It’s a civic duty with a bad rap. People tend to cringe when get the letter for jury duty, but how do you get picked and do some of us get summoned more than others?
It’s a piece of paper that sparks quite a response. You’ve got the letter for jury duty.
“The system doesn’t work without them,” said Jeff Hammerschmidt, a former Fresno County Deputy District Attorney.
Eyewitness News takes you behind the scenes of what happens before and after you sit inside the jury box.
In 1997, one of Fresno’s most notorious murder cases was just going to trial.
Among the potential jurors reporting downtown was 46-year-old Mike Elder. It was the first time he ever received a jury summons.
“There were 700 of us – figure the odds of getting picked,” Elder said.
Elder was the first jury member selected for the Ewell Family murder trial – the People vs. Dana Ewell.
Then 26, Ewell was the prime suspect in the murders of his parents and sister.
“We were responsible for deciding whether these two men lived or died.”
Over the next several months, Elder would listen to emotional testimony and see stunning evidence – unable to share a single detail with anyone.
“That was such a big trial,” Elder said. “It was so bad none of us could watch TV – watch the news – listen to the radio because [the case] was permeated everywhere.”
Elder said the jury became very close. His peers chose him to serve as the jury foreman – spokesman for the group. He quickly learned the responsibility he had.
“It was very stressful,” Elder said, “We were responsible for deciding whether these two men lived or died.”
Elder said after eight long months, the jury was out for 10 days to decide the verdict.
They found Ewell and his friend Joel Radovich guilty for all three murders; their motive was to inherit the family fortune. “People were crying, and not just women – the men were tearing up because they realized – one: you can’t believe this happened; two: you came to the true conviction – they did it. And it was tough,” Elder said.
But not everyone is jumping up and down to serve on a jury.
"They’re put in a big pot...and it's a completely random drawing"
“People try to get out of jury duties in very creative ways,” Hammerschmidt said.
“Claim you have a bias – no matter what the crime say you were a victim of that too,” an online tips video suggests. “You were a victim of murder? ‘Yes."
But really, how did your name get on the jury pool list?
Fresno County Superior Court Judge Kimberly Gabb said it is absolutely random.
“The names are taken from Department of Motor Vehicles records, as well as voting records. They’re put in a big pot they’re randomized, and it's a completely random drawing,” Gabb said.
"The judge is trying to make sure it's a fair panel"
Out of dozens who will appear for jury summons, 12 get called to the jury box – that’s also picked at random.
“The judge is trying to make sure it's a fair panel,” Gabb said.
The judge and attorneys then begin questioning.
Jeff Hammerschmidt is a former Fresno County Deputy District Attorney and now is a defense attorney. He was also a prosecutor on the Dana Ewell case. He said both sides look for different characteristics in a juror.
“You're looking to avoid someone with such a strong personality that they could cause a hung jury”
“From the prosecution side … you’re looking to avoid someone with such a strong personality that they could cause a hung jury,” Hammerschmidt said. “On the defense side … people that will keep an open mind that will listen to all the evidence before making a decision.”
During this process, judges decide if a potential juror can serve, but both attorneys can typically dismiss 10 jury members for any given reason.
“You don’t actually pick a jury – you de-select a jury and you end up with who's left,” Hammerschmidt said.
"You don’t actually pick a jury – you de-select a jury and you end up with who's left"
He and Judge Gabb said the most common reason they dismiss jurors is the financial burden. But for those who can serve, they said jurors are incredibly important.
“It is instrumental to our justice system and we couldn't do it without members of the public,” Gabb said.
Elder’s experience on the jury changed the course of his life to become a part of the legal system. He’s been an attorney now for more than a decade.
"I can look at juries now and say I know what's going on; I know what's going on in their mind I have a lot of compassion for jurors,” Elder said.
His experience gives him a rare perspective in the courtroom.
He hopes people who have never served will see the civic duty so many dread in a new light.
“I think everyone should do jury duty. If they do, they'll have more faith in the justice system as far as juries go,” Elder said.
million people summoned for jury service nationally
million people actually reporting for jury duty
million people eventually selected to serve
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