I, the Jury

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By Louise Ure

I’ve been on jury duty for the last week and a half and it looks like it’s going to go on for another four or five days to come.

You’d think that at least one of my excuses would have worked to keep me off the panel.

•    I’m self-employed and don’t get paid if I don’t write. (Tough. Even writers take some time off.)

•    I’m on deadline with my next book. (Okay, so that was a lie. The next book is already turned in and we’re at the galley proof stage. But hey, I’ve only got three months to turn those proofed galleys back in. Isn’t that some kind of deadline?)

•    I’m a caregiver and have to stay at home. (Well, my care giving is only for the dog, but that still ought to count for something.)

•    I’m a mystery writer and one of my books is about a jury consultant. (The prosecutor’s eyes lit up at this one.)

•    I’m a mystery writer and in some of my books the police are dorky and don’t get the right guy. (See above parenthetic statement, and substitute the words “defense attorney” for “prosecutor.”)

Now don’t get me wrong. I think that all able-bodied (and able-minded) people should serve on juries. It’s not just a duty; it can be a pleasure. (I get great character and plot ideas when at the courthouse.) So I don’t try to get out of it unless the trial is expected to last an extraordinary amount of time and would dramatically affect my writing schedule.

But I’ve been called for jury duty five years out of the last seven and it’s getting a little old.

That’s probably the excuse I should have used with the judge. Or the more valid:

•    I have a low threshold of tolerance for stupid people.

•    If you waste my time in repetition or pontificating, I will hold it against you.

•    The willing suspension of disbelief should be reserved for fiction. Don’t try that on me in a courtroom.

That’s the truth and it ought to make me unfit to serve. However … none of it worked.

Just call me Juror Number Ten.

Jurors aren’t supposed to talk about a trial, particularly when it’s still ongoing, so I won’t tell you anything about this case except that it is a criminal trial and it has some interesting characters on both sides.

But I will tell you about the jury selection process, in some ways more eye opening than the trial anyway.

About two hundred of us were called from the jury assembly room for this case. That seemed high to me, for a run-of-the-mill felony and a fairly short trial, but J.D. can probably tell us why it’s right.

I wore a pair of Levi’s, a linen jacket and leather-soled shoes. I was not the best dressed person there. That honor went to an octogenarian with a Swedish accent, perfect makeup and pearls. As for the rest of the group, there was a paucity of undergarments among the women (lots of free swinging breasts) and a surfeit of underwear among the men (jeans pulled so low on the hips that they had to walk sprattle-legged to hold them up.) Anyone not wearing denim was a lawyer.

A full third of the group asked to be excused for “hardship” reasons and filled out forms with long, scratchy sentences full of exclamation marks and cross outs to explain their duress. The judge had a nice rhythm going as he stamped “DENIED” across most of the forms.

•    Your employer doesn’t pay you when you’re on jury duty? Sure they do, they’re here on my list.

•    You’re an immigrant and you only understand about a third of what I’m saying? That’s good enough. Listen closely.

•    You’re elderly and can’t sit for long periods of time? Don’t worry, we’ll take a couple of breaks.

Then we got into the “attitudes and comprehension” part of voir dire.

•    Could you follow the law even though you disagreed with it? It’s surprising how many San Franciscans wanted to discuss jury nullification in depth and explain with righteous indignation exactly what laws they would find objectionable.

•    Do you understand that these defendants are presumed innocent? No, your honor! After all, they’ve been arrested. Somebody already thinks they’re guilty, right?

•    Do you understand that the defendants don’t have to take the stand, that the burden of proof is on the prosecution? "But I would always wonder why they didn’t," one woman said. "I mean, if they didn’t do it, why don’t they just say so?"


And of course, the case-specific questions:

•    Could you be fair to these defendants even though,

A) you’re about the same age as the victim,

B) a similar crime happened to you or a family member thirty years ago,

C) the defendant’s name sounds foreign to you and your name is already pretty weird, or

D) you say you don’t trust X racial group and the officers that arrested the defendants are X.


The questions – and the answers – went on and on. Two days of jury selection. Two days of some of the dumbest, least introspective comments from potential jurors I’ve ever heard. But also two days of some of the most damning personal admissions I’ve ever heard aired in public.

Would you admit in a public forum that you were racially biased?

Would you confess that you always take the word of a policeman over a civilian?

Would you dare to say that you couldn’t be trusted to make up your own mind, and would probably side with the rest of the jurors just to get it over with?


My fellow prospective jurors said all that, and more.

I hope and pray that they didn’t mean it. And I hope that the potential juror in the seat behind me who fell asleep for a full hour during the questioning got sent home for that reason alone.

If these people are, in fact, a jury of my peers then I’m screwed if I’m ever accused of a crime. They’ll think I’m guilty, they’ll think my glasses make me look untrustworthy, they’ll think my name is part of a cuss word, and they’ll remember a woman who looks like me who cut them off in traffic six months ago.

On the other hand, maybe they’re not so stupid for making these pronouncements. Maybe they’re just better at getting out of jury duty than I am.


Lagniappe: One little postcard moment in this week’s sea of courtrooms and lines and security measures and waiting. I was outside the courthouse during the lunch break, sitting on a knee-high wall that surrounds the building. A young black man, dressed head to toe in Neuvo Gangbanger Black sat twenty feet down from me, his legs extended and crossed at the ankles. When the sidewalk in front of us was clear, he’d toss a few pennies out then wait to see who picked them up. White guys, every time. Never a minority, never a woman, never a child. Only police officers and others guys in sports coats who looked more like detectives than lawyers. And each of them would say to his companion something like “Must be my lucky day!” or “I’m superstitious; can’t pass up a penny on the street” or “Heads! It’s an omen!”  The black guy looked over at me and winked. “Just like feeding the pigeons.”


Okay ‘Rati. Got any jury stories? Or lucky penny stories?

LU

31 thoughts on “I, the Jury

  1. toni mcgee causey

    For the first jury duty, I had to bring my son with me. I had no one to care for him for the during the day. Couldn’t afford the day care facilities around us, so that meant he went me. I packed everything he might need–diapers, food, bottles, toys, extra clothes, you name it, I had it in there. My son was being quiet through the introductions of the various people who would be questioning me, when the judge leaned a little, saw what I was holding and motioned me up to the bench, and asked me had I lost my mind, bringing a baby into his courtroom. I pointed out that I had no choice, so if he didn’t want to shell out the money for a daycare center, then he was going to be seeing me with my baby every day.

    He dismissed me and said to never come back in his courtroom again. I haven’t been called back for jury duty since then, so maybe he really meant it.

    Reply
  2. Barbara Sheridan

    If these people are, in fact, a jury of my peers then I’m screwed if I’m ever accused of a crime.

    *applauds*

    I’ve been called to jury duty twice and that was my exact thought both times. I don’t ever want the people I’ve been called with deciding my fate.

    Reply
  3. billie

    Louise, I hope you’re going to use that guy in black tossing pennies on the sidewalk. What a wonderful scene!

    Hope the trial goes quickly and that you get a few more gems for your trouble.

    Reply
  4. J.D. Rhoades

    My “favorite” jury story, thankfully, happened to a colleague of mine in a civil case. It was a personal injury case with clear liability on the part of the defendant (the defendant even admitted she was at fault in the wreck) and pretty bad injuries. The jury, however, came back with an absurdly low verdict, less, in fact, than the total of the plaintiff’s considerable medical bills (none of which were covered by insurance). When my friend asked a juror later why the verdict was so low, the juror cheerfully explained that “well, we knew it was the defendant’s fault, and we knew the injuries were bad, but we couldn’t decide how much to give the plaintiff. So we all wrote down what we though was a fair figure, then we got the average of that. Then we divided that by 12.”

    Think about that for a moment.

    When informed that “averaging” meant they’d already divided by 12 once, the juror looked stricken, then shrugged and said “oh well, her medical bills were covered by insurance, right? I mean, everybody has health insurance.”

    Think of that the next time some insurance company shill starts yammering about ‘out of control juries.”

    Okay, I’ll get off the soapbox.

    Louise, I have no idea why they summoned 200 jurors for a routine felony. Maybe that’s the usual number?

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  5. Wilfred Bereswill

    I’ve been summoned for jury duty just three times in my life. Once, I was out of the country in China, and one time my company just couldn’t do without me. I feel slighted.

    The one time I served, I wound up as number 13, an alternate. I sat through the entire trial, a snoozefest, by the way, and when the jury retired I was released.

    I remember the little speech the judge gave number 14 and I. He told us that as we left the room, we may be asked questions about the case by the lawyers on both sides. We could talk to them or not, our choice.

    The moment I was freed, the defense pummeled me with questions. I’m guessing he wanted to know whether he should try to make a last minute deal or not.

    I answered a few of his questions and excused myself.

    I wouldn’t mind getting chosen for duty again. I found it extremely interesting.

    Reply
  6. Louise Ure

    Toni, I should have thought of that! I should have rented a baby for the day!

    And yes, Barbara, the only thing that is more frightening than that collection of potential jurors is that among the final twelve, each of their votes was as valuable as mine. A humbling experience all the way around.

    Reply
  7. Louise Ure

    Billie, I liked the guy with the pennies. He may wind up in a book, but he’ll certainly stay in my mind either way.

    JD, that’s a horror story. Sounds like they should have divided their IQ by twelve.

    Wlfred, I think I’d hate being the alternate. You spend all that time, listen attentively, and then have no say? I’d be frustrated. But I’m glad it didn’t sour you on the system.

    Reply
  8. Jake Nantz

    I was an alternate once. It was for a routine crack dealer bust, and the defense attorney essentially had to argue whether he was truly “in possession” of drugs with the intent to sell because he was picked up while going to get them from his hiding place after he’d agreed to sell them to the undercover cop. And some of those idiots on the jury were clearly flummoxed as to what they should do. A jury that was truly of MY peers would have laughed at the defense attorney. Or thrown eggs. Or both.

    Reply
  9. JT Ellison

    See a penny, pick it up,All the day you’ll have good luck.See a penny, let it lie,Bad luck with haunt you, by and by.

    But only pick up pennies facing heads up. Tails up are bad luck. I’ve read that it comes from an old pagan tradition about pins — see a pin, pick it up — because then you could use it in your spells.

    I’ve never served, or even been called, for jury duty. I’d love to, I think it would be fascinating — as LU has made clear in this post. But I am a superstitious sort when it comes to coinage.

    Reply
  10. Tammy Cravit

    Being as how I’m not a US citizen, I’ve never been called for jury duty, but I’m surprised your excuses didn’t work, Louise — especially the ones that dealt with your job. Maybe mystery writers just aren’t scary enough. 🙂 A friend of mine was called to jury duty for what turned out to be a domestic violence case. He told me later that when he mentioned that he volunteered for our local rape crisis center (which is how I know him), the prosecutor and defense attorney both leapt out of their chairs like their butts were on fire to excuse him for cause.

    Reply
  11. Karen Olson

    I love the Penny Guy. That totally cracks me up. And I would most definitely use it in a book.

    I’ve been called for jury duty but never been picked. Never even been on a short list, or a long list. Just dismissed. Part of me would like to serve on a jury, just to see how it is. But the other part of me would get really annoyed with the things you’re telling us, Louise!

    Reply
  12. ArkansasCyndi

    I love the penny guy. Honestly, it has to be a scene in a book. I could see it completely in my mind.

    I’ve been called to jury duty twice. The first time, I never made it out of the general pool. The second time, I made it to the jury pool. Someone didn’t like me. I was dismissed. Do you think it was the fact it was a robbery case and I’d walked into my house being robbed or the fact I kept glaring at the defendant?

    “If these people are, in fact, a jury of my peers then I’m screwed if I’m ever accused of a crime.” Amen, sister

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  13. Louise Ure

    Jake, you mean offering to sell the undercover cop drugs wasn’t enough for them? I was on a jury once where the drug dealer dropped the baggie by his feet when the cops approached. The cops had a video of him dropping it. My fellow jurors? “But it wasn’t in his possession then when they arrested him, was it?”

    JT: I like your heads-up pennies. My husband does the same thing. You’re probably both blessed by good luck because of it.

    Reply
  14. Louise Ure

    Tammy, I was pretty surprised that being a mystery writer didn’t automatically exclude me, too. But my favorite question? This exchange with the district attorney:

    DA: How can you be sure that you’ll be able to separate what you hear in court here from the imagined plots you’re writing.

    LU: It’s easy. One is fact, the other fiction.

    The folks in the gallery started laughing. I don’t think I made a fan of her.

    Reply
  15. Pari Noskin Taichert

    Louise,I’ve never been picked for jury duty and would be fascinated to do it — ONCE. I can’t imagine how you’ve managed to be so lucky . . .

    Maybe you ought to go for some of those face-up pennies yourself?

    Reply
  16. Louise Ure

    Karen, I know you well enough to know that you’d be bored to tears with a jury trial. “Get on with it! Just tell the story!”

    Hi Cyndi. Yeah, I think the spit wads you were throwing at the defendant were probably a pretty good indication of your state of mind. He’s lucky you weren’t on the jury.

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  17. billie

    Louise, LOL about the back and forth with the DA!

    If you had said “Because I plan to try real hard to get by the mental health center to get my shot on time,” you’d probably have been excused. 🙂

    Reply
  18. Louise Ure

    Billie, I’m not sure what would have mollified her.

    “I’ll take notes from the trial on the right hand pages and notes for my book on the left hand side?”

    “I never have been able to separate the two?”

    “I don’t have an imagination so I only write about the things I see in front of me?”

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  19. Karen

    I was called to jury duty once. Well, it took ’em three times to get me. The first time, my dad was dying of cancer and I was his only caregiver. A couple years later they summoned me again, but my cat had just had tongue surgery (really) and I was feeding him with a feeding tube 6-8 times a day. I figured no one’s going to excuse me for that, so I ignored the summons. What are they gonna do, right? Turns out, they send a Failure to Appear notice and threaten to send a cop to your door. Sheesh. Touchy.

    So, after the feeding tube thing, I scheduled myself to come in. Let me say right now, I’m a horrible person — I flat don’t want to serve on a jury. It’s not so much the crime part as the “compelled” part. Compelled to be someplace and serve? Oh, I don’t think so. I vote; I pay my taxes. That’s all they get from me.

    I ended up in a jury pool for a couple of inmates from Folsom Prison who stabbed and killed another inmate. These two guys are in chains at the defense table with seven correctional officers placed strategically around them. Then the judge says, “Don’t read anything into all the security we have for this trial.” Ah. I guess I’ll just read something into all the gang tats.

    Jury selection went three days (it was still going on when I got booted), and we’d gotten just over four hours of actual work done. Seriously – I counted. We’d be in the courtroom for 20 minutes, then recess for two hours. Another 45 minutes inside, then a 90 minute lunch. I thought I was going to slip into a coma waiting in the hall outside the courtroom. But now I understand why justice takes forever in my parts. Finally, I had enough. I asked the baliff to speak to the judge, so I could ask to be dismissed with cause. The judge agreed to hear me, so I sat in a jury seat and told the judge, the attorneys, all the CO’s and the two convicts that I wouldn’t believe a word that came out of the convicts’ mouths because they’d already proven their character and gotten forcibly removed from society for it. I went on with a five minute speech I’d memorized. It was colorful. When I stopped talking, there was dead silence in the courtroom. The CO’s were grinning. The judge finally turned to the attorneys and said, “Okay! Questions?” The attorneys said, “Not a one.” I heard those magic words “you’re excused,” and hustled my fanny out of there.

    They haven’t summoned me since.

    Reply
  20. Louise Ure

    Yes, Karen, if you’ve got that speech, or could recreate it, I’m using it the next time I get called!

    And that tongue surgery. Doesn’t matter if it’s on a cat or a person, you’ve just defined “horror” for me.

    Reply
  21. AlisonGaylin

    Love the penny guy, too! Both times I’ve been up for jury duty, I’ve been called and sat trial. The second case was a central hudson worker, who was suing for slander after being falsely accused of defecating in someone’s driveway, and I have to say… it was a real maturity test. After hearing the man’ attorney, in a deathly serious tone, run through nearly every possible euphemism for taking a crap, we were all sitting there, biting our lips and staring at our hands praying for the judge to call a break.

    Reply
  22. Louise Ure

    Alison, you must just have that look about you. The one that says “Oh, no, I don’t write about gore and murder and suspense. Really, I’m just an open minded citizen!”

    But that merde trial of yours would have had me grinning most of the day.

    Reply
  23. Lorraine.

    I’m late to the discussion, but have lots of jury duty experience – had no kids & was an accountant, so work that can be caught up later. Once, I was on a grand jury – that’s no fun at all. One day, sequestered, can’t talk to anyone and get marched to lunch like a kindergarden class. Sent the guy to trial.Most interesting was alternate on a murder case that dragged on for months. One young man killed another & heaved his body out onto a snow covered parking lot, went home & scrubbed the interior of his car. It’s very hard to get something really, really clean. We (2 alternates) were sent home at the end, but having spent months in the jury room with those folks, I really wanted to know what happened. A nice old guy took my phone number & gave me a quick call when he got home to tell me they found the fellow guilty.A fuuny one was statutory rape. The “victim” was a 14 year old precocious sexpot. When her 20 year old boyfriend had his buddies over to play poker, she served the beer & prezels in the nude.The fun was in the jury room. They gave us a transcript to read, and one of my fellow jurors was a hoitey-toitey society type and she volunteered to read the testimony for us, then had fits because she couldn’t possibly say those words. So an 82 year old retired spinster librarian sweetly read us the testimony in the language of the victim and the defendant. He got off. The people that really po’d us was the girl’s parents who’d insisted their daughter’s boyfriend be tried as a rapist.Last couple of times I was called, got excused because I was acquainted with a witness, etc., but I enjoyed the times I served.

    Reply
  24. Louise Ure

    Lorraine, you’ve got enough jury experience for a whole shelf of crime fiction novels!

    The trials I really objected to were the frivolous ones (maybe like your 14-year old rape victim?). In my case they were landlord/tenant disputes in civil court that wasted a week of my life for something that they should have been able to work out between them.

    Important trials, like the murder case you served on, would be something else. I wish I could dedicate enough time for one like that.

    Reply
  25. Zoë Sharp

    OK, mental note to self – if by any chance I get the urge to commit a crime while I’m over in America – on NO ACCOUNT get caught.

    And Louise, the only thing I loved more than the penny story was the word you prefaced it with – lagniappe is a new one on me, so I had to look it up. Louisiana French?

    Reply
  26. Dave Arnold

    I think it was the very first time I was called for jury duty – I was about 22 years old and it was a trial involving a black guy who was a con on probation. He had been caught carrying a handgun or some such. The defense attorney asked if anyone in the pool possessed firearms and/or knew someone in law enforcement. I raised my hand and told him I had two shotguns and a .22 rifle at home and was good friends with the State Senate sergeant-at-arms. Dismissed.

    Reply
  27. Allison Brennan

    I’m coming in late to the party, but I was called to jury duty last year. I wanted to be on the jury. The judge asked me a bunch of questions about my books and research. She asked if I wrote a book that had in any way domestic violence (hmm, yeah.) The judge removed a couple jurors for cause (one woman said she would not be able to look at graphic pictures with blood.) But not me. Then the prosecutor and defense attorney asked question of the other jurors (not me) and the prosecutor removed someone (I think this is the preemptory challenges–the ones where you don’t have to say why–but JD would know better than me.) Then the defense attorney gets up and knocks me off. I wanted to stay! I wanted to ask why! I was willing to look at the evidence impartially and make an honest assessment as to whether the bastard was guilty of beating his wife nearly to death and kicking her with steel-toed boots. I could be fair. Innocent until proven guilty. I mean, I know people who were innocent who went to prison. Of course, I was very interested in hearing what the defendant was going to say . . . .

    Reply

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