Called to Court

winnipeg law courts buildingI spent a morning last week in the Winnipeg Law Courts Building as one of about seventy people selected as potential jurors for a September trial. We were a motley crew of all ages, races, appearances and demeanors. I was seated between two serious looking men. One was highlighting passages in a flight operators’ manual and another was reading a binder full of notes about how his investment company deals with international law.

 We sat studying, reading, doing crossword puzzles and snoozing as we waited for the court session to begin. No electronic devices of any kind were allowed. During our hour long wait the judge issued arrest warrants for two potential jurors who had failed to show up. Officers were sent to their places of work and eventually they were ushered into court. Both apologized. They had simply forgotten about their summons. The judge was stern, reminding them all the rest of us had somehow managed to appear. He warned them he could have them sent to prison. He also gave the rest of us a speech thanking us for coming and reminding us it was our responsibility as Canadian citizens who benefited from the protection of the justice system to serve as jurors when asked.

 We all had to leave the courtroom as the accused was ushered in. When we returned we sat behind him and the bullet- proof vested sheriffs who accompanied him. A clerk read the list of charges and he pleaded not guilty to each one. The charges were of a  violent nature. I realized listening to evidence in this trial would probably not be a pleasant experience.

Justice- a sculpture outside the law courts building by artist Gordon Reeves

Justice- a sculpture outside the court building by artist Gordon Reeves

Each potential juror had been assigned a number and the clerk began drawing our numbers at random from a box. As each juror’s number was called they had the opportunity to approach the judge and ask to be excused from serving. It was interesting to see what reasons the judge automatically accepted and which were summarily dismissed. Single mothers who couldn’t afford childcare were excused as were people dealing with the terminal illness of a family member. A grade one teacher anxious about being absent from her classroom with many special needs students during the first month of the school year was excused, but the bank manager who felt his presence at his job was crucial was not.

 After eighteen jurors had been selected they were asked in turn to stand and face the defendant and look at him fully and directly. He was also asked to look at them. After this eye contact either lawyer could challenge that particular juror without giving a reason and they were excused. I was awfully curious about why the lawyers rejected certain potential jurors but accepted others.

Once a juror had been approved by both lawyers they were asked to swear on a Bible or affirm they would carry out their duties to the best of their ability. About a half of the pool of seventy jurors were called before twelve were selected for service. I was not among them.

law courts winnipegI wasn’t sure if I was happy about that. I no longer needed to worry about rearranging my September commitments to do jury duty. But a friend who is a lawyer told me were I to become a juror it would be incredibly interesting and I would learn a great deal about the justice system. I was kind of disappointed that wouldn’t be happening. The judge told us however we might be called again to act as jurors. Perhaps next time I will be one of the chosen.

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