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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, May 11, 2006

Jury duty's a trial and a lesson in civics

By Steve Doyle

A terribly inconvenient and sometimes downright onerous responsibility in a democracy is service on a jury. Try as you might to avoid it, the summons arrives and you end up standing in front of the courthouse with 80-plus strangers warding off "early morning windward and mauka showers."

That was my experience at the start of my service as a juror in a criminal trial on a rainy morning that has certainly changed my opinion of jury duty.

When the courthouse doors were finally opened, our jury pool was welcomed into a delightfully painless experience. After shaking off the umbrellas and raincoats, we entered a comfortable lounge and were talked through the paperwork, with helpful video presentations on what to expect all the while assisted by courteous personnel. They also served some OK coffee. I had prepared for an experience akin to the DMV on a bad day and was truly surprised.

After the initial jury selection (I kid you not, it looks like a wheel at a bingo game) the initial jurors were selected and seated. That's when I, as juror No. 1, watched the best and worst of American jurisprudence in action. Under oath and answering intense questions by the prosecution and defense attorneys during voir dire, also hearing the most lame and bogus excuses by other jurors for "not able to serve," it hits you: These defendants' lives are in our unprepared hands. That's where the American citizen part kicks in.

Innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Rule of law. Thank goodness, the woman with the "hair appointment at Neiman's today," and the man with a photo fashion shoot at Ala Moana whose reserved time would be lost, were not seated and subsequently dismissed. Also, the man who complained that a baby luau would be missed and his daughter would be very annoyed.

This courtroom drama was not TV, and the futures of real-life human beings were about to be placed in the hands of 12 of their fellow citizens.

It would have been easy to assume that the three defendants were guilty of something (heck, they had been arrested and platoons of uniformed police types were going to be paraded before the jury), so it should have been easy to find them guilty and go home after a few days. But determining the guilt or innocence of another human being is a real wake-up call. This is where the duty of impartiality sinks in.

I found myself realizing that this is more than an election ballot; it's not winner or loser by a few votes. It's innocent or guilty. That is the way our judicial process functions. It's not a legislative process; the American system works only because of citizens' participation and commitment to the essential transparency of the system.

I was immensely impressed by the judge (Michael Wilson) who had probably heard hundreds of similar cases but nonetheless listened carefully to each argument by both sides and thoughfully questioned each party and members of the jury.

I must say that I was disappointed by the prosecution's poor performance. I am a staunch advocate of Lt. Gov. "Duke" Aiona's anti-drug and education campaign, as well as prosecuting attorney Peter Carlisle's hard-nosed publicrelations attack on drug dealers and the "rip" they are tearing in the fabric of our society.

But I must note that some of Carlisle's assistant prosecutors in the Circuit Court seemed woefully lacking in courtroom assertiveness and basic legal homework. They seemed to presume that the jury would conclude: arrest for drugs equals conviction. Sorry guys, innocent until proven guilty, not the other way around.

I fully appreciate that these assistant prosecuting attorneys, fresh out of law school, have to cut their teeth somewhere. But how about some more of that old-fashioned Peter Carlisle "kick-butt" to get them on track?

The press loves to imagine that the purveyors and dealers of our state epidemic illegal drugs hire only smooth-talking, slick and expensive attorneys to defend the "bad guys." Well, the City and County of Honolulu and the state of Hawai'i should hire more hard-knuckled "good guys."

And while they are at it, insist upon better police work and integrity within the police departments so that the defendants in the dock don't include the cops themselves.

The essence of this commentary is that we all need to participate in the American judicial and electoral prosesses because it helps remind us who and what we are as a nation. And why a democratic society is such a great idea and ideal.

Steve Doyle is a Hale'iwa resident and a former Advertiser Community Editorial Board member. He wrote this commentary for The Advertiser.