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Nonetheless, a 1976 study of 3,000 jurors in 18 court systems found that 90% had a favorable reaction to jury duty. "Jury duty is like motherhood," says Tom Munsterman, executive director of the Center for Jury Studies, a private, nonprofit research organization in McLean, Va. "People are for it. If we don't get an 80% favorable response in any particular court, that court is in deep trouble." Adds one New York City executive: "It is a major responsibility to reach a verdict, and every jury I have served on has taken the responsibility very seriously. Twelve strangers meet by chance in this strange process, learn to work together, reason together and finally reach a conclusion that may be crucial in the lives of others. When you achieve this, you feel you have really accomplished something. It brings out the best in most people."
That is only true, however, if the jury reaches a verdict. But one-quarter to one-half of all the cases that go before a jury are suddenly settled out of court. Many of them involve liability claims, in which the impaneling of a jury may be simply another stage in the insurance companies' bargaining process. Another 5% end in the anger and frustration of a hung jury. And of the 3 million citizens who are called to jury duty every year, for an average of ten days each, fully 40% never get onto a jury at all.
First comes the great raking in of potential jurors. The system for calling them varies wildly. In Manhattan, for example, the computers whir through thousands of namesbasically a combination of voters, taxpayers and driversand then send out about 3,000 summonses each week. And last week, as it must to all computer systems, anarchy came to the Manhattan courts: the computers sent their summonses to 3,000 citizens who had already been excused; only 300 eligible jurors showed up, and twelve criminal courtrooms had to be temporarily closed. In Prince Georges County, Md., by contrast, a judge who suddenly found himself short of jurors simply sent sheriffs deputies out to round up some citizens. Among the 20 or so corralled were a woman heading home with a bag of groceries and an angry trucker with a load of wet cement. In South Carolina's Hampton County, everything depends on an antique system in which a child under ten or a blind person sits in court and pulls the names of potential jurors from a metal box. Says Marjorie Avant, a courthouse employee: "No one ever suggested doing it any other way."
The rules for escaping jury duty are equally diverse. Courts generally exempt doctors and lawyers and those who can demonstrate hardship. But tobacco farmers are exempted during harvest time in Virginia; South Carolina still excuses "apothecaries"; Indiana excuses ferryboat operators. For those who must serve, the first thing to learn is to wait. "It's waiting for the judge, waiting for the lawyers, waiting to be called. It's not amusing or fun; it's just a duty," says Gwen Pritchard, a Washington lobbyist, standing in the hallway of the District of Columbia courthouse. "It's 300 people doing nothing," says another would-be juror, Libby Gallagher, as she watches her neighbors playing cards, knitting, staring into space. "It's