Monday, October 22, 2007

Jury Duty


There’s a whole different kind of jury duty than the one people try to get out of. That’s the one prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, witnesses and interested parties like the press are involved in. Namely waiting for a jury to come back with verdicts in a case.

Witness for example the recent Ben Mercer case involving the former Fond du Lac City Human Resources Director accused of viewing child porn on a work computer. As a reporter you can try and sweet talk your way into getting someone to call you to let you know when the jury has decided and is returning. That can be risky business.

Most of the time you just sit and wait swapping stories. Some of these might be termed war stories. The question arises, “What’s the longest jury trial you ever worked?” A cameraman from Channel 26 won this time talking about a trial in the mid-80s that went more than five months. The Ben Mercer trial is the longest of my particular time as a reporter. The nine days it lasted edged out an eight-day trial I covered in Dodge County for a baby-shaking case. The infant died and the jury acquitted the veteran baby sitter who was charged in the baby girl’s death.

We also talked about a jury trial in Outagamie County that was running parallel to the Mercer case involving a former teacher who was accused of sexually assaulting a student and former student. He was acquitted and earned mention in USA Today by fainting during the course of the trial.

Most of us starved in the lobby of the second floor of the City-County Government Center while the jury was treated to fresh pizza brought in no doubt just in time to reenergize them during their deliberations. One reporter munched on a homemade sandwich she claimed wasn’t tasty at all and was only outdone by the stale all-natural boxed snack she switched off on. I starved and settled for water.

I actually got a break during the seven hours of deliberation to go to a doctor’s appointment that went longer than I’d hoped. Good old reliable Wade Bates of our sports department sat in and swapped stories with the Assistant State Attorney General and two others during that time. The Channel 26 reporter and cameraman left to cover some white powder found in an envelope in Oshkosh and severe weather. The weather never materialized, but did set a dramatic scene outside that second floor window.

Although the future of a person hinges on the jury’s decision it almost seems anti-climatic after a long trial and deliberation. Unlike television and the movies there’s no music to heighten the mood or quick quip to go with the announcement of the decision. For the jury however there is a little bonding with other jury members during the trial and a sense of relief. Unlike others they were chosen to serve and did the job very well.