CALLED TO SERVE
By T.L. Petersen
Observer Staff Writer
Heath Sell is like a lot of freshmen at Eastern Oregon University.
He's 18, a graduate of La Grande High School. He's working his way through college, putting in a lot of time at an all-night gas station.
He thinks he'll study for a double major in math and physics, with the idea of someday going to law school.
But Sell, unlike the majority of his classmates, has already been faced with "doing his duty as a citizen," he said.
It won't be military action but court action.
Only three months after turning 18 in October 2001, Sell got a letter notifying him he'd been selected for jury duty.
"My stepdad, Stephen, had never been requested for jury duty until he was 41, and then a month later, after he was called, I was called," Sell remembers. "I don't think my mom has ever served."
Since Sell was active in school, he asked the courts to delay his term as a juror.
"I actually had teachers who were willing to excuse me for jury duty," Sell says, but instead he waited and served as a juror during the July through August period this summer.
Although 18-year-olds are eligible for jury duty in Oregon, they aren't often called.
John DeNault, administrator for the 10th Judicial District Court of Union and Wallowa counties, said an 18-year-old had served on a jury not long ago in Wallowa County.
It is a random function of the state jury pool selection process if an 18-year-old's name is pulled or not, DeNault said.
Mock Trial to civil court
Sell's story had several points of coincidence.
He knew what he was doing, more than many who are called to jury duty.
He'd been a member of
La Grande High School's mock trial team since his sophomore year, competing, in the role of a lawyer for the past three years.
And he's been active in the Union County Teen Court program, serving as either defense attorney or prosecutor in cases involving other teens.
That program has also seen him serve as a teen mentor to those of his peers finding themselves in trouble with the law.
Even that past history came about somewhat accidentally, Sell admits.
"It's a funny story," the well-spoken teen said.
"When I was a sophomore I was supposed to be in class one day, but I wasn't."
When he was stopped in a hallway by the principal, the quick-witted Sell "told the principal that I was going to talk to Mrs. (Darla) Sunderman about being on the mock trial team."
Then Sell's plan to get out of trouble back-fired.
"He escorted me to her room," Sell said, grinning, confessing that up until that hallway meeting, "I hadn't really thought of it, joining mock trial."
"In retrospect, I'm really glad I did it," Sell said.
As part of the mock trial team, Sell was called on when the court system, under Ben Morgan of the juvenile court, set up the Teen Court.
"There couldn't be a better guy in charge," Sell said of Morgan. "He's a great guy."
It was at a state-wide teen conference with Morgan in Albany that Sell and some friends learned about the AKT-NOW or Active Kind Teenagers Nurturing One World program, and tried to get a chapter going in La Grande.
"It just never worked out," Sell says.
Through his high school years, Sell had worked toward earning a place in the U.S. Air Force Academy. When "things happened and I wasn't accepted," Sell had to regroup, he said.
He decided to attend Eastern and pursue his favorite subjects of math and physics.
Conversations with Chief Deputy District Attorney Janie Burcart and others in the court system, including Judge Eric Valentine, whom Sell knew through both Boy Scouts and Teen Court, convinced him science degrees could even be useful if he decided to apply to law school someday.
Sell was called to show up in court in July. He thought he was going for a training session at 8 o'clock one morning, so he went from an all-night shift at his job to court, still wearing shorts and gas station dirt, unshowered and unshaved.
"I assumed it was an introduction session," Sell confesses.
It wasn't. A jury was being selected for a civil case involving an injury accident claim.
"I hadn't had any sleep," Sell said. "And everybody else was 20 years older, at least."
"I knew about everybody at court," Sell says. "Dick Miller (the bailiff) looked at me, and his mouth dropped. I looked like a punk kid right off the street."
But punk kid or not, Sell was selected as Juror No. 3. Bailiff and judge both made a point of letting others in the court room know that Sell wasn't "appropriate" for the duty ahead.
"Judge Valentine just looked at me," Sell says. "I felt awful."
When Sell sat down in the jury box, "Judge Valentine was deliberately trying not to look at me, I think."
Sell thinks he may have begun to redeem himself when, asked to introduce himself, he explained about coming directly from an all-night shift.
When the first day of trial took a lunch break, Sell finished his redemption.
"I showered and shaved at noon," he grins, "and I showed back up in a suit."
And then the truly unusual happened.
When the jury went into deliberation with the instructions to decide if any money Â— and how much money Â— was to be awarded, the other 11 members of the jury elected him as the presiding juror.
Leading the jury
"I'm naturally a leader," Sell said. When the jury went into deliberations, he was the one who knew they had to choose a spokesperson.
With a room full of fellow jurors, many he estimates old enough to be his grandparents, he was nominated to be presiding juror and elected unanimously.
Reaching a verdict, he said, "was a lot of compromising." And despite several questions from the jury to the judge and attorneys during several hours of deliberation, "they couldn't give us an answer for anything ... . We went in without a clue for what the award could or should be."
The jury did know, Sell said, that there was a top limit of $125,000.
"We had to find a foothold, what we felt was fair."
Using a lot of the experience of the jurors themselves, Sell said the jurors came up with an amount to be awarded to the plaintiff.
"We felt proud of ourselves with what we came up with."
Sell said serving as an adult on a regular jury did give him a new perspective on the legal process but involved using practiced skills.
"The other jurors would give me a question to ask everyone else. I'd get everybody's opinion, take notes, and move on to the next question.
"It's still amazing to me, that they trusted me," he said.
Surprising was the length of time everything took. As a mock trial competitor, Sell says, everything was timed, while during the trial, he said a lawyer would ask a question, look at papers, check something else, and generally, in his opinion, "wasted so much time."
Sell had never had the role of juror before, always serving as an attorney (in mock proceedings). The inability to get answers from the attorneys and witnesses while in the jury box, he said, "drove us nuts."
Sell enjoyed the experience of being one of the youngest presiding jurors in recent Oregon court history, according to DeNault.
"A lot of people find (jury duty) inconvenient or a hassle, but it made me feel good; it's a service to do," Sell said, even though he lost a few days of work time.
"I would do it again. I enjoyed it a lot."