Serving on a Benton County jury is an enjoyable – although at times inconvenient – experience that offers an opportunity to learn much about the legal process.

It can also be surprisingly and intensely painful, and force you to discuss publicly some of the most painful secrets of your past.

As a member of the potential jury pool in the first trial of Chad Stechcon, and as a member of the media covering the second trial, I saw five Vinton area residents I recognized among approximately 85 residents who came for jury duty on two consecutive Mondays.

After the trial, I asked those five for their thoughts and perspectives on jury service, what they learned, thought and felt. Because of the nature of the discussion and the case, I decided to keep all of them anonymous.

All of them said they learned things. Three of them enjoyed the experience. One found it very inconvenient. And one found it unexpectedly and personally painful.

A woman who was eventually selected to serve on the first jury said she was disappointed when just a few minutes after the trial began, the judge halted proceedings; and soon dismissed the jurors after declaring a mistrial.

She said she had been nervous before entering the courtroom, but soon found the case and the legal process to be intriguing.

A man who was in that same jury pool with me said that the experience was interesting, but came at a very inconvenient time for his business.

“It was not a good time for me, but what can you do?” he asked.

Jurors are on call for one month at a time. They receive letters the month before their duty and are asked to register online, and call each weekend to see if they need to come to court the following Monday. Our pool was called on Monday, Sept. 24, the last week of our service.

After the mistrial, the October jury pool members arrived on Oct. 1 to begin the selection process. Two of the Vinton residents among those prospective jurors included the man who eventually served as the foreman of the jury which convicted the defendant on all three charges, as well as a woman who was not chosen for the panel.

That woman was among those who found the questions surprisingly painful.

“I was not expecting to have to share my personal life with strangers,” she said. Because the trial dealt with domestic abuse, she was asked to share details of her personal experiences as a victim – details she said she has tried hard for years to keep as secret as possible.

That woman said she might have enjoyed the experience if the case involved a crime that did not require her to share her personal life that way.

Although it can be painful, there is a purpose for this part of process: Every defendant has a right to have the verdict in his trial be decided by jurors who can impartially evaluate the facts. Jurors whose personal experience may make them more or less likely to render a verdict based on emotions are the first to either be excused by the judge or stricken by the attorneys.

The jury foreman, a long-time Vinton resident, said his first reaction to receiving the letter informing him of jury duty was not one of excitement. But he said he enjoyed the experience.

He offered to be foreman because nobody else wanted the job, and said that all of the jurors were willing to express their opinions. He said the other 11 members of the jury did their job well, paying attention and coming prepared to deliberations.

“We made sure everyone had a chance to speak, and they did,” he said. “None of them were ‘milk-toast’ in sharing their opinions.”

One problem that frustrated the foreman: One of the jurors was more than an hour late on the morning when the jury gathered to resume deliberations. The 11 could not discuss the case at all until all jurors were present.

The process

Approximately 40 county residents at a time receive a summons to jury duty. Twenty-five of them are randomly selected to be in the first jury pool. The presiding judge briefly questions the 25 about their availability for the expected duration of the trial. Medical problems, medical appointments that cannot be rescheduled, or non-refundable airline tickets scheduled for that time are among the reasons a judge could dismiss a potential juror from service.

The defense attorney and prosecutors then ask the jurors a variety of questions to find out if they are capable of rendering an impartial verdict in the case. The questions let the attorneys know whether or not the jurors know any of the participants in the trial – defendant, attorneys, or witnesses. In one rare case, a woman served on a jury twice, in cases occurring approximately 10 years apart. But the defendant in the second case was the same guy from the previous case. Another man was dismissed years ago, when he told the judge the defense attorney was his brother-in-law.

Potential jurors are also asked about their opinions and or experiences with the specific issues in the case. The case in which I was a prospective juror included a charge of domestic abuse; attorney asked us if we had any personal experience with that issue, or if we had any close family members who had been domestic abuse victims.

Potential jurors whose answers clearly render them unable to approach the case without prejudice are dismissed, and another person takes his or her place on the panel of 25.

When the questioning is completed, the attorneys take turns “striking,” or removing potential jurors, until the panel is reduced to 12 jurors and one alternate. This is done without the jurors knowing which lawyers struck which potential jurors, or why.

No-show policy

While nobody in recent years has gone to jail for not showing up for jury duty, the Benton County Clerk of Court office has a set of policies for those who do not come when expected. If there are enough people present to form a complete jury, those who do not attend are added to the following month’s list of jurors. If there is a shortage of jurors, the Clerk’s office will try to contact those no-shows by phone. In some cases, a deputy has been sent to bring in a juror for duty. Those who serve on jury duty generally will not be called on again for at least two years.

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