As a recent North Carolina transplant and the newest member of the Policy Watch team, I am getting to know my new home and beat by traveling to courtrooms across the state to observe routine, everyday hearings and share what I see with readers. Each dispatch will be from a different county. Where should I go next? Email me at [email protected]
The stories will not necessarily be about policy problems or systemic issues with the justice system. Rather, what is written will be deemed newsworthy because it is a routine occurrence that might surprise those who haven’t been through the system themselves. The first dispatch was in Chatham County; the second was in Guilford County.
The prospective jurors started arriving after lunch. They walked, single file, through the metal detector at the entrance of the Hoke County Courthouse, past the county sheriff’s deputy to check in with the court staff. Some spelled their names, others asked how long this would all take, but they each walked up the stairs or took the elevator to the old courthouse’s second floor, to report for jury duty in the Superior Court courtroom.
Each of the roughly 60 people would be screened by defense attorneys and prosecutors to sit for a jury in a criminal trial that would likely last several days. The defendant was a white man in his 30s accused of driving under the influence and hitting and killing a Fort Bragg solider with his car in 2017.
They sat silently beneath the stately chandeliers that hung in the 100-year-old courtroom. Some brought magazines or crossword puzzles. They endured the wait without their phones, told by the sheriff’s deputy to leave them in their cars.
At 1:15 an elderly white man with white hair and beard stubble approached the knee-high gate in the courtroom that separates “the well” — where the judge, court staff and attorneys sit — from the 77 chairs in the gallery, where the prospective jurors were waiting.
“Excuse me,” the man said, still wearing his sunglasses. “We were instructed to be here at 1:00. What’s the holdup?”
The two bailiffs in the well looked at one another and then back at the man.
“When they finish checking everybody in downstairs, we’ll get started,” one said.
The crowd laughed, their silence temporarily broken by a man trying to do the impossible: bend a courthouse’s schedule to his will.
And yet, five minutes later the bailiffs turned on the television facing the gallery. They queued up a video titled “You, The Juror.”
The video told them they were about to embark on a form of service, one of the highest that an American civilian can be called upon to do. Jurors have been settling legal disputes in the U.S. for more than 200 years, the woman in the video said, so the people in the courtroom were joining a longstanding democratic tradition.
“Jury service is at the heart of the American system of justice, where citizens participate directly in the legal process,” she said.
Despite its importance to the justice system, jury trials are rare. Nationally, 94% of felony convictions in state courthouses like Hoke County are the result of plea bargains, deals struck between prosecutors and defense attorneys in which defendants plead guilty and avoid the costly procedure of a trial in exchange for a shorter sentence or lesser charge. Even the North Carolina courts website says that “few criminal cases go to trial.”
Each person in the Hoke County courtroom had been selected at random from a master jury list made by an independent jury commission in their county. To serve, jurors must be a citizen of North Carolina and resident of Hoke County, at least 18 years old and physically or mentally competent, speak English and not have been convicted of a felony or served as a juror in the last two years.
Superior Court Judge A. Graham Shirley entered the courtroom just after 2 p.m. and took his seat in front of a small, two-row library filled with what looked like legal books. He restated the qualifications to serve as a juror and asked if anybody didn’t meet them. One woman dressed in Army clothes said she was stationed in North Carolina but called another state home. She even voted there. The judge dismissed her.
A Black man raised his hand and told the judge he had a felony conviction in Texas. Shirley said that citizenship rights are restored once a person is no longer on probation or post-release supervision following a prison sentence.
“So if you’ve paid your debt —” the judge said.
“I’ve paid my debt,” the man said quickly, finishing the judge’s sentence. He sat back down, still a member of the juror pool.
Shirley estimated the trial would take the rest of the week, hardly the longest of his career. Once, he said, he presided over a trial that went from November to March.
“In the grand scheme of things, this is not a long trial,” Shirley said.
Around 10 people lined up to ask the judge for a deferral of their jury service, putting their name back on the master list of people eligible to be called for future trials. Most of the people who lined up were people of color. They said they had surgery, were due in court themselves that same week, had medical conditions that made it hard for them to pay attention, or had other important family obligations. One woman said she had to take care of her mother, who has dementia. She didn’t have time to sit in court for five days; her mom needed her.
“She don’t have no one else,” the woman said.
Shirley granted virtually all the deferrals. About 50 prospective jurors remained. They would be called to the jury box in groups of 12 and asked whether they knew the defendant or anyone else in the courtroom, what they and their spouses did for a living and if any of the names on the trial’s witness list sounded familiar.
During jury selection, lawyers vet potential jurors by asking them questions about their personal lives and experiences, trying to discern whether a juror is biased and cannot consider a case fairly. Prosecutors and defense attorneys each ask questions and can excuse certain potential jurors without providing a reason (known as a “peremptory challenge”) or because of something in their personal histories that would prejudice their assessment of the case (known as a “for cause challenge.”)
Of the roughly 60 people who showed up to the Hoke County courthouse that day, a dozen would be called to sit on the jury.
Shirley called 12 prospective jurors to the box and turned questioning over to Yohan Namkung, a prosecutor with the Hoke County District Attorney’s Office. Namkung went up and down the two rows of people, asking them one at a time what they and their spouses do for a living and whether they knew the defendant or defense lawyers. When many of the dozen people mentioned either serving in the military or being married to a veteran, he thanked them for their service and asked how they had served their country. He also asked if they saw the car wreck on Rockfish Road five years ago.
“You’re saying 2017. I can’t remember what I did last year,” one man said.
Church bells tolled every 60 minutes to signify the passing of another hour. About twenty minutes after the bells had tolled for the third time since the prospective jurors had gathered in the courtroom, Shirley gave them a 15-minute break.
They filed out of the courtroom, many even leaving the courthouse to get a breath of fresh air before going back in and finishing the day’s proceedings. The sheriff’s deputy was the last person they saw on their way out the door. She also would be the first person they’d see when they came back. She would supervise as they each walked through the metal detector, single file, same as they did when they arrived.
The deputy’s day would be even longer than theirs. She’d been there for the cases on the morning calendar, and she’d stay until every prospective juror was out of the building, making sure the courthouse is locked so that they can all come back the next morning at 9:30. She too, hoped the day wouldn’t go long past 5 o’clock. She had a young child to get home to.