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Reflections: Jury selection is gritty, messy–and inspiring

While most of my friends spent Halloween at costume parties or trick-or-treating, I was at the Durham County Courthouse listening to the opening statements of a high-profile homicide trial. 

In 2019, Schajuan Ervin (now 28 years old) was charged with the murder of 23-year-old Marcus Jackson after a shooting at a Durham apartment complex. Before Ervin could be tried, prosecutors and the defense had to pick a jury. So, on that Monday in October, I sat in on eight hours of jury selection.

For a while now, I’ve been fascinated with how the court summons people to help decide the fates of their fellow citizens. When I turned 18, I was excited—not to donate blood or qualify for a 10-year passport—but to finally be able to serve on a jury. Because I had seen trials play out on my favorite TV shows, “How to Get Away with Murder” and “Better Call Saul,” I thought it would be cool to be a juror for a criminal case. 

In the gallery, I sat directly behind the victim’s family. Marcus Jackson’s mother, Nicole Elliott-Jackson, sister, Akira Jackson, and girlfriend, Kayla Tripp, were among the 10 sitting shoulder to shoulder, exchanging tissues and sad smiles. I quickly realized today would look nothing like TV: no over-performed dramatics by Viola Davis or exaggerated mundanity by Bob Odenkirk. Today was real life—which was something else entirely. 

That day, I learned just how gritty and messy jury selection could be. Yet I came away clinging to the promise of civic responsibility and democracy.

Judge Jim Hardin sat perched above Courtroom 7D in Durham County Superior Court. Hardin explained that he was an “emergency judge” replacing Judge Michael O’Foghludha. Hardin retired in 2021 after 36 years at the Durham County Courthouse. 

After hearing a couple of motions from the defense, Hardin invited about 40 Durhamites of different ages, genders, and races to fill six rows in the gallery. 

“I believe each of you has places you would rather be—or need to be,” Hardin told the audience. “Serving is a significant obligation of citizenship. [It is a] direct contribution to our democratic life.”

I didn’t find Hardin’s statements surprising or radical. So, when the judge went row by row asking if anyone, due to extenuating circumstances, could not serve as a juror on this homicide trial, I didn’t expect him to face so much resistance. 

More than 17 people argued their case to the judge: poor health, limited childcare options, trying to have kids, non-refundable travel plans, closing on a home, and more.

One woman wearing a navy blouse said she had booked a flight to Texas for the following week.

“I don’t know if there is a Zoom option,” she said with a laugh. “I am happy to serve, but I have to go.” After assuring her that there was no virtual jury duty, the judge deferred her service for 30 days. 

Other sob stories didn’t receive the same consideration. 

A man who works at Duke Energy said that his employees would feel his absence if he were to serve as a juror for this trial.

“Is there nobody who can take over your responsibility?” the judge asked. “I assume there is… It’s a huge company.” 

Hardin denied the man’s request and suggested he find a replacement at his job.

During recess, I GoogledHow to get out of jury duty.” I found a wikiHow article, a 12-step method (with pictures?), and a study about Americans who lie to get out of jury duty. The study found that 7% of Americans admitted to lying so they wouldn’t have to serve. 

Even more striking and discouraging was that 60% agreed that most jurors “don’t really understand the laws they’re asked to apply.” To my surprise, prosecutor Kendra Montgomery-Blinn addressed this phenomenon after the break.

 After directing the first 12 prospective jurors to the jury box, Blinn began by setting general ground rules. First, jurors must answer all questions truthfully. Second, jurors must not talk to anyone else about the case. Third—and most difficult of all—jurors should not form an opinion about the guilt or innocence of the defendant until the judge has instructed them to deliberate. Even then, they must base their decisions on evidence alone.

Blinn asked the jury if they hold any values (religious, political, or moral) that would impair their ability to render a guilty verdict.

 Juror 3, wearing glasses, a turquoise mask and a floral blouse, timidly raised her hand. She said that when she lived in Austin, Texas, police pulled her daughter over 17 times.  

“My entire family is Black and brown. They have had interactions with law enforcement where they were abused,” she said. “I have a very healthy mistrust of the justice system.”

Blinn explained to her that it is challenging for jurors to anticipate or predict how their personal, political or religious affiliations may influence their decision-making process. Still, she urged Juror 3 to consider that Black and brown people are disproportionately victims of crimes. Blinn nodded to the Jackson family behind her.

“It’s hard,” Juror 3 said with a sigh.“I teach Black and brown children all day. I see their circumstances, my family’s circumstances, and the Jackson family’s circumstances. I don’t want to make the wrong decision.”

Blinn asked if she could base her verdict on the evidence and law alone.

“I don’t think so,” Juror 3 said, shaking her head. Hardin dismissed her.

I felt for Juror 3, but I didn’t understand her approach. As a Black woman who often feels apprehensive about the powers that be within our legal system, I couldn’t understand how not participating was the solution. How would she ever lay her uneasiness to rest if not by actively working against injustice?

Blinn sorted through a stack of juror questionnaires. After addressing sweeping concerns, Blinn got to know each juror one-on-one.

These surveys, each with 23 questions, provided insight into jurors’ employment history, family lives, previous interactions with the attorneys, and religious affiliations. 

Juror 10 volunteered to go next. Blinn shuffled through the stack to find her completed survey. Juror 10’s brother was murdered in Cleveland when he was 26. Police never identified the person responsible. Blinn asked Juror 10 if this personal connection to the trial at hand would keep her from being fair.

“I have been on both sides of the spectrum,” she said. “I also have a family member who has caused a death.” Fifteen years ago, her cousin received a life sentence after being convicted of murder.

“He caused a lot of pain,” she said, choking up.

I was inspired by Juror 10’s ability to separate her emotions from her work as a juror. She was committed to doing the right thing, regardless of her personal experiences or opinions.

“We don’t ask that you all [jurors] don’t feel anything,” Blinn said. “We ask that you all can realize what you’re feeling, put that aside, and pull forward the evidence.” 

Juror 10’s testimony showed me that serving has little to do with partisanship and everything to do with humanity. Regardless of the case, it is a privilege to serve on a jury—not to impose your personal views but to uphold justice. We must show up for those who experience injustice in the criminal legal system. Jurors champion justice; that’s their superpower. All it takes is honesty, self awareness, and impartiality.

Editor’s note: Reflections is a feature that encourages student journalists to explore how they have learned and grown from the stories they have written for The 9th Street Journal. It is funded by a grant from The Purpose Project.