It may be one of the most important civic privileges we have and one of the most central to give to both our government and our role as a citizen of the United States.
Whatever type of case you may be called to serve as a juror in, a person’s livelihood or their life may hang in the balance. The job of juror is a very serious one and, if done correctly and with dedication, I can tell you it is not an easy one.
If you are chosen for a jury, the judge will provide you and your fellow jurors with a set of instructions that seem easy on the surface, but can be difficult; particularly in this “information age”.
One of the first things you will hear is instructions from the judge relating to your duties as a juror. Yes, you have both duties and important responsibilities, including:
- You must decide the case only on the evidence presented in the courtroom. You must not communicate with anyone, including friends and family members, about the case, the people and places involved, or your jury service. You must not disclose your thoughts about the case or ask for advice on how to decide the case.
- You must not use electronic devices or computers to communicate about the case, including tweeting, texting, blogging, e-mailing, posting information on a website or chat room, or any other means at all.
- You must not do any research or look up words, names, maps, or anything else that may have anything to do with the case. This includes reading newspapers, watching television or using a computer, cell phone, the Internet, any electronic device, or any other means at all, to get information related to the case or the people and places involved in the case.
- You must not form any definite or fixed opinion on the merits of the case until you have heard all the evidence, the argument of the lawyers and the instructions on the law by the judge. Until that time, you should not discuss the case with fellow jurors.
- You must not discuss the case with anyone nor permit anyone to say anything to you or in your presence about the case.
So, when my wife asked me about one case upon which I was serving, I told her I could not talk to her about it. Her response was along the lines of, “oh come on, I am your wife”. I explained to her that was the very reason I could not talk to her about it. I respect my wife’s intelligence and, even when we disagree, I respect her opinion. Her ability to influence me is too great; and that goes for friends as well.
The judge is liable to tell you that newspapers are off limits through the duration of the trial; as are news casts. This may seem severe, but how many times have you heard a news person say something as if it was fact when it was more conjecture than anything else. Again, you must prevent yourself from being unduly influenced – even accidentally.
The judge will also tell you something such as:
In this age of electronic communication, I want to stress you must not use electronic devices or computers to talk about this case, including tweeting, texting, blogging, e-mailing, posting information on a website or chat room, or any other means at all. You are not to conduct your own independent research about any aspect of the case, including about the parties or their attorneys.
Again, all these instructions are with good reason. Regardless of your opinions of the law or the facts in the case, the law provides a framework for the parties to receive a chance at a fair trial. That is correct; you read it a “chance” at a fair trial. The system is not perfect and you do not always get a fair trial if you are a party; but a juror is one of the singularly most important aspects of the parties receiving a chance at having a fair trial.
What is at risk? In a criminal trial, it is obvious. The defendant’s reputation and freedom hang in the balance. Possibly, the defendant’s life may hang in the balance of a juries’ decision.
In a civil case, what hangs in the balance? Just money? Well, that may be the shortest story, but there is more.
This law firm represents people injured by someone else and we bring a lawsuit if we believe the defendant was negligent. Often, sadly, too many of our clients are so injured they cannot work or unable to work at their profession and have lost wages. Some of our clients have sunk deeply into bankruptcy or near financial ruin by the time we can get their case to trial.
In the current environment, it takes 2, 3 or 4 years to get to trial in a civil case. During that time, we have been investigating the case; taking depositions; hiring experts; and many other functions to prepare the case for you, the juror. In a large number of cases, we have spent thousands of hours and sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars preparing the cases on our client’s behalf.
A trial can take a few days to a few months and during trial, considerable money is being spent to bring the evidence before the jury. Both parties have a considerable amount invested and, so, each party risks considerable money being lost. The plaintiff in an injury case may have their ability to take care of themselves and their family, hanging in the balance; before the case is given to you, the jury, to reach a decision.
For the life, money and livelihood that any case involves, it is the court’s goal to provide the fairest trial possible and one decided on the facts in evidence and the law as given by the court. That is the reason for the instruction given to jurors by the judge.
You may sometimes read about a trial and wonder how a jury could have reached the decision they did. If the trial went well for everyone, the jury decided the case based on what they heard or saw in the courtroom; and on the law given to them by the judge. You may disagree with the law, but the case must be decided on the law. If you want, in your civic mindedness, to try and get a particular law changed after the trial, I support your efforts; whether I agree with them or not. However, at the time of trial, the law is what the law is as the judge instructs.
What happens if a juror does not obey the court?
Sometimes the infraction is small enough that the judge may speak with the individual juror or the whole jury in an effort to correct the problem and prevent it from happening again. Sometimes, though, the violation may be so great that the judge believes the parties could not possibly have a chance at a fair trial and the court may declare a mistrial in the case.
If a juror is guilty of misconduct by violating the judge’s instruction, what can happen? The court may lecture the jury as mentioned above. What if the court believes the misconduct to be severe enough to warrant a mistrial; even if it means the sacrifice of many thousands of dollars by the court and the parties?
The action available to a judge faced with juror misconduct can include:
- The judge may determine the misconduct caused no injury to proceeding with the trial and instruct the jury to ignore it.
- Removing the juror from the case and placing a substitute juror. .
- The court could find the juror guilty of contempt of court; under Florida Statute 918.12 and 775.082; which can include a prison term as high as (5) years.