I was called to jury duty and had the experience of being part of a “busted panel.”
That means that, from a panel of 65 prospective jurors, the lawyers and judge in the case couldn’t find 12 people and perhaps an alternate or two who weren’t biased.
Typically, defense attorneys have more concerns about biased jurors than prosecutors. That wasn’t the case with this panel.
The defendant was charged with possession of less than a gram of cocaine. If you’re confused about the amount, picture a packet of sweetener for your coffee.
The prospective jurors were asked whether they could sentence the defendant to up to two years in a state jail, as the law requires. Or, hypothetically, if the state could show that the defendant had previous convictions, whether prospective jurors could sentence him to up to 10 years in prison, as the law requires.
The reaction was overwhelming. One man asked the prosecutor whether anyone knew how much it cost to keep someone locked up in prison for 10 years. He suggested the state had better use for taxpayers’ money. When asked by the prosecutor if he could put his personal feeling aside and follow the law, the prospective juror said no, in good conscience he could not. The prosecutor thanked him for his candor.
The prosecutor asked if anyone else had problems with just following the law. Hands shot up everywhere.
Maybe some of those people were trying to get out of serving on a jury. But some of them, when questioned, vented. One man described the war on drugs as a failure. Others said they’d seen friends and family members prosecuted for similar offenses and had come away convinced that the process was so unfair they were soured. They simply could not be unbiased as a juror.
To be fair, some of the prospective jurors supported the law. One woman said she believed whatever officers said about drug cases. The defense attorney likely found her biased.
A few people said simply they would follow the law.
Perhaps in reading this account, you consider it biased. So consider an indisputable fact: The judicial system couldn’t find enough unbiased people to seat a jury.
When it was over, you could hear people who had missed work fuming about a day wasted with nothing accomplished. You could hear the words like “stupid,” “idiotic,” “insane,” “dumb” and worse. Much worse. They were talking about the law, something in theory we should all respect.
It’s a paradox. In general, the law works because almost everyone respects it. But what happens if one particular law is so bad that almost no one does?
I wondered how many ordinary citizens will experience the joys of being part of a busted panel before the people who make our laws realize we might have a problem.