For five weeks in April and May a few years ago I was a juror in a murder trial at the Ontario Supreme Court at the University Avenue Courthouse. I am forbidden by law to talk about many aspects of the case. So I will sketch out the bare bones of the case and share some of my personal experiences in court.

The charge was second-degree murder trial. Our verdict, which had to be unanimous, was the lesser charge of manslaughter. Sentencing is the duty of the judge and takes place several weeks later. This was not a high-profile case and not widely reported in the media.

Jury selection

Both the summons to appear as a potential juror, as part of the jury panel, and the actual choice to be a juror were conducted by lottery. I believe the former was from the tax roll. According to the number on our summons letter, we were put into groups of twenty and presented to the judge and lawyers of a particular case. If both lawyers agreed, a person was accepted as a juror and sworn in on a choice of holy book or by personal affirmation. A potential juror who was refused for one trial was then considered for a different case, and so on, until all the trials had sufficient jurors.

The twelve of us, once chosen, were instructed to arrive fifteen minutes before the judge wanted us in court. We gathered in the public corridor on a different floor from our courtroom to avoid running into other people involved in the trial. We were met by a court constable, who led us through a secure corridor to a jury room across from our courtroom. (There was also an entrance to the courtroom from the general corridor for visitors, including several high-school classes for brief periods). When one juror was twenty minutes late on our second day, we realized that the whole court was delayed until we were all present. After that, for the rest of the five weeks, none of us was ever late or absent; one juror’s plumbing backed up, but her husband was able to stay home and deal with it.

Aspects of the jurying experience

Every day, several times a day, we were kept in a jury room until our presence in court was required. Then the court constable lined us up in the hallway by number according to the order in which we were chosen. When we entered the courtroom from the special jury entrance, we turned left into the jury box, an enclosure with two rows of six chairs each, the second row raised behind the first. Juror Number One sat at the far end of the first row and I, Juror Number Seven, sat just behind him, making the two of us the most visible to visitors. To my embarrassment, made worse by this visibility, I had a tendency to doze off.

Before being selected, while we were still waiting in the jury pool, we were informed by means of an orientation video that it wasn’t necessary to dress formally, but just to be neat and clean. However, in the courtroom where the judge and lawyers were wearing robes and the witnesses were in suits and ties, I was inclined to dress formally as well to suit the occasion. As the jury stood and filed out of the jury box, I was the last to leave. With my back visible the whole time, I always wore a jacket of some kind and made sure it was pulled down over my hips.

Being in the jury room itself was an experience in sensory deprivation. The walls were a neutral grey. The amenities were an oval table with twelve comfortable chairs around it, a small fridge, trash containers and two washrooms. The windows were frosted over. Though the trial and my time in the jury room took all my attention, going out of the building for lunch and at the end of the day were a welcome change. It was late April, and I eagerly marked the progress of leaves and flowers coming out. Once or twice a day I was able to walk though the grounds of Osgoode Hall nearby and enjoy the tulips.

This was during the first weeks of the trial, when the evidence and witnesses were presented and we were not yet sequestered. Entering the Courthouse was awkward for me with my knee replacement: twice a day the metal in my knee set off the security alarm and slowed up everyone behind me. The whole experience was rather like working full time again, though we often started at 10:00, at the Judge’s discretion, and were able to miss the worst of the rush hour traffic. The jury was composed of six men and six women from a variety of backgrounds and walks of life. Some of us had to travel from as far as Scarborough or Etobicoke.

Towards the end of the trial

After four and a half weeks, the lawyer for each side summed up the case as he saw it and the judge summed it up, as well. The judge told us several times that we were to decide on the verdict according to our life experience and common sense. Then he turned the case over to us, and we were sequestered for our deliberations.

Sequestration means that we were cut off from all outside contact: no access to media or telephones, though we were allowed to send and receive phone messages through the court constable. We stayed in the jury room and hashed out the case, with our notes all over the table. Lunch was brought in, and we were taken to a different jury room to eat. Sometimes we were taken out for a brief walk before getting back to deliberations.

This took us parts of four days, with three nights spent in a nearby hotel. So after a day of deliberations, the twelve of us walked to the hotel with our assorted sports bags and small wheeled luggage, escorted by four uniformed court constables. What a treat it was to be in a luxurious dining room with greenery visible out the windows. The hotel was obviously experienced with juries and had a special two-choice menu for us. All sixteen of us took up a wing on one floor of the hotel. Each juror was assigned a room; then one of the constables inspected each room to make sure the television and phone were disabled. Two constables at a time stayed awake in the corridor for half the night, guarding us. In the morning we had breakfast at the hotel, then back to the court through a private entrance–no more security alarms for me!

While the jury was out, i.e., in deliberation, the whole court–judge, lawyers, court officials, accused, family members–were available at short notice to receive our verdict. We presented our verdict late Saturday afternoon of the Victoria Day Weekend.

Looking back

My experience in court was very different from what we see on television. What often happens on crime shows is that the identity of the guilty party is clear but that can’t be proven until near the end, when one tiny piece of evidence is shown to him and he confesses. This all takes place within an hour of snappy dialog and quick-changing bright-coloured scenes. In contrast with my experience, I remember a lot of time in an elegant courtroom with wood paneling and marble, with a large, beautifully-designed, modern interpretation of the crest of Ontario (lion, unicorn, motto) above the judge’s seat. There was an appropriate unhurriedness to the procedure, conducive to necessary reflection, and no single obvious piece of evidence or testimony that the whole case hinged on, unlike on crime shows where everything is simplified and heightened, as befits entertainment. The trial was thorough, and it was clear that this was a serious matter that deserved the well-prepared and well-presented attention.

As a result of participating in “my” trial I have lost my taste for watching CSI. But I have gained a new interest in court-related works. I recommend the play Twelve Angry Men (available on video and DVD with Henry Fonda), and the John Grisham novels The Last Juror and The Runaway Jury. All these are American and very different in attitude from my experience, but they are more meaningful to me after my court experience.

In conclusion, I am very impressed with our court system as I saw it. The ambience in the courtroom was one of respect and consideration. Having worked with newcomers for many years, I am reminded of how fortunate we are to live in Canada.