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Serving on a Criminal Court Jury With Slate and Stylus At The Ready

Editor's Note: Editor's Note: The following article is reprinted from the Braille Forum, Vol. XXXIX No. 2, August 2000, www.acb.org Image: Front steps of a court house

Until a few years ago, we heard frequent stories about blind citizens' being summarily rejected for jury service because of stereotypical assumptions about their blindness -- e.g., the assumption that they could not judge the veracity of the witnesses because they could not see their faces or body language, or the assumption that they could not understand exhibits, etc.

Although these attitudinally based exclusions have declined markedly in recent years, slightly more practical barriers have still existed for certain categories of citizens in many jurisdictions.

One such barrier which existed until fairly recently in the District of Columbia was the nearly automatic practice of excluding from jury service all attorneys and law enforcement officials, on the assumption they would be biased or would perhaps exercise undue influence over their fellow jurors.

In recent years, however, as communities have recognized the need to call upon the talents of all elements of society they have phased out these categorical exclusions as well--deciding instead, to explore, in detail, any individual's possible bias before automatically excluding a whole class of citizens from potentially valuable jury service.

It was in this climate that I recently responded to yet another summons to appear for possible jury duty in the Superior Court, the court of general criminal jurisdiction, for the District of Columbia.

I had been called several times previously, but, once I identified myself as an attorney who had defended clients in criminal cases in the past, I was never selected .

What a pleasant change I encountered! First, the jury clerk did not attempt to talk me into asking for dismissal as soon as he saw my long white cane.

Next, before questioning the dozens of people in the jury pool as a group, the presiding judge instructed everyone to be prepared to take notes in response to several dozen questions which he intended to ask during the voir dire process. (This is the process used by judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys to examine, accept or reject prospective jurors before the beginning of a trial.)

So, out of my jacket pocket came my six-line pocket slate, a four-by-six-inch card, and a stylus. The questions related to such matters as prior knowledge, knowledge of the attorneys or anyone else connected with the case, revulsion concerning the alleged offense, location of residence, nature of work performed, etc. All we had to do was mark the number of each question for which we had an affirmative answer. This series of questions constituted the most thorough inquiry I had ever seen at that stage of a case.

Next, each prospective juror was questioned individually by the judge in the presence of the attorneys but out of hearing of the other prospective jurors, about all the affirmative answers he or she had noted.

When the judge saw my braille notes, he asked if I would be able to take personal notes for my own use if I were selected for the jury, and, of course, my answer was in the affirmative.

When I asked about examining visual exhibits, the judge explained that jurors would be permitted to ask relevant, clarifying questions through the judge himself, who would, if necessary, determine the admissibility of each question and rephrase it.

Additionally, for the benefit of the two attorneys I pointed out that, if I were selected and if visual exhibits were used, it would be very helpful for each to emphasize the relative value of those exhibits.

Each attorney, realizing that such emphasis and analysis would help his or her case, eagerly declared that such attention would be given.

Following the examination of approximately 75 prospective jurors, I was seated as juror number seven to hear a case involving the sexual abuse of a female child.

Each of the 14 jurors empaneled, two of whom would be dismissed as alternate jurors upon conclusion of testimony and arguments, was assigned a specific seat in the jury box, given a pad and pencil for note-taking purposes, instructed not to discuss the case during its progress and instructed to leave his or her notes in his or her assigned seat when out of the jury box.

So, out of my pocket again came my little six-line slate and a stylus for use with my pad of paper.

The trial lasted three days; the judge asked two clarifying questions, which I read to the clerk from my braille notes; my fellow jurors found my notes to be very helpful and, after due deliberations, the jury found the defendant guilty.

Ah, how helpful was that little six-line braille slate and stylus! Of course, other note-taking and information retrieval systems or no system other than memory itself could perhaps have been used, but the simplicity of the slate and stylus and its equivalence to simple handwritten notes on paper eliminated possible questions about such things as the not-permitted use of tape recorders in court rooms, the use of electronic note-taking devices which the judge and the attorneys had never seen or heard of before, and the need to leave the notes in the jury box at all times before the beginning of deliberations.

My experience underscores the continuing need for blind and visually impaired people to equip themselves with a full arsenal of skills and equipment, both simple and not so simple, in order to be prepared to perform the full range of duties of citizenship.