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?