I Had Jury Duty

When it is your time, its really just very simple.  I opened the letter from Durham County, standing at the mailbox in my front yard:

You are required to report for jury duty at 8:30 am, Tuesday, June 9.   

Now, I am not one of those people who wants to get out of jury duty.  Actually, I think I understand the reasoning that says that every citizen should have to fulfill the obligation to make up a “jury of one’s peers.” So my first reaction is not what you might be imagining.  It is not, “hey, I definitely can get out of this.”

Maybe that reflects poorly on me in a world where the law is, first and foremost, a business.  Maybe I am some kind of dunce to want to participate in a system whose very practitioners seem willing to move beyond its ideals.  Well, bully for them, but I realize, as I stand out there with my letters, that I am kind of intrigued. 

I sat in the courtroom for almost one and half days before I was called.  If you had any kind of motive to get out of the case, you were excused.

“I have to drive my child to school,” said one person.

“I am going on vacation,” said another.

“I can’t speak English,” said a third.

“I’m a judge,” said a fourth.

All were excused.

If you didn’t have an excuse, you took a seat in the jury box.  I got the second to last seat.  I was pretty certain that I wouldn’t last long here, anyway.  My dad, who was an attorney, said that he always preferred to get a jury without any college graduates.

“Too likely to read,” he said.  “Too likely to have their own opinions.”

So it was with that frame that I understood the intentions of the two attorneys as they handed out their questionaires. There were some demographic questions.  Tell us your job, your age, your education, your address. Then there was another section.  It contained a series of statements.

I thought the first was a bit forward:

“I favor the death penalty,” it said.  “Agree or disagree.”

I felt that this was a little bit invasive.

It went on: “Being under age 18 should not make a difference in capital cases. Agree or disagree.”

“I carry negative feelings for, or have had a negative experience with, an African-American person.”

In my most spirited expression of white person tolerance, I emphatically pointed out my disagreement with each statement.  And that was all it took for me to set out on a lengthy treatise on my excellent tolerance. I did mention my work fighting the expansion of our prison system as a means of economic development.  I told them about my time visiting prisoners.  Why not?  For once, somebody was listening!

Well, I must have been some lawyer’s dream.  After our two-hour lunch, the clerk told me that I could stay.  

I would say that the rest of the candidates seemed more capable of fulfilling my dad’s ideals.  That was not really that great, though.  The bailiff led us to a small room off of the courtroom.  The walls were about 11 feet tall, but the room was no more than 9 feet long and six feet wide.  We were uncomfortably close.  Two older ladies seized the corner spot where an air conditioner vent created a seat.  I roamed around the room, but except for his electioneering, no one else much wanted to talk.  The two two ladies in the corner hemmed and hawed over their sandwiches, occasionally putting them into their pocketbooks.

In such a confined space, it was pretty hard to avoid direct face-to-face contact.  We were getting to know each other.  It didn’t take long to realize, in an unsaid fashion, that our alpha going to be Darrell.  Darrell was an Army guy, about 220 pounds, and built like a tree stump. 

I made eye contact with a man in the corner.  He had a pony tail and wide hairy forearms.  He was wearing some greyish running shoes.

“Quite an opportunity to be on a jury, eh?” I said.

He looked at me, or rather he looked in my direction.  Honestly, I felt like this was an opportunity.  Definitely, we were going to make some tangible contribution to justice.  And, we were going to get to hear a lot of interesting details, no matter how grisly. 

“Sure,” he said. He hunched his shoulders and looked away in the corner. “What’s it to you?”

– – –

No one ever got up to tell us the facts of the case, but word spread among our group quickly.  We had an ugly case: a young man had been a part of a threesome that shot and killed their next-door neighbor.  She thought they were stealing her car, which they were.  So she fired a few bullets at them threw her window.  They were indignant, apparently, because they drove their other car down to the neighborhood supercenter (serving you 24-7!) and bought up a bunch of ammo.

She was about 80 years old.  She had baby sat for them for years.  They had spent thousands of hours in her home. Since the defendant was only 16 when he committed the crime, there were some awkward challenges to this case.

The defense attorney had the first turn at interviewing the jurors in person.  My understanding is that he gets to pikc one or two juries to exclude, as does the prosecuting attorney.  Right now, he’s trying to make questions that will tell him something about our a priori notions of justice, of old ladies and young kids, or of who knows what.  I interviewed an attorney in Alabama who said that his mode in this round was to ask each juror to tell him what bumper stickers he or she put on their car.  That would probably tell a lot about most people.  My dad – no bumper stickers.  But that is another story.

The attorney did his best.  We were in the box, having waited for three days.  Again, we do not officially know anything about the case.  Tabula rasa. 

The defendant and his parents are seated in the second row of the courtroom’s seats. The defense attorney approached the first potential juror.

“Are you prepared to make a sound judgement on the facts,” he said.

“Sure,” she answered.  She had her arms crossed, and she was reclining in her seat. 

“That is fine,” said the attorney.

“Except I already can’t stand that kid.  He used to come into our bank and bounce checks.”

The judge cleared the room.  We had to be excused.  It turned out that the lady had made out the wrong person, but we had to go.


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