Jury service is essential to making sure justice is done
DOWNTOWN BROOKLYN — There was silence in the court. Justice Vincent Del Giudice, sitting at the very front of the room on the second floor at 320 Jay St., addressed approximately 50 prospective jurors for a murder trial as the five defendants, their attorneys and the prosecutors listened.
“Jury service may be the most important duty of citizenship any of you may serve in your lifetime,” Del Giudice told the group. “We have a human being dead. His life ended before it should have, and these gentlemen are accused of that. It doesn’t get more important than that.”
Ultimately, out of the crowd of people brought into the courtroom from the central jury room where prospective jurors wait, 16 will be chosen to serve on this particular jury, 12 members plus four alternates, key players in the pursuit of justice that is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution.
They are among the thousands of people who are called for jury duty each year in the borough, for service in both civil and criminal trials, and are a linchpin of the American justice system.
“We run one of the largest jury operations in New York State, which is the largest in the country,” said Nancy Sunshine, commissioner of jurors in Brooklyn since 2005, in an exclusive interview with this newspaper. “But, it’s not about the numbers. It’s about the people.
“When you serve on a jury,” she continued, “you’re part of a smaller community, sitting with other residents of Brooklyn, bringing together good judgment and the ability to talk together about the evidence at the trial and the law as the judge has provided it to reach a verdict.”
The connections formed during jury service, Sunshine added, may endure beyond the term of service. “After they’ve announced the verdict, jurors go back to their private lives, but there are many cases when jurors stay in touch and become friends. I’m not a matchmaker,” she went on, “but I know of two marriages that came out of jury service.”
Drawing comparisons to voting, which, as she noted, “ensures our democracy and faith in government,” Sunshine stressed, “Serving as a juror is so important because it brings confidence in government and the judicial system. People want their day in court. The jury gives peace of mind that the case has been determined fairly and justly. At the end of the day, it’s important that everyone who is eligible to serve under law does serve, so you have a voice in the community, and so the system can function.”
With that in mind, “We only summon jurors based on what we anticipate will be needed,” Sunshine said, emphasizing, “We understand how important your role is, and we respect your time.”
A key aspect of jury service is fairness, Sunshine stressed. To that end, she said, prospective jurors view a brief film on the subject, which delves into unconscious biases and stereotypes that could potentially affect the ability of jurors to judge a case based only on the facts presented. Preserving fairness is one reason jurors are forbidden to glean information on the case they are hearing outside the courtroom, Sunshine said. It’s also the reason why jurors are questioned before they are empaneled.
Randomness is a key aspect of the process. The names of people called to serve as jurors in Kings County are init
ially chosen via computer algorithm, according to Sunshine. Then, inside the courtroom, prospective jurors are winnowed down to smaller groups, to be questioned as part of the jury selection process, called voir dire, with the courtroom clerk calling the names from cards also picked at random.
Voir dire is crucial, Sunshine stressed, as it’s “the process when the attorneys question the jurors to determine if they can be fair in this particular case.”
The reasons why someone might not be chosen are varied. A prospective juror who was bitten by a dog as a child may be excused from serving on a dog bite case, noted Sunshine. Similarly, living or working in proximity to where a particular incident or crime occurred, or knowing one of the people involved, could be a reason why a particular juror isn’t chosen.
Being chosen brings with it great responsibility. Gary Dreifus, who served almost two decades ago on a jury deciding a rape case, and who spoke with this reporter in response to a request on social media, recalled being sequestered for two days during deliberations.
But, despite that inconvenience, Dreifus affirmed the importance of his jury service. The defendant, he recalled, had been held for five years on Rikers Island awaiting trial, and after that, had been found innocent by the panel on which Dreifus sat.
“It was straightforward that the guy didn’t do it,” he remembered, explaining that the defendant, an undocumented immigrant who didn’t speak a lot of English, had been “framed” by his employer, who was, in Dreifus’s words, “taking advantage of him. If it weren’t for the jury, he would have served 20 years for something he never did.”
Mary Quiñones has served as a juror four times. Sharing her experience, also in response to a social media request, she said that her whole family takes jury duty seriously.
“My parents taught us very young that this is an honor and a privilege and a right and a responsibility,” Quiñones said. “We’re so lucky we live in a country where disputes are settled this way.”
The first time she served, Quiñones added, her father reminded her, “If, God forbid, you are ever in a dispute where you need a jury, you want jurors to pay as much as attention as you will pay, on this jury.
“People say, try to get out of it. I would never. At the end of the day,” she stressed, “trial by jury is one of the things that makes this the greatest place to live.”
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