If you ever have jury duty in New York state, you’ll likely have the pleasure of seeing an orientation video that starts with how far we’ve come since the Dark Ages, when an accused’s guilt was determined via trial by ordeal (i.e. thrown into a pond, will float if innocent, etc.). Despite some predictable before and after Person on the Street comments (apprehensive at the beginning, proud to serve at the end), it’s a pretty good video, even featuring on-camera narration by Diane Sawyer and the late, great Ed Bradley.
That declaration of progress notwithstanding, I noticed how outdated much of the jury duty process seemed when I went through it on Tuesday. On the business day before reporting, we call a juror’s hotline where we listen to lengthy instructions left by the Commissioner of Jurors. Why couldn’t this be a Web site? Wouldn’t that be easier on everyone, including the guy who has to record the message daily? Just a boilerplate document where the worker fills in a few words of changeable information?
When we report, and before watching the video, we receive golf-course pencils and carbon-copy paper. I have no idea when I last saw carbon paper. We use the blunt writing instruments to fill out various detailed fields and if our number is called (as mine was), the judge, clerk, DA office representative and defense lawyer all get ever-lighter carbon copies. The defense lawyer, who had the bottom sheet, even admitted some people didn’t press hard enough — so he couldn’t read the information. Supplying unreadable information to an important decision-maker during the selection process? Is that acceptable in this day and age?
Wouldn’t it be great to bring this up to the 21st century? Imagine how much better it would be if each potential juror (or at least those with Internet access) could fill out the form in advance online? For those without Web access, there would be computers on site for inputting their information. And then when the clerk draws Juror 28, lawyers could pull up my data on laptop or PDA, and ask what I do at the college, what I mean by listing hockey among my hobbies or any other questions. So much faster and more efficient, eh?
The film boasts about many improvements built into the system recently. But our day included a lot of waiting and watching. A. Lot. It took from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. to select 12 jurors and one alternate (which didn’t include me, to the relief of my employers and I). I understand doing this all face-to-face and carefully — the trial process is important and delicate — but technologically much of the proceedings seem stuck in the Dark Ages. If the justice system is as great as we say it is, shouldn’t we always be trying to improve its efficiency?