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Viewpoint: Importance of jury's work not overstated

I started the week wondering when I would go free.

The jury summons had arrived in my mailbox several months earlier. I postponed the inevitable inconvenience twice, realizing all along I eventually would have to show up.

Oh, sure, "it's your civic duty," but who wants a jury duty invite?

Day 1 of jury duty came on a recent Monday morning. At 8:30 a.m., there we were, 101 of us who had been summoned for the week, sitting in every available chair in the courthouse jury room. It looked like the airport gate area for an overbooked red-eye flight after a holiday weekend. Few of us looked happy to be there. Many just wanted to leave.

The jury employees were remarkably friendly. They seemed to empathize with our plight, while reminding us of the importance of our presence even if we weren't serving on a jury.

They told us frequently that the process is random until you're called to jury selection for a trial. It's random that you're summoned. It's still random when your group within the jury pool gets called up to a courtroom. It's random if you're sent home for the day.

For about two days, I waited to be called to a wood-paneled courtroom, or to be dismissed. Even with a laptop and work to do, it's boring. However, there are lots of breaks and long lunches.

"You can go anywhere you want but the bar and a courtroom," we were told.

Good to know.

Turns out I was too confident that attorneys wouldn't want a member of the news media -- who sometimes writes about crime -- anywhere near a jury box.

On Day 3, my jury group of 21 people got the call for a criminal trial and went upstairs for voir dire, or questioning.

The attorneys were professional in their prodding as they worked to ferret out details about potential jurors.

Some jurors didn't make the cut. One man, who earlier in the week entertained fellow prospective jurors with colorful tales from his railroad days, was dismissed after voir dire. His answer to an attorney's question about past interaction with police perhaps was too entertaining.

For unknown reasons, others who didn't seem to raise red flags still were sent on their way. It's difficult to know exactly what attorneys want in jurors. Many of my assumptions were proven incorrect.

Seven of us were chosen. We were the jury of six, and an alternate, for a domestic assault case.

Suddenly the jury duty stint shifted from simply biding time in the basement to preparing to decide the fate of a man presumed innocent but charged with physically assaulting a woman. The potential ramifications -- both for the suspect and the alleged victim -- loomed large for us.

We listened to testimony over two days. We took notes, documenting key details and witness inconsistencies.

Testimony concluded, closing arguments were made and the judge gave us our instructions.

The six of us retired to a conference room to begin deliberations. We came from varying backgrounds, held vastly different jobs and brought a rich variety of personal experience to the deliberations. Yet, we shared an unspoken realization: this was a serious task and our decision may alter lives.

We deliberated for some time and returned the next day to continue. There was no rush to judgment, no peer pressure to reach a quick verdict.

So difficult were elements of the case for some that we notified the judge that we did not believe a unanimous verdict could be reached.

That was followed by more discussion. Jurors reviewed their notes, evaluated known facts, photographic evidence and witness statements.

After further deliberation, we reached a unanimous decision.

Returning to the courtroom with signed verdict in hand, there was palpable tension.

We, the jury, found the defendant guilty.

It was weighty work. If there was any relief among the jurors, it was that we had confidence in our decision.

The verdict announced and our work complete, we were dismissed. We all wondered about the future for the victim, the family and the convicted.

I ended the week wondering when he would go free.

Scott Wente

Scott Wente has been editor at the South Washington County Bulletin since 2011. He worked as a reporter at other Forum Communications newspapers from 2003 to 2011.

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