Sunday, August 16, 2009
Jury Duty aka The Long Goodbye
Place: Atlanta, GA
I get a jury summons every year and this year was no exception. I have been through many a jury selection, but I have never been picked to serve on a jury. I used to think the reason I kept getting called back was because I never got picked for a jury. I believed that if I served on a jury then they’d stop calling me back. However, I overheard a woman in the elevator explain that she had served on many juries and still gets called in for jury duty every year.
I’ve been told I fit a demographic that is desirable for juries. I’m a white, middle class male with a steady income. I’m too old to attract marketers, but apparently I’m honey to the bees in the judicial system.
In years past, I was determined not to serve on a jury and I devised a plan to guarentee that I wouldn’t get picked. When the lawyers questioned us, I would wait for the magic question that would make me undesirable to either the defense or the prosecution. My plan worked quite well.
For example, there was a trial where a man was being sued for the pain and suffering a child endured from an accident that he caused. His insurance had paid for the child’s rehabilitation, but now the man was being personally sued for the pain and suffering the rehabilitation caused. I thought the case never should have come to trial, but what do I know? The child’s lawyer asked if we agreed that there should be no limit to how much money the child should get from the man. I disagreed, so the lawyer passed me right over.
Another case had to do with the state prosecuting a pimp. My fellow potential jurors and I were asked if any of us believed that prostitution should be legalized. I raised my hand and was passed right over. Just a side note, I do believe prostitution should be legalized. Nothing will ever stop people from charging for sex, so make it safe and clean. And tax the shit out of it.
In recent years, I stopped looking for the magic question. It seemed unfair. I felt it was important that I be honest and respect the process.
JURY SELECTION- DAY ONE
This year, I showed up for jury duty at 8:00am with a book and notepad and waited in a large room with all the other potential jurors. We watched a video on the importance of doing our civic duty by serving on a jury, etc. etc.
Every so often, a list of names was read and people were herded to courtrooms. Around 10:30am, my name was called. I was given a juror number and a courtroom to go to. I was a part of a group of 60 potential jurors. We marched off the courtroom where we were lined up, given a laminated card with our juror number printed on it, and then loaded into the observers’ benches.
The prosecution and defense lawyers along with the defendant were waiting for us. The defendant wore a borrowed suit that looked like at any second it was going to swallow him whole. We were instructed by the bailiff to stand when the judge entered. The judge had us swear an oath and then proceeded to read the charges of the case.
This was a criminal trial and though I’m not at liberty to discuss the case, I can say that it involved an Elvis impersonator, an under-aged albino, a truck full of illegal office supplies, and an influential city official to be named later. You know I’m kidding because I would have paid cash money to be on that jury.
The prosecution and the defense asked us general questions as a group and we answered by raising our cards. For example, we were asked if any of us knew anyone who had been victim of a crime similar to the one the defendant was accused of. Those of us who raised our card to indicate yes we did, they wrote down our juror number. Everything was fine until the judge explained that the trial would last for 4 to 5 days and would that be a hardship for anyone. I didn’t raise my card, but close to half the jurors did.
A true hardship is a relative thing and so the Judge decided we needed to be interviewed one by one. We given a one hour lunch break and the questioning began when we got back. That first day, twenty-two jurors were interviewed.
I was one of that group of twenty-two. I had to go into the jury deliberation room where the judge, the lawyers, and the defendant were waiting. They asked me a number of questions and without meaning to, I answered the magic question. There was an aspect of the case that I honestly couldn’t get my head around. I felt it hampered my ability to presume the defendant innocent until proven guilty. I really felt it was up to the defense to prove the defendant’s innocence.
At 6:30 the judge called us into the room and told us she had good news and bad news. She would start many announcements this way and her good news was never as good as her bad news. The bad news on that first day was there were 38 more jurors to interview individually. We were sent home and told to report back to this courtroom the next day.
JURY SELECTION- DAY TWO
I came prepared for a long day. I brought a book, my computer, my sketch pad, and a power bar. Though we were lined up to sit in our usual seats, that didn’t last long. Also, the rule against using cellphones in the courtroom was quickly ignored.
Soon enough I heard a juror call out, “Hey does anybody have an iphone charger?” Jurors read or slept. Relationships formed. Long involved family histories are shared along with family photos. If love bloomed, I didn’t see it.
The benches were most uncomfortable, so people took the lawyer’s chairs or stretched out on benches in the hallway. People went downstairs to the vending machines or outside the building to smoke. Somehow we always made it back for the judge’s next good news bad news announcement.
I tried to write or draw or sleep, but I couldn’t stick with anything for very long. I overheard a lengthy discussion about health care that boiled down to, “We need to do something about all these uninsured people, but I don’t want to have to pay for it.”
My favorite exchange had to do with the observers’ benches. Here is how it went down:
First man: “You know, if they just rounded the top and the bottom of this bench, it would be much more comfortable. Then it would be like the pews at my church.”
Second man: “I was going to say, ‘what a friend we have in Jesus.’”
Woman listening in: “A moment of silent devotion please.”
However, most discussions were about escape. Theories, rumors, wild speculation was passed around in hushed tones. We all wanted to go home at this point. Nobody cared about the trial. We didn’t discuss the trial, at least not openly. We spoke in a kind of code, skirting actual statements so we didn’t break any rules. One thing I did discover was that many jurors answered the magic question the same way I did.
When the last juror, Juror #60 was called in for her personal interview, we all cheered. She raised her hands like a boxing champ and danced out of the room. When she came back, we waited some more.
Finally, around 3:30pm, the judge, the lawyers, and the defendant returned. The judge explained that they needed a 30 juror pool for the lawyers to negotiate down to the 12 jurors plus 2 back ups for the trial. Because of the sensitive nature of the trial, they hadn’t been able to get 30 jurors from our 60.
To help get the remaining jurors, the judge had asked for 60 more jurors from the jury pool in the main room and had put them in the courtroom next to ours. The judge and the lawyers were going to interview them one by one.
We were stunned. 60 more? That meant they didn’t want more than half of us in this courtroom. Why not let us go? The judge explained that nobody would be excused until the selection was complete.
As we waited for the new group to be interviewed, we found out that they had been minutes away from being excused for the day when they were called in. Since we were on day two, we had no sympathy for them.
At 6:30, we were herded back to our seats. The judge came out with good news bad news. The good news was that they only had to interview 33 jurors to fill their pool of 30. The rest of the second group of 60 were sent home. The bad news was that we had to come back the next day for the actual selection. However, the selection was only expected to last an hour.
JURY SELECTION- DAY THREE
On the third day, I only brought my cellphone. I figured if I wasn’t selected, I’d go home. If I was selected, then I couldn’t have a computer, a sketch pad, or a book to read, because my full attention would have to be on the trial.
We were combined with the other 33 jurors and herded back into the benches. Then we waited. Finally, at 11:00, the judge came out and explained that they didn’t have their pool of 30 after all. 24 for more jurors were called in and put into an adjacent courtroom and were being interviewed one by one.
Once the judge left, we spread out all over the place. Benches, jury seats, lawyer seats. Benches in the hallway. Some even slept on the floor. People gathered in groups and vented their frustration. Why couldn’t they let those of us they didn’t want go? Why couldn’t they do this by email? Was I in danger now that the defendant knew my name? This is no way to run a judicial system.
I suggested we take up a collection to bribe the defendant to plea bargain.
At one point, I wandered into the courtroom. I noticed a notepad sitting on the defense lawyer’s desk. I recognized it as a notepad that the defendant himself took notes on. I peered down at it. It said “judge’s notes” and had the juror numbers next to each question asked to us as a group on that first day.
“Don’t look at it!” scolded Juror #60. She was sitting on the bench behind me. Someone else came along and she barked the same warning to them.
I didn’t remember seeing the notepad in the room earlier. If I hadn’t been so dazed from 3 days of waiting, I would have had to sense to ask how and when the notepad got there, and why don’t we call the bailiff to remove it?
Instead, I said, “Maybe you should turn it over so that nobody reads it.”
And that’s what Juror #60 did.
At 1:00pm, the judge gave us a lunch break.
At 2:00pm we came back and the judge had us all sit down in the benches as a group.
“I have excellent news,” the judge said. “You have all completed your jury duty and are excused.”
We cheered and rushed out the door. It wasn’t until I got to the street to wait on the shuttle bus that I began to wonder, what the hell just happened? Why did they let us go? Did they get their jury? Was there a plea bargain? WTF?
One of the jurors claimed to have the answer. We were a contaminated jury. When Juror #60 turned over the notepad, she had contaminated us all. It made sense, but I wasn’t happy. I couldn’t shake the feeling that we’d been had. Juror #60 turned over the pad to avoid contamination. I wondered if the notepad was a plant by defense so that we would ruin the selection since defense couldn’t get a jury they liked. What did they hope to gain?
I’ll never know. I’m just happy that I shouldn’t have to go through this ordeal again, until next year at least.