Straight Talk
MICHELE MANDEL - Jury selection begins in Sgt. Ryan Russell snowplow death

Pall bearers carry the casket of Sgt. Ryan Russell during his funeral in Toronto on Tuesday, January 18, 2011. Thousands honoured Sgt. Russell after being killed by a stole snow plow on January 12 in Toronto.

Credits: Nathan Denette/POOL PHOTO/QMI Agency

MICHELE MANDEL | QMI AGENCY

TORONTO - The missive arrives in the mail, a summons to put your life on hold and report for jury duty. The mind begins to wander: Could it be for an arson case, a break-and-enter, perhaps a short trial over an assault? Will it be just like Law and Order?

And then, to be honest, the reverie is interrupted by sober second thoughts: How can I get out of this? So no wonder the looks of apprehension as the 323 men and women file into the downtown courthouse Thursday, their summons in hand, to learn why they are needed and how disruptive this case may actually be if they are among the chosen.

With half the group in the jury lounge downstairs watching on closed-circuit television and the other half in cavernous Courtroom 6-1, Superior Court Justice Ian Nordheimer told them for the first time why they are needed. From their large pool, 12 jurors and two alternates will be selected to determine if Richard Kachkar is guilty of the first-degree murder of Toronto police Sgt. Ryan Russell.

It was as if the judge had cued the mass intake of breath: it was a case few had missed, a snowy January morning two years ago when we woke to the horrible news that a 35-year-old sergeant had been mowed down by a stolen snowplow after police had been led on a wild chase through the streets of downtown. The 11-year police veteran was married with a young son and the first Toronto officer to be killed in the line of duty since 2002. Now they may be called to sit in judgment, with a man's life and liberty in the balance.

"Mr. Kachkar has already pleaded not guilty," the judge told them. Eyes turned to the 46-year-old St. Catharines, Ont., man sitting in the prisoner's box, he with the reddish-blond beard, dark plaid jacket and eyes staring impassively ahead. The trial will start Feb. 4 and likely go to the end of March, Nordheimer continued. And with that news, you could almost hear parents calculating the impact on their March break plans, the students worrying about their studies, the employed about their angry bosses.

Already sensing the list of excuses being formulated, the judge launched into his speech about the importance of being a juror, of how it is one of the pillars of the justice system and one of the most important functions a citizen can be called upon to perform.

"Serving on a jury is a hardship for most people but it is a civic duty we expect people to serve at least once in their lives," he told them.

The cynical wisdom is that juries are made up of people too dumb to avoid them. But Nordheimer warned that only "exceptional personal hardship" would excuse them. That and any relationship they may have to a police officer or one of the witnesses who may be called.

Between the lines came the unspoken advice: Stow away the dog-eared excuses, the veteran judge has heard them all.

Jury duty is vital to the justice system, a responsibility that shouldn't be shirked. That said, they don't make it easy: For the honour of sitting as a juror, you earn absolutely nothing for the first 10 days and only $40 a day for the next 39. Reach Day 50, and compensation rises to $100. It's a 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. job where you must pay for your own parking and child care and forego your salary unless your company feels otherwise.

But you do get free coffee and snacks at the breaks.

As the reality sunk in, the initial apprehension seemed to give way to an air of worry. Divided into groups of 25 -- their numbers drawn out of a wooden drum like some archaic church bingo game -- they were sent home with a questionnaire asking about their proficiency in English and any medical issues that would make it difficult for them to serve.

They were told to return Monday when lawyers for the Crown and the defence will begin the lengthy process of whittling down who they want to serve on the jury -- a lottery that many, no doubt, are hoping they won't win.

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