Winnipeg Free Press - ONLINE EDITION

Jury Duty, 1876

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I was part of last week's jury duty cattle call and spent two days with about 200 other Winnipeggers waiting to see if we'd get picked for one of four trials - three murders and a sexual assault.

The experience was an eye-opener. It's one part raffle as we all waited for our numbers to be drawn, one part nerves when we finally came before the judge, and five parts boredom. Here are a few observations:

Everyone had an excuse. Not long ago, Mike McIntyre wrote about the growing frustration among judges with the sometimes-dubious reasons people give to duck jury duty. That was on full display last week.

When called, at least three quarters of the people offered the judge an excuse - everything from epilepsy and anxiety to poor English skills to the loss of sales commissions. The judge offered some pushback, and occasionally rejected excuses, but mostly people were released.

Some of the medical excuses were so marginal that folks in the separate jury pool room watching on a video feed openly guffawed.

When my number was finally called, I expected the judge to raise concerns about a journalist serving on a jury. Instead, she told me she'd take what she could get.

The rules are silly and officious, and staff sometimes were, too. In this case, we spent two days cloistered in two large courtrooms with little to do but stare at the lovely neo-classical décor, snooze in between raffles or line up for the one bathroom before cranky court staff ordered us back to our seats, including an older gent.

Few, including me, realized this was a two-day affair, so it wasn't until Friday that people wised up and brought their Dean Koontz novels or their university textbooks with them. Those, like me, who brought work laptops had to turn off the wifi. There's only so much you can get done before you need your email or Google or your office network.

I got so bored the first day that I disabled the wifi and data on my iPhone so I could play Tetris. Bad move. No phones allowed either, the sheriff told me. (That rule seemed to relax a little on the second day, maybe after court staff realized people were too comatose to take any commemorative selfies).

At one point Friday morning, folks were chatting lightly with their now-familiar seat-mates when one staffer told us to pipe down. When she shushed us a second time, several people back-talked and grumbled. And, later, when the final jury was chosen, those of left over erupted in applause, which again earned a rebuke from court staff.

It was like being in high school again, except high school students aren't asked to judge murder cases.

The must be a more modern, efficient way of doing this. Jury duty struck me as very much like the rest of our court system - mired in the 19th century. Perhaps some elements of selection could be done electronically to speed things up? Perhaps it should be mandated that employers pay jury members their full salary during a trial so fewer people claim financial hardship? Perhaps the old gents could be allowed to use the bathroom?

For the record, there is no automatic exemption for journalists. And I can think of no good reason a journalist shouldn't serve on a jury if, as in my case, they haven't written about the crime and don't know any of the participants.

When my number was called, I was challenged out by defence counsel, as I knew I would be. But, my number was returned to mix, so I had to return Friday in case I was called for the remaining two trials. I wasn't.

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About Mary Agnes Welch

Mary Agnes Welch joined the Free Press in 2002, first covering city hall and then the Manitoba legislature before moving to her current post as public policy reporter. Before Winnipeg, she worked at the Windsor Star and the Odessa American, a small daily newspaper in West Texas. There, in addition to covering more than 20 counties, she took high school football scores from coaches all over West Texas by phone every Friday night.

Mary Agnes is a graduate of Columbia University’s journalism school. She has been part of two teams of reporters nominated for a Michener Award. In 2011, 2012 and 2013 she was nominated for a National Newspaper Award in the beat category.

She was a Southam journalism fellow at the University of Toronto’s Massey College in 2012-13, where she studied indigenous issues, urban planning and political science. She is also the former national president of the Canadian Association of Journalists and has served on several boards.

She once misspelled "Shih Tzu" in the paper and received 37 emails from angry dog-owners.


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