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'But you can get excused from jury duty'

''But you can get out of jury duty.''

Time and again, when I told friends and colleagues that I had been called to serve on jury duty, I was given the same advice.

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''You can be excused, you know.''

''You can tell them it's a hardship. Sometimes you can get a religious exception.''

'' Did you tell them you were a journalist?''

Too bad so many Americans turn down the opportunity to engage in participatory democracy.

Perhaps nothing but the actual act of voting is as close to exercise of democracy in our nation as serving on a jury.

When Judge Thomas L. Hayes met our panel that first day of the winter term, he started by reminding us of the Magna Carta--of that remarkable challenge to regal authority, guaranteeing certain rights and privileges to the common man.

Across the United States, day after day, case after case is settled by men and women listening with all their will, common sense, and moral judgment to testimony in courts.

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More often than not, the jury must be unanimous. No small matter when the case is complicated, and emotions are involved.

But being a part of those deliberations is humbling as well as enlightening.

If you don't agree with what other jurors say, you must support your disagreement with what you heard and saw in court. And you must convince those who believe they saw and heard something different from what you saw and heard.

One case I was on was particularly complex, and during the testimony first by the plaintiff and then the defense, all 12 jurors were swayed first one way, then another.

The law, the judge explained, went beyond fraud to intent. And if those wronged, once aware of the fraud, continued in spite of that exposure, then the original law was nullified.

When we finally got into the jury room, it was clear that should we find for the defense, the plaintiff would be ''ruined.'' We had to talk it out--each of us had to convince ourselves that we could render no other verdict.

Common sense wisdom abounded. Our hearts were troubled, but our minds made up.

We not only found for the defense, but provided no compensation at all for the plaintiff.

I met with Judge Hayes when my panel had been excused (we'd served more days in that district court and rendered more verdicts than any other panel in recent history). I reminded him of that case.

He told me that he and both side judges (A side judge is one who listens throughout the case and consults with the presiding judge.) agreed that it was ''the toughest jury decision of the session.''

I asked the judge how he thought public schools could do a better job of teaching about democracy - particularly about the judicial system.

Just as had every other person the Monitor contacted, Judge Hayes talked about the need for teachers to read about cases, and to discuss what they were reading with their pupils.

He spoke of recent material dealing with accounts of eyewitnesses, and how unreliable and often inaccurate their testimony is.

Then, since we were dining together in a busy restaurant, he gave an example of how even the most observant people are often unreliable witnesses.

''How often,'' he asked, ''do a group of people spend part of an evening talking with a waitress, and then when it's time for the bill, ask each other which one is it that's been waiting on us?''

Judge Hayes also spoke of the need for teachers to help high-schoolers, particularly, learn how to cross-examine. He would applaud teachers who permitted students to practice both the giving of testimony and then the questioning of the testifier, following approved legal procedures.

Judge Hayes thought youngsters could get a strong idea of the whole system of justice by jury by sitting in on the day a jury is drawn from a panel.

It is at this time that the plaintiff must give the prospective jurors a synopsis of the case, and also it is at this time that lawyers for both plaintiff and defendant examine the jurors for bias and fairness.

Judge Hayes said he would be willing, should a school group ask for the privilege, to excuse all but the schoolchildren after a jury has been drawn and talk with the students about what has taken place.

And then he thinks it is important for the teacher to keep up with the case and share with the children just how it was finally settled.

Would Judge Hayes prefer children knowing about and studying real cases rather than made-up cases?

The smile was genuine; the nod affirmative.

Then he returned to the subject of cross-examination - something he wants older junior and senior high school students to listen in on as often as possible.

''A good cross-examination,'' he explained, ''closes the doors to all possible avenues of escape.'' Then a pause, as he began putting on his overcoat. ''Done well, I think I'm hearing a symphony.''

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