Excused!

Friday morning – yesterday – I was instructed to report to the jury room at the Hennepin County Government Center for jury duty. After listening to a little talk about how things worked, twenty of us were run through security and led up to judge McGunnigle’s courtroom. As soon as I walked in I knew I would not be there very long. At the tables in the front of the courtroom sat two lawyers I knew, Rolph Sponheim for the prosecution and Marsh Halberg for the defense. These were both people I know, particularly Mr. Sponheim. Judge McGunnigle explained that the Defendant had been charged with a DWI. He didn’t say whether it was a misdemeanor, gross misdemeanor or felony. I could tell that it was no misdemeanor, however, since they were obviously looking to set up a jury of twelve, and with a misdemeanor you only get a jury of six.

I was seated as Juror No. 3. The judge started asking questions to the prospective jurors as a group. One question was whether any of us had an experience which would influence our ability to be objective in this type of case – driving while intoxicated. Several hands went up, including mine. One person was employed in the “beverage industry.” One person has a brother who had been arrested for DWI. Another had relatives who were injured in an accident by a drunk driver. I disclosed that I had defended hundreds of this type of case, and it would be hard to say that this would not influence my decision.

The judge went into a little lecture about how experiences of this sort should be set aside and compartmentalized, and he asked if we could do that. All of those who had raised our hands, including me, said that we thought we could. One of the next questions was whether we knew any of the witnesses, whose names were read off for us, and did we know the Defendant or any of the lawyers. Again, I raised my hand. The judge asked me to explain. I said that I knew Mr. Halberg, not well but I did know him. Besides that, the younger lawyer he had brought along to assist him looked familiar, I had surely seen him around, although I did not know him by name. When it came to Mr. Sponheim, I said I thought I knew him well. I had innumerable cases in which he had been the prosecutor. Then Judge McGunnigle asked if knowing these people would keep me from being able to make a decision based only on the evidence which was to be presented. I said that I believed I have a working relationship with Mr. Sponheim, and that I thought that should disqualify me.

At this point the judge called the lawyers up to the bench for a little conference. A moment later I was excused from that case, but I was to report back to the jury room. Back at the jury room the clerk there said that since I had been on call all week, that I would be excused entirely from any further jury duty. My duty was completed. Must say I was a bit surprised but also relieved. I had another feeling, however, which surprised me. During the short time that I had been up in the courtroom, I had started getting interested in the case. I think I would have enjoyed being on that jury. I would have enjoyed watching those lawyers do their stuff, and I would have liked to see how it all came out.

The thought of going downtown to watch the trial just to see what happens next has occurred to me. They are open to the public, and a trial like that ought to take a couple of days at the least. I already feel behind in my work as a result of the distraction from this episode, however, and I know I don’t really have the time to go watch that trial. I should just count myself lucky to have this experience behind me.

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