By Louise Ure
Today I am not the jury. But that wasn’t the case four weeks ago. At the end of March, I appeared for a jury summons and joined about three hundred of my fellow San Franciscans in a massive effort to lie, cheat or steal our way out of doing our public service.
We were told that this would be a long case — two and a half to four months — and that the only excuses for hardship were:
- taking care of a child or elderly relative at home
- being a student with a daytime class schedule
- having vacation plans in place for which you could show that you already had purchased nonrefundable tickets
About fifty people said they were free to serve and were released for the day and told to return in two weeks. The rest of us — poor schmucks who thought that not being able to make a living for four months was hardship — remained in place to plead our case. The Court Clerk dispensed with our excuses at a dizzying pace. “That’s not a hardship, that’s an inconvenience.” “Sorry, your employer is on record as paying your salary during jury service.” “Taking care of a sick dog at home is not a medical emergency.”
Almost two hundred of us were told to return to the courtroom in two weeks time. I wasn’t worried. What were the odds my name would be called? One in fifteen? And what were the odds that the lawyers would then want a mystery writer on the jury? One in a hundred?
But then the odds all went wobbly. They called my name and for the next four days I was potential juror number five in a cold case murder trial from 1984.
The seats emptied and refilled around me. They got rid of the homeless guy who lived in Golden Gate Park and the San Quentin prison guard. They replaced them with an Asian retiree who spoke English so badly that he just answered “yes” to everything, and an ex-District Attorney. They booted the Catholic priest who said he could never sit in judgement of anyone (huh? I thought that’s what they did for a living) but they kept the mystery writer in the back row.
They had lots of questions for me, of course. “Do your books focus on a particular crime?” the judge asked. “Murders,” I said, sure that that was the super-secret Abracadabra word to get me off the jury. She simply nodded.
“Can you tell the difference between what goes on here in the courtroom and what you write when you go home?” the prosecuting attorney asked. “Can you tell the difference between what you do in the courtroom all day and when you go home to watch Law & Order?” I answered.
They wanted to know how I did research. I told them about field trips and expert advisors and learning about DNA and blood spatters and bullet wounds and fingerprints and police procedures. For some ungodly reason, they still thought I was the ideal juror.
Now, I’m not entirely against jury service. I’ve done it four times before and would do it again, but this time it felt like a big ask. I’m already avoiding writing. Why would I want to take on a four month full time job, pay ten dollars a day for parking and have to buy lunch out — all for the princely sum of $11.66 a day in jury service fees? It felt like an unnecessary delay in getting on with the rest of my life.
But it was truly an interesting case; one I think I would have been pretty good at understanding and evaluating. (I looked up the details online days later.) A 27-year old murder case. Matching DNA and blood data found in 2006. A scandal plagued criminalist who had been given immunity to testify. What’s not to like?
What finally got me off the jury? Jan Burke and the Crime Lab Project.
“Are you a member of any law and order or justice related group?” the judge asked. “The ACLU,” juror number four said. “Neighborhood Watch,” number eleven replied.
“The Crime Lab Project,” I said, telling them about the nonprofit organization dedicated to increasing public awareness of the problems facing public forensic science. We fight for better forensic science — for funding, for education, for responsibility and honor among criminalists. (If you aren’t already a member of CLP, I urge you to join immediately. Not only is it a worthy cause, but Jan’s summary emails with forensic news are the best “idea starters” in the world.)
Now, just imagine that a person who belongs to the Crime Lab Project organization is going to be evaluating a case where a disreputable forensic specialist who was convicted of stealing cocaine was going to testify. It was like clicking my heels three times and saying, “There’s no place like home.” In the blink of an eye, the prosecuting attorney stood and said, “Juror number five is thanked and excused.”
Thank you, Jan!
But my ‘Rati pals … what would you have done? Would you have wanted to be on that jury?