by Vejas Vasiliauskas
From the Editor: The name “Vejas Vasiliauskas” may be familiar to Monitor readers because Dr. Eric Vasiliauskas has worked closely with the National Federation of the Blind in getting tips and tricks for raising his two blind children and for giving back to the Federation by offering what he has experienced and learned through his own keen insights as a person with significant motivation, intellectual ability, and outstanding commitment. It is clear that he has imparted these stellar qualities to his children, and in this article Vejas offers some very mature, conscientious, and patriotic opinions about what it means to be an American citizen. Here is what he says:
Every year, adults over eighteen who are registered to vote and have IDs are potential candidates for jury duty. When US citizens are chosen for this civic duty, the court system has no prior knowledge of an individual’s disability. Therefore, when I received a jury duty summons at the end of April this year, I was both intrigued and enthusiastic to learn not only about the process of being a juror but also the accessibility of serving as a blind person.
First there was the initial paperwork. Everything I needed to know—the week I was serving, my juror ID, and my PIN—were only available in print. I was fortunate that my parents were able to read me the information, but it is important to be aware of the fact that without a careful mail organization system, jury duty summonses can easily fall to the wayside along with other print envelopes.
After registering, I began to investigate. I was rather surprised to find that in a day and age where we are fighting for equal expectations, there was very little information about being a blind juror. Few people on the National Association of Blind Students listserv had any serving experience, with one actually being sent home by the court due to the inability to analyze video evidence. I then called the assembly room at my courthouse to inform them that I was blind but still wanted to serve. Was there any disability support, and could anyone who worked there guide me to the various locations throughout the day? I was told no to both questions and was highly encouraged to have my physician sign me off for an excuse. To me, this was not an option; I wanted to experience jury service just like everyone else, at a time when I was off of school for the summer.
Therefore, when I was told by the automated system to report in on Thursday, I was prepared. As an aside, I found the automated phone system to be very accessible. The instructions for how to confirm and report for service were very clearly stated. There is also an online portal that can be used instead. Unfortunately, I was unable to check its accessibility; by the time I signed in shortly after reporting, I was told I no longer had the ability to look through the portal’s information.
To prepare for my service, I imagined various scenarios in my mind and how I would work through them. For example, had I been told that a case required me to see video evidence, I would have asked if I could be switched to a case where the evidence was spoken. The fact that there would be nobody to guide me would not be a problem; I could simply initiate and ask to walk with the fellow jurors around me.
After a security scan similar to the airport, we were told to go into the assembly room for our orientation. The orientation was not, as I had previously thought, a tour of the courthouse, but was an in-depth introduction of our responsibilities as jurors. We watched a video of segments of a case in a courtroom, which was described very well. The video also informed us that there are two types of cases: criminal, in which a defendant is accused of committing a crime, and civil, in which it is necessary to settle a dispute between two sides. In a criminal case, jurors are called by the last digits of their juror ID number, whereas in civil cases peoples’ actual names are used. While every state’s policy is likely to be somewhat different, California’s jury service was for a one-day or one-trial period. This means that if jurors are never called in for the day, they can leave. However, if they get called in to a trial and do not get selected, they still have to go back to the assembly room in case they are called for another trial that day. On my day of service, we were told that there was only one case that day, but that it was still questionable whether it would go to trial.
For the next three hours, the jurors were instructed to wait. The woman who gave our orientation told us that some romantic couples had actually met in jury duty. There were no couples to be had that day, though, and everyone kept themselves to themselves. However, I was able to see my history teacher from my previous semester in school, which was a huge coincidence.
After a rather long lunch break, and just when we thought we could go home, it was decided that the case would go to trial after all. A list of randomly selected names, in no particular order, was read out, and mine was among one of the many names chosen.
Once we were allowed to enter the courtroom, the judge explained that the jury selection period is about four hours, and because we started much later during the day we would probably have to return the following day. He informed us that the case was of a woman who threatened to assault some people with a knife. At that point, eighteen juror ID numbers were called to go up to the juror box to answer some basic questions, including where they were from, their families’ careers, and whether or not people believed they could serve. After all eighteen answered, the judge spoke with the lawyers to determine who might be able to stay on the case. Those who were eliminated could go home, and a few more names were called for the same questioning. Because we ran out of time, the rest of the jurors, including myself and my history teacher, had to come back the next day.
On Friday, rather than go to the assembly room again, we could go straight back for the case. At this point, both the prosecution and defense lawyers began to question the jurors even more intensely. The jurors were given hypothetical situations and asked how they would decide who was innocent and who was guilty. One example involved a custodian and a fifth-grade student. If the custodian attacked a student and the student hit him back as a direct result, this would be considered self-defense, but if the student’s retaliation happened later, then that student would also be considered guilty.
More names were eliminated. Five more juror IDs were chosen, and mine was one of them. The judge and lawyers explained that they had already chosen the original twelve jurors, and our numbers were being called so that we could potentially become alternates. Since I was called to the sixteenth seat in the juror box, I was referred to as “Juror Sixteen” from there on out. Coincidentally, my history teacher from the previous semester at school was juror seventeen. During my first questioning by the judge, I explained that I knew her because she taught me last semester, to which many people laughed. We both felt that the fact that we knew one another would not be a problem, and that neither of us would influence one another in the decision.
The lawyers then asked more hypothetical situational questions. When it came time for the lawyers to select their alternates, I was not among one of the names chosen.
Despite the fact that I could not serve on the case, I was very happy with my experience. After all, many potential jurors never get to experience being called for a case, with some never having to report at all. My fellow jurors were all very accommodating as long as I was able to articulate what I needed. I feel that I can quite confidently say that my reason for not being chosen had nothing to do with my blindness, as there were many, many other sighted people in the same situation.
So, is jury duty for a blind person possible? Yes! By coming together and sharing our jury duty experiences, both past and future, we Federationists can work together to give each other guidance and discuss accommodation issues. However, as long as you have some method of being able to read your juror information, follow instructions, and can advocate for yourself, there should be few if any problems.