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Prospective jurors can be dismissed for lateness, the financial burden of taking off work, or any number of other reasons. Add race as a consideration and jury selection can take weeks to complete.

Over the past few weeks, thousands of people have protested after grand juries failed to indict police officers in the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown. What they wanted was to have the officers tried in an open court before a jury of their peers. But the notion of a jury of your peers isn't so straightforward.

Take, for example, 21-year-old Roderick Giles' experience. When he got a jury summons in the mail, he reacted the way a lot of people do.

"I did not want to go to jury duty," he says. "That was the last thing on my mind to do."

Luckily for the California resident, the judge dismissed him because he was 10 minutes late getting to Sacramento County Superior Court. But ideally, that's not how jury selection is supposed to work.

Potential jurors generally are questioned first, then dismissed — and it can take a long time. Earlier this year in Atlanta, 600 prospective jurors were summoned for the high-profile trial of 12 public school teachers and principals accused of correcting students' answers on standardized tests. Even then, defense attorney Bob Rubin challenged the pool because he said it underrepresented African-Americans.

"All of the defendants are African-American," Rubin says. "And if they're entitled to a fair cross-section of their peers, then their peers ought to be represented correctly in the jury pool."

The judge dismissed that challenge. He also excused anyone who said it would be too much of a financial burden to not work during the six-month trial. But when a disproportionate percentage of those people ended up being African-American, the judge said he would call them back in and order their employers to continue paying them if they were selected. After all, Rubin says, race matters.

"In my 28 years of experience, black jurors are generally more suspicious of law enforcement than white jurors," he says. "They tend to take what the government says with a grain of salt more than white jurors do — and to me, that mattered."

Jury selection in that case took six weeks.

Shari Seidman Diamond, a jury expert and professor at Northwestern Law School, says the jury system has changed a lot in the past 200 years.

"Jury trials in early times were quite short," she says. "When jurors went back to deliberate, there were instances where they were kind of locked up without food or drink until they delivered a verdict."

It was also common for jurors to know the defendants and the witnesses, which no longer is allowed. And most importantly, for a long time only white men could serve on juries.

Seidman Diamond says the idea of a "jury of your peers" comes from the Magna Carta, but the phrase doesn't actually appear in the U.S. Constitution. Instead what we have is a right to "an impartial jury" drawn from the surrounding region.

"The meaning has come to represent an interest in having a cross-section of the community who are eligible to be on your jury," she says.

After all, the jury system isn't just about defendants who want a fair trial; it's also about the community participating in the system of law.

And while many people dread the prospect of jury duty, those who serve often end up liking it. San Francisco resident Gerald Spotts, who was waiting outside the courtroom for what would be his third stint on a jury, says he enjoys watching the legal system at work.

"It helps you understand, if you ever get in trouble, what you might have to deal with," he says.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Cuba is 90 miles away from the southernmost point in the United States, in K...
Some Cuban-American families are rejoicing at the possibility of visiting their homeland, but not everyone has embraced President Obama's new policy toward the island nation.

Like Cuban-American families throughout the diaspora, the Garcias of Key West, Fla., gather on Noche Buena, or Christmas Eve, to catch up on news and eat a traditional meal of lechón, or roast pig.

Wayne Garcia, a local building contractor and artist, prepared the pork for the family feast this year. He smokes it for seven hours in a hole dug in his backyard, in a style he says was passed down from his great-grandparents.

"The secret to this is that we use guava branches from the guava tree to give it a smoke taste," he says. "That's the Key West Cuban tradition."

Out by the pool sits his 89-year-old father, Gregorio Garcia. Like many Key West Cubans, he arrived before Fidel Castro's revolution.

"I was a mason in Cuba," he says. "I came to Key West in 1958 looking for a better life. There used to be a ferry that ran between the two islands every day. I hope they operate it again someday."

The Garcias pile their paper plates high with the savory pork, black beans and rice, and Cuban bread. They drink wine and ice-cold Mexican beer. They hug one another generously on this warm night before Christmas.

One of Gregorio's three children, Manny, is a lawyer in Key West. He has never visited Cuba, but he says he wants to, even though the trade embargo still prevents American tourism.

"We have a longing to know this island. I think it's a discovery of ourselves and filing in gaps of who we are," he says.

'You Cannot Separate The Histories'

Tony Yanez, the burly, white-bearded city commissioner, is one of Key West's best-known Cuban politicians.

What he says is repeated often around town: Before the completion of the federal highway in 1938 linking the Florida Keys, Key West felt more like a province of Cuba.

"People actually tell me, old-timers tell me about even taking the ferry boat to Cuba to go to the dentist, to go to the doctor," Yanez says. "You cannot separate the histories and the cultures of the two islands."

Yanez was born in Havana, emigrated with his parents after Fidel came to power, and holds a visceral love for his homeland.

"When I first heard the news on television of President Obama saying that this dream that Cuba was going to open up, I bawled. I cried like a baby for a long time," he says. "And of course I started calling relatives and friends, and they were all crying."

He gets emotional again. "It's over half a century of dreaming of something," he says.

Yanez stands inside one of the most famous buildings in Key West, the San Carlos Institute. It's here where the Cuban national hero José Martí came in 1891 to whip up support for the Cuban war of independence against Spanish colonial rule.

Opposition To Obama Policy

Yanez loves his Cuban history — and so does Rafael Penalver, though they're on opposite ends of the political spectrum.

Penalver is a Miami lawyer who also fled Havana with his parents as a child. He's director of the San Carlos Institute. He and Yanez butted heads a couple years ago when Yanez invited some diplomats from the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, D.C., to lay a wreath at the Martí statue. Penalver refused them entry.

"I told Tony Yanez, to come here, as a showpiece, to put a wreath in front of the statue of José Martí, that, to me, was unacceptable," he says.

Earlier this week, they clashed again. The board of directors of San Carlos, led by Penalver, wrote a caustic letter condemning President Obama's new Cuba policy.

"This is an agreement between economic interests of the United States and the interest of a Cuban dictator that wants to stay in power," Penalver says.

Obtaining The Unattainable

That's not the way Andrea Gallardo-Runk sees it. The 31-year-old architect lives in Tallahassee and is a member of the third generation of the Garcia clan.

"You hear your grandparents come from there," she says. "You eat the food, you listen to the music, you dance the dances. And it's unattainable."

She and the rest of her extended family relish the possibility of visiting their unattainable homeland.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Falling oil prices are perhaps nowhere more welcome than in northern New England, where most homes burn heating oil in their furnaces and high electricity prices are going up.

Falling oil prices are perhaps nowhere more welcome than in northern New England, where most homes burn heating oil in their furnaces and high electricity prices are going up.

This story originally aired on Morning Edition on Dec. 22, 2014.

Copyright 2014 New Hampshire Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.nhpr.org/.