A Major Courtroom Lesson: Act the Part

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I had the same reaction many of us have upon seeing the word “SUMMONS” on the form letter that arrived in my mailbox. “Jury Duty? How can I get out of it?” and ” At the very least I will get some reading done. I haven’t been selected the other 3 times I have gone down to the county courthouse so this will be the same. “

I never realized that the three days I spent serving as a juror would prove to be so enlightening and disturbing at the same time. One of the observations I made was that all of us involved in deciding the fate of the defendant had roles to play and during the trial we were expected to play our parts. It was only after the trial ended did this become clear to me.

The Jury Experience 

Monday morning I took public transit down to the county courthouse  in a sad part of downtown  Atlanta where I was starkly reminded of my white suburban privilege. As I waited with several hundred jurors we were told that there were a number of trials on the docket that day and many of us would be needed.

I actually started to be curious about the experience. After all, didn’t both the promo video and pleasant jury administrator say it was our responsibility as citizens to serve on a jury of our peers in a democratic society? In addition, my spouse Bill had served on a murder trial several years ago in this same county and was greatly affected by the experience. I mulled all this over and was simultaneously intrigued and nervous about the potential of serving. .

It ended up that, in fact,  my number was called when the final juror pool was selected. The three-day trial was to decide if a young man was guilty of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. There was a great deal of evidence for us to consider and multiple witnesses. The experience opened my eyes up in many ways as I learned about the way things work in the courtroom , the role of gang violence, drug busts and how  law enforcement acted in all of this. I had to listen so intently and take in the body language of the witnesses and other players every minute I was in the courtroom. And we were instructed many times by the judge to not discuss the case, so I felt the fatigue of keeping my conflicting theories and reactions inside without having a chance to discuss them until later.

Act The Part 

What became quickly apparent is that we all had roles to play in this courtroom drama.

The Defendant – He was dressed up in a new suit, looked focused and took constant notes. Was he told to do that by his defense attorneys to show he was seriously paying attention?

The Judge – SERIOUS. A woman who had a face that meant business in her courtroom. She chastised both the prosecuting and defense attorneys equally and would not let us jurors use pens to take notes because the clicking noise was “distracting.”  Her demeanor showed that she owned the courtroom.

The Defense attorney –  Had a flair for the dramatic. She was pregnant, wore stilettos and went after witnesses coolly and intently.

The D.A. – A warm, southern gentleman who was conversational in his manner. He slowly and methodically laid out the case.

The Jury – Our foreperson was a gregarious retired school principal who led us in a memory name game on our first morning:)  After that, we all seemed to bond pretty well. We went from banter in the jury room to sombre, silent walks into the  jury box.

Stepping Back Into Ourselves 

After 2 days the closing arguments ended and we entered deliberation.  Everyone on the jury had their chance to be heard and we made absolutely sure that, based on the evidence we believed the defendant was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.  It was a huge responsibility and we wanted to be as certain as possible that we made the right decision ( It helped that the judge later told us she believed we had).

So why did I title this blog post “Act the part”?

Here is what happened. After the verdict was announced,  the judge told us that she and the attorneys would be visiting us in the jury room. They wanted  to learn how we had made our decision and what made an impact on us. What evidence did we weigh? They found feedback helpful, they said.

And there they were; in front of us, without armor or posturing. The prosecuting and defense attorneys were no longer glaring tensely at each other. They were actually laughing as they debriefed some of their interactions. The judge shared that she was acting so stone faced up on the bench because smiles could be interpreted as favoritism for one side or another. And as one of the few black females in her position, she was held to a higher standard. She also got in some opinions about SEC football. Who knew that our judge was a real person who liked sports?

Actually, this switch in behavior makes perfect sense. We ALL have to play roles according to the situations in front of us.  In most work scenarios we have to adapt to the culture, the climate and the people. Consider If that DA and attorney started kidding each other the way we saw them do in our post trial meeting. I am pretty sure the jurors would not know what to think and it would have impacted our decisions. Or If the judge had shared her strong opinions about women and football she would have clearly colored our thinking. Impartiality would have gone out the window.

We do have to adapt and hide some of  our true cards  IF that serves the scenario. Read  Unless You’re Oprah Be Yourself Is Terrible Advice by author and professor Adam Grant  for research that supports this view.

In my coaching work, introverts ask me why they need to be more visible and vocal. And extroverts ask why the need to slow down and be quiet. The answer is that those behaviors can help them achieve success precisely because they are playing roles.

For all its flaws, the criminal justice system continues to function. If the many professionals charged with carrying out justice can act the part when the stakes are high then we should take a cue from their playbook and stretch into roles that will get our own jobs done.

And I do hope you get a chance to serve on jury duty. I think you will find it to be an eye-opening if not transformative experience.



4 thoughts on “A Major Courtroom Lesson: Act the Part

  1. Anne Ford

    As an experienced litigator, I’ve known for many years that an important element of communicating my client’s message in the courtroom is for me to “act the part,” and use every means of communication at my disposal. Clothes, physical movement, facial expression, even behavior when I am NOT the focus of the room all can help — or hurt — my efforts to convey my client’s message. It’s helpful to hear from the jury box that my efforts indeed have an impact! Thanks for a great article.

    1. Jennifer Kahnweiler Post author

      Thank you for your insightful comments Anne. I have the utmost respect for what you and your colleagues do each and every day.

  2. John Kador

    Thanks for the report. I’ve always been intrigued by what goes on in the jury room. For whatever reason I have NEVER been called to serve. I mean never received a summons of any kind. I wish one could volunteer to do jury duty. Wouldn’t that be subversive? I occasionally sit in on a trial, a fact which seems to unnerve everyone in the courtroom. I like the takeaway of acting the part, which to me means showing up in the appropriate way.

    1. Jennifer Kahnweiler Post author

      Thanks for your response John. I never thought I would feel lucky to serve but as you read, I do feel that way. I have been corresponding with the judge since the trial and am continuing to learn. I love the idea of sitting in on a trial. I am really enjoying your reports about your Vietnam adventure and can’t wait to read the book you are writing!


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