courtroom, as there were multiple instances where we were dismissed so the judge could discuss with counsel certain legal issues concerning admissibility of evidence.

The jury deliberation room was appropriately located relative to the courtroom, and was accessed through a door next to the jury box. While the wooden door reflected the historic character of the courthouse, it seems likely the bailiff could overhear some of the discussions from inside, especially if voices were raised.

More importantly, the room was well below any modern standard. Just getting 12 jurors (and one alternate) in and out without bumping into one another was a challenge. The table didn’t have enough chairs for all jurors, so some people had to sit in chairs along the walls, or even stand. We had to squeeze by each other or rearrange ourselves each time someone wanted to access the service area, which consisted of a sink and a small refrigerator. A single unisex restroom was literally a couple feet away from the table, making every restroom visit extremely awkward for everyone.

The following diagram shows a good example of the layout for a modern, functional jury deliberation room.

jury

Ideal Jury Room

 

Considering the limitations of the jury deliberation room in our case, we were fortunate it was a short trial. As if the spatial deficiencies weren’t enough, it was a sunny spring day but the room had only one small window, obscured by heavy curtains. This gloomy setting reinforced the importance of natural light in jury and other public spaces. While the jurors made the best of it for a short trial, it would have become a real issue for a longer proceeding. I think after a while the jurors would’ve started wondering if this was a jury deliberation room or a prisoner holding cell!

Closing Argument

I concur with Alison that the jury facilities in our small county courthouse functioned adequately for a one-day trial. However, a larger jury pool would not have been well-served by holding orientation in a courtroom and the jury deliberation room would not have been suitable for a longer trial.

As for the verdict, although my first day of jury service began with visions of “12 Angry Men,” it more closely resembled “My Cousin Vinny” (without the one-liners) once reality set in. The case involved an ownership dispute between two former business partners involving construction equipment. One partner made a questionable transaction with a piece of machinery that involved a third party, which triggered a sequence of events ending with a criminal charge. Our jury found the defendant Guilty.

We deliberated for about 90 minutes and looked at every possible angle and hypothetical scenario. We examined documents that were admitted into evidence. Based on the instructions we were given and the evidence we were presented, we could not find any “reasonable doubt” that the defendant committed the offense as charged. I believe we discharged our civic duty responsibly. Each person looked at the facts and evidence thoroughly, offered points and counterpoints, and we eventually reached a unanimous verdict.

When we filed back into the jury box for the last time, the defendant was instructed to rise and face us as our verdict was announced. Perhaps at no other point during the day did the solemnity of the American justice system resonate so clearly. A group of strangers had just collectively made a decision that would impact the lives of multiple people. The laws of our state and nation required us to do so.

Like Alison, I received a thank-you note from the judge approximately one week after serving and thought it was an extremely thoughtful gesture. I shared it with my kids and hopefully helped reinforce for them the importance of this civic duty.

In many cases, critical factors hang in the balance while a jury serves. Careers, child custody, individual freedom, and occasionally life itself may be at stake. It is therefore crucial that the jurors entrusted with making such important decisions be provided with proper facilities that enable them to focus on rendering a fair and impartial verdict. Our justice system depends on it!

Tags: Courthouse Planning

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Kurt Schlauch

Kurt Schlauch

Kurt is a lead consultant and project manager with Fentress. He specializes in applying quantitative models to assess facilities and support organizational resource decisions. His personal interests include playing and coaching sports, skiing, and traveling with his wife and two children.