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When you are asked to choose between life and death

People often complain about jury duty. It interferes with their routine. They have to take time off work. In Minnesota, they are only paid $10 a day, which if you have to park near the Hennepin County Government Center in Minneapolis, won't even cover your cost of parking.

But jury duty is important. It is one of the aspects of the court system that is enshrined in the Constitution. And as inconvenient and out-of-the-ordinary for most individuals as it is, it is important both because of the actual performance of the jury's duty of fact finding in civil and criminal cases, and because it offers a view to individuals who are not judges, lawyers or sheriff's deputies on how the third branch of government really works.

Sometimes, the jury literally gets to decide a matter of life and death. While Minnesota does not have the death penalty, the federal court system does, and you could be chosen to serve on such a jury. How do make that decision?

Of course, you listen to the evidence and the applicable law in the case. Maybe you have strong feelings opposing or supporting the death penalty. That alone could keep you off the panel, but if you are chosen, you will have to vote.

You may find the evidence overwhelming and because of the nature of the crime, may feel death is an appropriate sentence. But these cases never occur in a vacuum. How important is the background information on the defendant?

One former juror in Missouri, who had voted for death in a criminal case involving a terrible crime, learned additional details many years later of the defendant's childhood and the savage abuse he suffered as a child, the majority of which was not presented at trial. This juror noted that had the information been available to the jury, he said a majority of jurors would have voted differently.

A federal judge has overturned the death sentence in this case based on this information. Jury duty is rarely seen as an enticing diversion, but it is an opportunity to see a different view of the world from the one you to which you are accustomed. And it may be a matter of life and death.

Source: stltoday.com, "Juror who voted to execute Glendale killer now hopes for mercy," Robert Patrick, December 22, 2015

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