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I was cutting mushrooms the other day, and my mind started to wander and the next thing you know, I was musing about jury duty. So how did this happen? Stick with me over the entwined orange mushrooms to see what happened.

I have always regarded jury duty as a citizen's duty, even though the arrival of the envelope containing the summons has not usually been greeted by a "Whoopee, I got jury duty!" When I was teaching, I used to postpone the service until classes were out, and I admit to having postponed once to the week between Christmas and New Year's, figuring people wouldn't be interested in starting up a big trial then.

It used to be a lot more difficult to do jury duty, because back in the "old days" you had to go down there and sit around to see if you'd be called, and if you weren't called, well, at least you got some reading in. Then they started a system in which you were given a color code, and you could call the night before and see if your color had been called to report. Nowadays, they've lowered the time you have to serve while on call to one week from a previous two weeks, and you can check by phone or online the night before to see whether, when, and where you should report. I must admit this makes it much easier than it was in the past.

I have often thought I would be unable to serve on a criminal jury, but luckily I've only been called to civil jury courts. A couple of times I've been in the jury pool, but not chosen. Once, relatively recently, they deselected me at the last minute, which made a lot of sense as I recall, because it was a case where someone had bought an eight-unit apartment building but hadn't read the fine print, and although I would have done my best, I really didn't care so much about  big landlord 1 vs. big landlord 2.

By now you are probably thinking, "What about the mushrooms?" Well, I did serve on one jury, quite some time ago. In fact, a lot of the details have faded into the mist because it was back in the early 80s as I recall. I figured I wouldn't be seated on the jury because I was very active in my teacher's union at the time--it might have even been when I was Union President. I didn't think they'd want me on a business case, but I was wrong.

It was a civil case where a mushroom farmer (Yes, at the time I believe he was the only mushroom farmer in San Francisco.) was suing the supplier of the spawn he was using to grow the mushrooms. "Spores must be collected in the nearly sterile environment of a laboratory and then used to inoculate grains or seeds to produce a product called spawn, (the mushroom farmer’s equivalent of seed)." In addition, the compost that is used to grow the mushrooms has to be sterilized.

The issue was whether the crop had failed because the supplier gave faulty spores, or whether the method of sterilizing that the farmer used was inappropriate. The trial lasted at least a week as I recall, and we the jurors were very good about not saying anything to each other or anyone else while the trial was ongoing. I tried to keep an open mind while listening to the evidence. One of the items of evidence was a bag of spores. The problem was that bag stayed with us over the course of the trial, and it got more and more moldy. It wasn't very appetizing during deliberations to see the moldy bag of spawn sitting there.

When the trial finally finished and we retired to the jury room, the firefighter we had selected as our foreman asked us to take a preliminary vote as to whether the farmer had made his case. I was in favor of the farmer, but I figured I would be the only one, and that the witnesses brought by the company would have won over the rest of the jurors. It turned out that the preliminary vote was 10 to 2 in favor of the farmer. The rest of the people had felt the same as I did, so we were pretty surprised.

We wanted to do a good job, so we went over all of the evidence and testimony again. Then it came time to decide on the amount of money that would be a penalty. The group decided to go along with the actual money lost, but they only made a token amount as a penalty. I argued for more, but I was overruled.

After the trial was over, I spoke to the farmer's attorney. I explained that having been dealing with my school district budgets, I was used to thinking in millions of dollars, and was able to remove that from my own monetary situation, which certainly didn't contain millions. I felt that the other people on the jury, not being of the wealthier class, had a hard time understanding how much the business made and what an appropriate penalty would be. The attorney told me he had thought about presenting that evidence, but had decided against it. I seem to recollect that the jury award, even just for damages, was unusual, and it was going to be appealed.

I never heard anything else about it, and I have no idea if the farmer ever got paid. The situation did, however, give me some hope in the jury system. My fellow jurors were regular people, all doing their best to understand the issues, follow instructions, and come to a fair decision. You can't really ask for more.

Originally posted to Lorikeet's Landing on Sun Apr 08, 2012 at 10:07 PM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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