Local woman recounts federal jury experience
By Chad Knudson
Ranger-Review Staff Writer
When the Federal courts come calling, pack a bag and prepare to be away from home for awhile. This is the lesson learned by local pharmacist Ashlie Staiger following a routine phone call in late January.
Over the course of the next two weeks Staiger would serve as a juror on a major sex trafficking case.
She says she was notified last August that she was eligible to be called for jury duty in Federal District Court between Sept. 2017-Aug. 2018. She dutifully returned the enclosed questionnaire and put the matter out of her mind.
In December she learned she would have to call in every Thursday during the month of January to see whether to report for jury duty. Week to week she made the call and listened to an automated recording informing her she did not need to report.
Then, on Jan. 25 the usual recording was replaced by instructions to report to the Federal Courthouse in Billings by 8 a.m. Monday.
“They don’t tell you what to expect. I was hoping I’d be home Monday night, but I packed for a week,” Staiger said. “I hoped the more prepared I was the more likely it would be for not.”
Staiger’s mother lives outside Billings in Ballantine, so she packed her suitcase and she and four-year-old son Kase headed out Sunday night.
Monday morning found over 50 potential jurors bottle necked at the security check point. Everything from that point on progressed quite rapidly.
“The judge asked a lot of questions and explained the trial would be longer than normal,” Staiger said. “One by one potential jurors were dismissed and new people took their place.”
Many potential jurors were dismissed by the judge, then it was the prosecution’s chance.
“The prosecution was primarily interested in who had daughters,” she said.
More people were dismissed and Staiger still found herself in “the well.”
When the defense’s turn came to question the potential jury, they asked a controversial question, Staiger said.
“If you had to make a verdict right now, how would you rule?”
Staiger said there was a lot of back and forth with the defense. Most people said they couldn’t say yet.
“He didn’t like that answer,” she said.
Others said if it had gotten that far, they would vote guilty. Most of those people were dismissed.
After about two and a half hours of voir dire, as jury selection is called, the participants were given a short break.
When they were called back, Staiger learned she was juror #2.
She had about an hour to eat lunch and contact everyone she needed to inform that she wouldn’t be available for a couple of weeks. Quick calls to her husband, her daughter’s daycare provider and teacher, her mother and her employer were all the notice she could give. The trial began promptly after lunch.
“Mostly I felt bad because I wasn’t going to be at work. I felt bad for my husband. I knew me not being there would make it hard on everyone else,” Staiger said. “I never minded serving, I just felt guilty about not being at home.”
The trial itself was intense and long. Graphic evidence and testimony filled day after day. Staiger said mostly she listened, but she also observed.
“The accused was right across from me. I watched him a lot. When the women testified I watched him for a reaction,” she said. “He didn’t look up; he didn’t acknowledge they existed.”
That behavior was much different when a father of one of the victims testified.
“They locked eyes and stared each other down from the moment the witness entered the room. It was intense,” Staiger said. “My heart was pounding. We went back to the jury room expecting something to happen.”
Staiger said she believes the defendant’s stare told her a lot.
“It was a power thing,” she said.
The jury itself got along well in a surreal environment. While they spent long hours together, they were under strict orders not to discuss the case and not to form an opinion.
“We had a great group. We got along so well. We were together for eight days,” Staiger said. “We’d talk about our families, talk about our jobs, everything but the elephant in the room.”
For Staiger, the hardest part of the process came at the end. When the defense rested the jury got a short break. She returned to learn her name had been drawn at random as the alternate juror.
“When I first heard my name I was upset,” she said. “I was invested in it, I put in the time and I wanted to see it through. It is a burden but you want to get it right and make the right decision.”
As the alternate, she wouldn’t get to deliberate and wouldn’t get to be part of the verdict.
“I turned in my notes, I hugged everyone and I was escorted out,” she said. “I never got to talk about the trial with the people who heard what I heard.”
Staiger said that felt like a lack of closure, so she took the unusual step of returning to the courthouse to hear the verdict read out – ‘guilty’.
“They said it was the first time an alternate came back,” she said. “I’m glad I did it.”
Overall, Staiger said the experience was a positive one.
“Everybody stepped up and helped back home. It went fine,” she said. “(My daughter) Kalli loved it when mom was gone because her lunch box was filled with candy and her favorite treats.”
At the trial Staiger said she met really great people and made new friends.
“Everyone talks about ways to get out of jury duty, but it was really interesting,” she said.
Having served as a juror, Staiger said she is off the hook for federal jury duty – at least for the next two years.
Reach Chad Knudson at