Tuesday, March 31, 2009

I, The Jury

For the first time in my life, I got picked for jury duty and actually had to go in. I know a lot of people try to avoid jury duty at all costs, but I’ve always looked forward to doing it. I’m curious to see how the system actually works. So here’s how my day went:

I start by arriving at the courthouse just after 8:00 and entering the “Disney line” snaking back from the metal detector. Moved pretty fast, compared to the airline security checks, even though there was just one detector and 2 security people. Less luggage to check, I suppose.

I found one of the waiting rooms, got myself my morning Diet Coke and found a seat. Soon, they began the announcements and played the introductory video. In what I’m sure was an attempt to make our jury service seem less burdensome, they pointed out via re-enactment that in the olden days, people used to go through what was called, Trial by Ordeal. No, they didn’t make them go to football games in Cleveland; they would bind the accused persons hands and feet and chuck them into the water. If they floated, they were guilty and if they sunk, they were innocent. All I could do was think of the witch scene in Holy Grail and giggle.

Also in the video, they gave a special warning for us not to expect someone to confess to the crime five minutes before the top of the hour, as had occurred in every episode of Perry Mason ever made. To illustrate, they showed a Perry Mason clip of a guy coming out of the court’s audience to confess to the crime to which they were about to convict his girlfriend. Obviously, Perry Mason was not working in the Baltimore jurisdiction. Here, if a guy’s girlfriend is getting sent up for his crime, he’s not confessing, he’s in the parking lot doing back flips.

They also mentioned that we would not be hearing any “ka-chunk” sound, like you hear with every scene change on “Law and Order.” OK, they didn’t say that, but they should have. I was looking forward to that.

They also pointed out, via announcement, that now we jurors could check in, get our jury summons validated and get our $15 pay in one fell swoop, where in the past that would entail 3 separate call ups. I silently thanked them for eventually taking action on something that should have been painfully obvious. I do like the idea of getting paid before doing your job. Maybe that can be a part of the next Stimulus Package. Oh, and before anyone asks, they emphasized the steep penalties if you skip out after checking in… 90 days in jail and/or a $1000 fine. They began calling us up in groups to check in. I had a very low juror number; in fact, it was the lowest in the range of people called to appear. So I was in the first group for just about everything that day.

So now we wait until a judge somewhere needs a jury. Lunch is at 12:30, unless we’re called into court. I dig into my crossword puzzle, expecting to spend at least at hour on it, as I usually do on Fridays. Joke’s on me though… I knock it out in 20 minutes. Looks like it’s going to be a long day. I fiddle around with the Sudoku puzzle for a while, but get tired of that. They begin showing the movie Meet The Parents. I dig out my book, “Monty Python and Philosophy” and keep an eye on both.

Random observation: I was surprised at the racial mix in the room. I was expecting a Baltimore City jury pool to be predominantly black. In fact, it looked to be about 60/40.

I noticed that when I took a bathroom break, they have lots signs on the wall about sanitary practices. They do not, however, have a trashcan for your paper towels. I guess they put all their funding into DVDs.

Just about noon, they make the announcement that they need some jurors. Hot damn, time to spring into action! I’m included in the first group of 50, so off we go the courtroom and all I can think is, “but when’s lunch?”

So we get there and have attendance taken to make sure no one got lost on the walk. (We had to change buildings.) Our courtroom accommodations were fairly Spartan… not at all like the high ceilings you see on your average episode of Perry Mason. They had three rows of benches to sit in, which were like church pews without the kneelers. As we were packed in there cheek to cheek, I began to have serious regrets about having chili for dinner the night before. It had been an uncomfortable morning already, but you never want to let anything escape while sitting on a church pew, especially with armed guards nearby. Wouldn’t want them thinking that someone in the jury pool had smuggled in a machine gun.

The judge explained that the charge in this case was “possession of a gun, in violation of parole.” First order of business was the “voir dire” (meaning to “speak the truth”) or in other words, the jury questioning. That’s when the group is asked a number of questions and anyone for whom the answer is yes is to stand up and give their juror number. The questions:

Do you or does anyone in your immediate family know the defendant?
Do you or does anyone in your immediate family know the judge or attorneys?
Are you or anyone in your immediate family working in law enforcement?

No one stood for any of these.

Are you more or less likely to believe testimony from a police officer based on the fact that they’re a police officer?

Just one guy stood, a middle-aged white guy.

Now, a 2-part question: Have you or has anyone in your family been a victim of a crime, OR have you or anyone in your family ever committed a crime?

Just about everyone in the room stood up. I don’t think there were 12 people left sitting, so they couldn’t get rid of all of us…

Last question: Due to moral or religious grounds, are you unable to make a fair decision regarding this trial?

Sounds like the “get out of jail free” card… 2 or 3 women stand up, one of which I already heard muttering about not wanting to be there.

After the questions, each juror that had stood for any question was brought up to the judge to explain. Guess who was first?

I approached the bench, and tried not to look at the defendant. This was not easy… he was about 5’7, 280 pounds, with a wide Mohawk. Looked like a bouncer at a low-class strip bar… a cross between the actor Anthony Anderson and Mr. T. He didn’t seem very menacing, however; in fact he was doing a lot of smiling and bouncing around. He didn’t seem very worried.

The judge asks me to explain my “yes” answer, and tell her about having my car broken into and ignition busted out while it was parked at the subway station last summer. She and the two attorneys ask about the case… was it ever solved? Was I satisfied with the police response? Would I be able to render a fair decision?

I said that I could, and with that, I was allowed to return to my seat. Now I just had to wait for the rest of my peers to do the same. They let us go for lunch about 1:10, (thank you, Your Honor), so I went to Quiznos and then back to my office to take care of off-loading that chili.

I returned from lunch to more waiting, as the rest of the jury pool approached the bench and tried to get out of serving. It took another hour… luckily I had a fresh Sports Illustrated to read. Since they have the bench and attorney tables miked, whenever people were discussing something at the bench, they turned off the mics and left a static noise, like when the TV is on a non-broadcasting channel. That way, you can’t hear squat, except the white noise. A little bit of that is fine, but after a while, you just want to claw your ears off.

After the attorneys and judge huddled for about 10 minutes, the clerk began calling us up, six at a time, to stand and face the attorney’s table. (Again, guess who’s first?) Each of us has to step forward and then both attorneys are asked if the juror is acceptable. If either says no, the juror is returned to the back seating. If both say yes, the juror takes a seat in the jury box. They took me, and I became Juror #1. Dig it! That’s me, blazing the trail and ready to deal a little justice. At least the seats in the jury box had pads and were fairly comfortable.

After they filled the 12 seats, each attorney was asked if the panel was acceptable. This surprised me… If we were OK a second ago, what’s different now? They ended up pulling two people back off the jury, called up more people from the back of the room, and got us back to 12. For what it’s worth, we were roughly split between men and women, had 8 blacks, 3 whites and an Indian. They also appointed two alternates.
As it was late in the afternoon now, the judge told us to report on Monday afternoon, and the trial was expected to last until Wednesday.

I arrive at the courthouse Monday afternoon at 1:15, anxious to get on with the show. I report to the jury room as instructed and then proceed to WAIT FOR 2 AND A HALF GODDAMN HOURS. Nice people I was in there with, but after a while, we were starting to get punchy. We could hear court stuff going out outside the door, but we were given specific instructions Not To Open the Door. If we had any questions, we had to knock and give the clerk a written question for the judge. Eventually one of the jurors did just that, wanting to know what was going on.

Another 10 minutes went by before the clerk came to get us. Whoo Hoo! Time to do some decidin’ and mete out a little jurisprudence.

Buuuuuut… no. The judge told us that she apologizes for the long wait, but unfortunately, we would not be able to try the case today. We were dismissed as jurors.


What a letdown… for me, anyway. Some of my fellow jurors were just fine with that, but I really wanted to see it through. Instead, after all the legal foreplay, I’m left with nothing but a ringing case of judicial blue-balls.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

No wonder the defendent was happy and bouncy. He got a free lunch!
Quite a good peek at our judicial system inaction.

lil Mom