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Commentary: A funny thing happened in the jury box

December 24, 2007

I did my civic duty this month. I went to Hamilton Superior Court in Noblesville for jury duty.

Like most people, I suspect, I sighed when I opened the envelope on the summons several weeks earlier. This will disrupt my life, I whined to myself.

Even though I'd served on a Marion County jury for a criminal case several years before and enjoyed the experience, I wasn't thrilled about being called.

I'd been summoned earlier this year and had a legitimate excuse for not being there: sinus surgery. This time, I had to go. No surgeries scheduled.

I reported in on a snowy morning, along with about 25 other people, and I was selected. My plans for the day, based on the presumption I wouldn't be picked, quickly went up in smoke.

Then a funny thing happened. As I sat in the jury box and listened to Judge Gail Bardach eloquently explain the importance of our role as jurors, the gravitas of the situation settled in. I became engaged.

The realization was this: Truly, as jurors, we are the foundation of the court system of the United States. The law is based on the principle that anyone accused of a crime is entitled to a trial by a jury of his peers. Not only that, the accused is presumed innocent until proven guilty. It's a weighty concept that we often forget.

All of it is mere theory until you're sitting in the jury box in a courtroom.

As the lawyers question and cross-examine the witnesses and the story of the case unfolds, you begin to realize you are responsible for interpreting all this and rendering a decision that will have real consequences in people's lives.

This particular case involved a charge of auto theft, a class D felony. A 38-year-old woman-living with her mother and driving a vehicle the mother had purchased for the daughter's use-disappeared with the car.

Five days later, the panicked mom, wanting to locate her daughter and the vehicle, went to the police in hopes of filing a missing person's report. Her only option was a charge of auto theft, which she agreed to.

Other details are too numerous to enumerate here, but it was clear to all of us that the mother really didn't even want to be in the courtroom. She appeared to regret the whole incident.

But the state of Indiana-not the mother-was the plaintiff. Prosecutors were pressing forward, even as many of us jurors believed this case looked more like a family dispute than a real criminal matter.

As the jury deliberated, I realized once again the importance of our duty. As a group, we were about to make a decision that would have a huge impact on this woman's life. Making our task more difficult was the fact that information about the woman, her mother and the case itself was pretty sketchy.

The court does not allow the jury to hear information that is unnecessary to the case, some of which would've gone a long way in helping us understand this woman's past and character. We didn't even know if she had a record.

In the end, we found the woman not guilty of auto theft, but guilty of criminal conversion, a Class A misdemeanor. We felt good about sending her a strong message but one with less dire consequences than those accompanying a felony charge.

It was a short case, and the day went by quickly. Jurors were dismissed and headed home at about 4 p.m. I'm guessing all of us left with the good feeling that we had done something really important-and decidedly American-that day.



Katterjohn is publisher of IBJ. To comment on this column send e-mail to ckatterjohn@ibj.com.
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