Friday, January 15, 2010

Jury Duty

For the past several days I have been privileged in a 2,500 Democratic institution—jury duty! It all started with a letter informing me that I had been selected to serve in the jury pool and to call last Friday evening to see if I needed to actually report to the court house the next business day. The recorded message Friday evening and Monday evening told me that I did not need to report. But the recording Tuesday evening was different. Be at the court house by 8:30 AM.

The original mailing noted that proper court attire was required. I wondered what proper court attire might be. In the middle of January I was not going to show up wearing shorts and a t-shirt. Neither was I going to wear a powdered wig, coif and waistcoat. I opted for khaki’s and a dress shirt, sans tie. I was neither overdressed nor underdressed but certainly toward the more professional looking end of the spectrum.

After a 45 minute bus ride, including one transfer, I arrived outside the Court House (middle photo right) at 8:15 AM with fifteen minutes to spare, only to discover on the other side of the side entrance (bottom photo right) a serpentine line of others jurors winding its way through the doors leading lobby, down a hallway, and into another room where ribbon barriers directed us toward two magnetometers. One of the armed guards, with a smile on his face, was pleasantly greeting everyone he invited to deposit pocket contents into a small tub while placing their bags on the conveyer belt of an extra machine. He was one of the most pleasing security screeners I have ever met. While all the other guards were courteous, they paled in comparison to him.

On the other side of the magnetometer I grabbed my day pack off the other end of the conveyor belt and retrieved the contents of my pockets from the plastic bin. Thirty minutes after arriving at the court house, at 8:45 AM, I entered a large jury pool room full of hundreds of padded leather seats and sat, and sat, and sat. While the room was not full, I estimate that two to three hundred people were gathered.

An officer of the court instructed us not to use cell phones—no calls, no texting—or else our phone would be confiscated. On the other hand, the room was Wi-Fi capable and people were allowed to use their lap tops. Computer work stations lined the back wall. What can you do with a cell phone that you cannot do with a laptop or computer? I just don’t get it.

Around 10:30 a court officer took attendance by reading our names and having us reply “Here!” Ten or fifteen minutes later we watched a short video entitled Your Turn, about the history of jury’s, and starring Ed Bradley and Diane Sawyer. When the video was over the names of those not present earlier were once again read. At 11:15 Am we were allowed a fifteen minute break.

The same video screens that had shown Your Turn started showing The Price is Right! I continued reading. Eventually the video image changed from The Price is Right! to news coverage of the Haiti earthquake. What juxtaposition, I thought, from a game show celebrating American consumerism where contestants try to guess the price of meaningless items to a news report about a devastating earthquake in the Western Hemisphere’s poorest country, whose its inhabitants probably could not afford to purchase most of what was featured on The Price is Right! As if to add insult to injury, after a few minutes the news coverage was turned off and more names were read.

The people whose names were read were instructed to come forward and stand in lines. They were then dismissed for the day but told to return the next day. I was not among them, so I was still sitting and reading.

At 12:25 PM, thirty-five minutes before our scheduled lunch break, more names were read. Mine was among them. We lined up and were told that we had been assigned to a case but would not be needed until after lunch, so we could leave early for lunch and had to be back by 2:00 PM.

I went to Subway across the street and enjoyed my usual sub with chips and a drink. As directed, I was back to the jury pool room, properly attired and refreshed, by 2:00 PM.

Around 3:45 PM my jury group was once again called forward and formed into lines. We were told that the trial we were assigned to was carried over to the following day, that we could now go home, but that we had to report Thursday morning by 9:00 AM.

All night I half expected to show up Thursday morning only to be told that the trail we had been assigned to had been terminated by a plea deal and that we could go home.

When I arrived Thursday morning there was no line of jurors as the day before. I walked right through the lobby, down the hallway, and up to the security checkpoint. When I entered the jury pool room there were only about a third to a quarter of the number of people seated as the there were the day before.

Like the day before, I sat and read, read and sat. Where well over a hundred people sat in front of me the day before, perhaps fifty were now sitting. Who are these strangers, I thought. Randomly selected from Queen’s voters, taxpayers and drivers, they represented the racial and cultural diversity of the county. To the far right was a middle aged white male, short blond hair, glasses, working some sort of puzzle in a newspaper. Two chairs away from him to his right was a young white, blond female, glasses, chewing gum a mile an hour, earrings dangling from her lobes, just sitting. In front of them was a middle aged black woman, glasses, her hair falling into thin dreadlocks, reading a magazine. In front of her was a middle aged to older woman, pin stripped blouse, pin striped slacks, wearing a head scarf as if she might be Moslem or Hindu, or simply modest. Throughout the room similar people, white, black, Asian, Hispanic, and who knows what else were reading paperbacks, newspapers, and magazines they had brought with them. Wednesday I was reading The Virgin of Bennington by Kathleen Norris. Thursday I began reading The Mountains of California by John Muir.

Occasionally a juror would rise, walk to the water dispenser, pull down a cone shaped white paper cup from its dispenser, and have a drink. Or they might walk through double doors into a hallway, hoarded by a security officer, to the restroom and back. While the room both days was generally quiet except for the court announcements and low murmur of the video screens, once in a while the sound of snacks or beverage cans could be heard falling from the dispensing machine as jurors sought to refresh themselves and stave off hunger.

I looked at my watch. It was 11:50 A. We had not been given any information since our arrival nearly three hours earlier. But twenty minutes later, with fifty minutes before our scheduled lunch break, my jury was told that our case had been held over until after lunch and that we could leave for lunch but had to be back by 2:00 PM. For the second day in a row I lunched at Subway.

Back by 2:00 PM, I read and sat, sat and read. Then, at around 3:45, the entire room was informed that our services would not be needed and that we could go home and would not have to serve jury duty for another six years. An audible but subdued sigh of relief reverberated throughout the room. As our names were called we turned in our juror ID card for a certificate witnessing to the fact that we had served. My civic and democratic duty was ended, and I never even got to enter a real courtroom. But Democracy and our American judicial system had been well served. Our founders would have been pleased and proud. Socrates would have been relieved that no one was found guilty and sentenced to drink hemlock.

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