Earlier this month, did you notice some of your family, co-workers or people-you-just-see-on-the-bus inexplicably disappear off the face of the Earth for three days, coming back afterward looking dreary, beaten down and incredibly cycnical about life? They may have been involved in exercising their civic responsibility in the Edmonton Jury Selection process!
From September 8th through the 10th, I, along with 614 others sat trapped in a courtroom for 31 hours across three days, unable to communicate with others, unable to go to work and unable to inform work when my government-required absence would end. I participated in Jury Selection.
It all began in the end of July, when I received (along with roughly 5 000 other Albertans) a summons for a trial that was expected to take 36 weeks. Some of you might be having Deja Vu from last year, when the 42-week summons went out to another set of 5 000 Albertans, that was actually the same case! The case is against Vimal Iyer who, through is company Trident Properties, allegedly defrauded a long list of defendants. The summons initially went out last year, but was postponed because neither the Crown nor the defense were prepared to try the case, so no selection occurred, the case was trimmed down and some charges were dropped, and it resurfaced again this summer six weeks shorter.
Most of these 5 000 sent in letters asking to be excused - for a variety of valid reasons. Thirty-six weeks is a long time to drop all of your life. If your job doesn't cover your salary in your absense, $50 a day (the remuneration given to a juror) is a below-minimum-wage pittance. Working at the University of Alberta, our collective agreement specifies that my Jury service would be covered. I'm also over 18, a Canadian Citizen and a resident of Alberta, so I had no reason to excuse myself. I wrote back that I was qualified to serve and would arrive for selection as specified on September 8th at 8:30am.
I'd never been to Jury selection, but in researching what to expect, it looked like selection usually takes about half a day and simply involves members from the court going before the judge asking to be excused or declaring their ability to serve. Since this was going to be a long case, I suspected I might be there all day, so I brought a book. I was coming prepared.
If only the Queen's court was in any way prepared this might have been a fun experience.
I arrived promptly at 8:30am (as the letter suggested tardiness might result in a bench warrant for my arrest, along with a fine). I was to report to courtroom 317, so I headed to the Elevators. I wish I could have taken pictures, but of course photography is prohibited inside the Courthouse, and my goal was not to get arrested nor charged with Contempt of Court during this process. As the elevator doors opened on the third floor, it was impossible to get out. The hallways were completely jam-packed with people in a haphazard queue directed to my right. A sign above indicated "Courtroom 317 -->".
Shoving my way around to the left (away from the chaos nearer my destination) I managed to find a foyer that, while also crowded, at least had breathing room. I sat down for half an hour and read some reddit. I didn't know what was going on, but once it started to clear out a bit I was sure I could ask someone.
Now 9am, there was no perceptible change in the number of people (in fact I think it increased as the latecomers straggled in). I decided to make my way into the throngs of people and see what I could find out. Here's the thing, there was absolutely zero direction taking place here. There were no security officers in the crowd giving instructions and informing people what to expect. There were no signs dictating process, what was happening. And there was no one giving updates about how long this would take. If you managed to stop a Jury Officer in the halls, they'd just reply "stand in line, and check in at the desk in Courtroom 317". It was confusing, chaotic and to very many, deeply upsetting.
After observing the process for a while, we noticed a few things. There were two doors to 317, everyone was supposed to enter in the front - that's where the line lead to - but we had no hope of seeing what was going on up there. But the back door, every five or six minutes we would see a group of ten people (always exactly ten) being led off somewhere else by two Jury Officers, one at the front, one at the back.
"Are those selected juries? Can we go home now?"
"There are multiple trials, it looks like they've already filled a few of them!"
"Doesn't a criminal trial have a Jury of 12? Those are only 10 people."
"Are you sure? I think it was 12."
"We're going to be done before we even make it inside! What do you want for lunch?"
Some of the things I overheard in the hallway. I contributed the idea that they were probably just using 317 as triage and the process wouldn't start until everyone was sorted, but there was a universally negative reception to that idea. I found a comfortable bench and went on Reddit some more.
11:30am. After three hours, I'm still on the bench, but my Nexus 5 is running low on battery. The crowd in the hall is thinning out, but there's still probably over a hundred people here. There has been zero explanation or direction whatsoever, but I'm confident lining up only gets you a seat in the Courtroom, so I'd just as well have a seat out here. But, in the interest of investigation I stand up and get in line. Time to start moving toward the front.
Noon. I hit the front of the line, let's get a glimpse of the process. There's two officers with thick stacks of paper. On these papers are alphabetized lists of Juror names that they expect, as well as a one to three digit number. You give your name to them, they find it and they give you the number and tell you to remember it and wait. Inside the courtroom, there are two clerks at the desk. They call the next group of us inside (10 of us, you'll find they really like tens), and we line up in front of the clerks. We recite the number we were given at the door, and they give us a card with that number, our name as well as a nine-digit number on the bottom. I'm instructed to go sit down on one side of the courtroom. Others are instructed to line up near the door and wait for the Jury officer. When ten of them are there, the Jury officer will take them to a different courtroom.
Yep, looks a lot like triage, but this bench is a lot less comfortable than the one outside.
In case the point has slipped past at this point, the court has sent out a summons for 5 000 jurors, they know how long this checkin process normally takes but they decided two clerks was sufficient to hand out cards. The court made an active decision to understaff and waste the time of everyone present; whether through incompetence or thoughtlessness it's equally inexcusable.
Just about 12:45 and it looks like everyone is seated and sorted. A clerk moves to the front of the courtroom and begins to (finally) explain some things. They'd set up a video-conference system to communicate as there were four courtrooms full of people, 317 (mine), 315, 312 and B201. "Now: we're going to start checkin".
Wait -- What?! What have we been doing here for the past four hours?
"I'm going to read the number found at the top of your card, followed by the last four digits of the nine-digit number at the bottom of your card. Okay. One. One Two Two Four."
"Present! B201" (if it's in another courtroom the clerk in that courtroom has to announce which room they are in)
"Two. Four Nine Nine Three".
"Three. Seven Four Eight Four".
"Present!" (That was was in 317, we didn't have to say the courtroom number! Reprieve!)
If you haven't noticed, the first number she says is a sequential integer, distinct in the set of Jurors present. The last four digits of the other number are irrelevant, as the first number will already be distinct. However, the realities of this situation is saying the last four numbers nearly doubles the speaking time (and she's got an accent so she's speaking slowly and cautiously). Then since we're video-conferenced there's a delay as the message gets to the other rooms, as well as a delay for their response to come back. The result is, this isn't like taking attendance in third grade, which can be done in a matter of minutes with a quick back and forth. Each number takes a minimum of five seconds. And if the person isn't present - about 60 of them weren't - the number is repeated and a long time is spent waiting for a response.
The clock ticks past 1:30. She reads more numbers. I'm 436, so I'm not really going to be called any time soon, and I know there's at least 436 numbers to call.
I want to scream. After the incompetence of triage being understaffed we have this ridiculous check-in system. They just spent four hours putting people into different rooms according to some formula why isn't each room individually doing attendance without the latency? Why are you saying those four numbers that no one even listens to anyway (there were a couple cases where the Juror said "Present!" and the caller later corrected the four digits that she mis-spoke. No one was listening).
At about ten after two, she calls number 506 and puts down the stack of paper. There is applause in all four courtrooms. She gives us a look and picks up another stack of paper. If security didn't check for guns at the door, this was when one would have been discharged.
At 2:30 she's finally called the last number, 615, and the Judge comes in and thanks us for our co-operation, but due to the size of this selection we'll probably be here more than one day. There's groans from the audience. "Now it's time to break for lunch, please be here at or before 3:30 so we can check you back in".
That's right: Six hours spent checking in, then we're leaving for an hour so they can check us back in.
3:36. I'm back, checkin is going faster this time as we're just saying our number to the clerk as we walk in and she's recording it. Why exactly couldn't we have done this the first time? Anyway, it still takes us about half an hour, which brings us to about 4pm. The judge comes in and tells us she's going to explain the jury selection process, and we'll start it.
"But first --"
"We have to eliminate those who are inelligible to serve. If you are not a Canadian citizen, under 18, or not a resident of Alberta" step forward, the clerk will note your number and a Jury officer will come take you to the other courtroom and I'll excuse you"
Doing this takes us nearly to 5pm. Now we're ready to start, after nine hours.
This part was actually the interesting part for me, as I didn't know exactly how it would work.
Jurors would be randomly selected (from the entire pool of four courtrooms) in groups of ten. These ten would then go to an antechamber (a small room) and be given a list of the charges as well as a "cast of characters" (a list of all witnesses, court staff, defense and prosecution in the case) and a questionnaire to fill out regarding whether they know anyone in the list or have any reason why they could not be impartial on that case. There would be three such antechambers, so that if someone takes longer to fill out or read the document (there were over 500 names in the cast of characters!) it would not block the entire operation. Wow, the first attempt at parralelization today! However, each antechamber will need to go in front of the judge, in the order they were called, and present the results.
Oh. So I guess not actually an improvement on the process.
This is the interesting part: before any potential juror can be selected he has to pass two challenges.
- A premptory challenge
- A challenge for cause.
The first, the premptory challenge is actually very simply. If either the Crown or Vimal Iyer (who elected to represent himself in this case) does not want a person on the jury, either may dismiss that juror immediately without stating a reason. Anyone challenged via a premptory challenge is dismissed immediately from service and is excused from serving on that jury.
The second challenge is a challenge for cause. This is stating to the judge a valid reason why a juror might not be able to serve on the jury, and the judge then ruling whether said juror is dismissed or is still eligible to serve. You might ask "why would either the prosecution or the defense need to challenge for cause if they can immediately dismiss any juror for no reason?". They wouldn't! It is not the Crown nor the defense who challenges for cause, but rather before the process two members were randomly selected from the pool to be "triers". It is their job to hear the statements of potential jurors, and perform a challenge for cause if they think the juror will be impartial. When someone is selected to be on the Jury, he will then replace the trier who got there first.
Okay, so the process is 10 numbers are randomly called, to fill one of the three antechambers. Each of the ten then stand in front of the Judge, Crown, defense and triers and state whether they are eligible or ineligible to serve. Then they are either dismissed or selected. How long does this process take?
Well we had 30 names called just after five on day one, to fill the three antechambers. Then, at ten after six, we were all told to go home and come back tomorrow at 8:30.
I wore a collared shirt and dress pants on Day 1, as the letter told me to dress for the "seriousness of the occasion".
I showed up in jeans on Day 2. The first day I didn't get much reading done as books weren't allowed out during attendance (which was the majority of the day). But on Day 2 I read several hundred pages of Domain Driven Design: Tackling Complexity in the Heart of Software. The next group of ten wasn't called until a bit after ten, and it was just before lunch when group number six was called (thus replacing all those that were called at 5pm the previous day).
Throughout this whole process, there is no official information on the status. We don't know when a new juror has been selected. People go to the bathroom and try to spy, and question the Jury officers in the hall. Rumours get spread around.
By the end of day 2, the rumour going around the room is 9 jurors have been selected. A criminal Jury needs 12 jurors and 2 alternates (alternates are dismissed as soon as the real Jury is sworn in). However, due to the length of the trial it is probable that some Jurors may either 1) die or 2) have some life-altering event preventing them from serving. So, on this trial there would be 14 Jurors sitting for the 36 weeks, and before deliberation begins two of them will be removed at random.
That's right, we had the potential of sitting on a 36 week trial and then not even making a decision!
Not everyone has heard this rumour though, so when the judge came in at 6PM to let us know that we'd be coming back tomorrow and "I hope not a fourth day, but we're not ruling that out yet", people were very angry.
Overall, in terms of selection, no more than 120 people have been called out of the courtrooms into the antechambers. There had not even been a considerable dent made in the selection pool.
I wore sweats.
It's odd, you wouldn't think sitting in a courtroom would be tiring - I was literally just sitting down most of the day - but by the third day I was completely exhausted. Coming home after each day of selection I would just collapse and veg out with some Netflix. I found a nice corner behind the Jury box on the carpet and slept for a lot of the day.
This selection was having some serious psychological toll on us: there was a lady with slightly greying hair - she was the one who would call the ten numbers for people moving to antechambers. She only came once every one or two hours, but when she did, everyone perked up and watched. Everyone held their breath. I think to this day if I saw her on the street there would be a physiological reaction of pure, unbridled excitement. She was our only hope of getting out of that courtroom and going home for good. Or at least doing something. Anything other than sitting there being trapped.
It was around 4 when they called my number.
The antechambers were a lot of fun; if I sound like I knew what was going on during this process, it's not because I did, it's because it was all explained to me in the antechambers. The Jury Officers were fun and liberal with information. They told jokes. We were welcomed to the first antechamber by the Jury Officer asking: "Here's a riddle: Canadian Geese always have one side of the V larger than the other when they're migrating. Why do you suppose that is?"
Uh, not really sure.
"Because there are more geese on that side." That pretty well set our tone for the next little while.
We moved on, I got to know the people in the antechamber (who were all, like me, growing increasingly more stir-crazy). One guy kept going on about the NFL, which was having its first season game that night. He was first in line, he would be the first to get dismissed and he'd get home in time for the game. Another lady worked nights in a care facility, so had been getting very, very small amounts of sleep the past several days. We were informed that the 14 Jurors had been selected, and we were only searching for the alternates.
We could smell the victory, we all agreed it would be better to push on and finish tonight, even if we stay late, than to have to come back tomorrow.
It was about 4:45 when we were just preparing to move on to address the judge, when the Jury Officer gets pulled out of the room to discuss things. We were told that the Judge was going to address the courtrooms but that we couldn't leave the antechamber. There was no videoconferencing to our room. So we sat.
6PM. The football game is starting. The guy is dying inside.
We're all very hot, so one guy sticks his foot under the door to keep it open. We're finally told of what's happening: the judge is releasing most of the jurors, except 50 of them plus us in the antechamber are going to courtroom 312 to be addressed by the judge.
"Does that mean we haven't finished selection yet?"
"Why doesn't she just hear us first, we're so close!"
"If we get put back into the pool after all of this... I swear to god..."
It takes about half an hour to get us all into the new courtroom. The Jury officer collects our Questionnaires from us. We're sure they're restarting selection with this smaller pool. We're fuming mad. The end was in our grasp.
The judge finally addresses us: "We have found our 16 Jurors. I have released everyone else, but those who are in this room will need to call us on Monday to check the status; if one of the selected Jurors' ability to make the trial changes before it begins, you will all be called back in for more selection"
Groans. But it's over. We're released. Tentatively. But we still have to collect our notes stating that we served for Jury Selection - it's been a common theme that most employers simply do not believe selection took this long.
7PM. Hour 31 of selection has completed. I go home. What have I accomplished in this past week? Well, nothing really.
I sat in a room. Not more than 90 people were pulled out of the room each day? Why couldn't the selection have been staggered? This group comes in on the 8th, the second group on the 9th, etc.? Why does such a massive pool need to be present all day, every day when they know there's a hard limit on the number that can be evaluated on any one day? Why couldn't they staff the selection properly, knowing full well the size and scope of the trial? And why, oh god, why didn't they say in the initial letter that selection is going to take longer than just the 8th?
Sure the bench selected a Jury on these three days, but we shouldn't downplay their greatest accomplishment: needlessly wasting everyone's time.