Jury duty — or as the courts prefer to call it, “jury service” — is one of those obligations that come with citizenship in the United States. As members of Club America, we agree to be chosen at random every couple of years to participate in the justice system as members of a jury pool.
The bad part: it amounts to a short stint of indentured servitude. The pay is barely enough for gas and lunch. (Or, depending on the cuisine at the court cafeteria, lunch and gas.) The good part: you get to play God with the lives of others.
…If you’re into that sort of thing. Me, I’m not. I’d rather stay home and write blogs. But the system doesn’t care. Now and then it needs a warm body from my address, and if there’s no viable reason to excuse me, I must appear.
Of course, it’s easier to show up than get selected to be on a jury and hear a case. I’ve been called numerous times, but only once was I part of an actual, real-live jury trial. I’ve finally concluded I’m jury-proof. No attorney on either side of any trial could possibly want me there. I’ll explain.
First, I would have to rise at 6:30 a.m. to be in court by 8:00. This is a significant challenge for a night owl, accustomed as I am to awakening not earlier than noon. (For me, “a.m.” means “Ain’t Moving!”)
Research shows that most people, if confined to a windowless isolation room for several days, will go to sleep later and later, usually by one to four hours per night. I’m at the high end of that scale: with no constraints, I’d quickly be waking at dinnertime or later. But writing can happen at any hour, so for my purposes sleep habits aren’t much of an issue.
Not so for jury duty. The System doesn’t give a whit about my personal habits. Eight a.m. is show-up time and I had to deal with it. So I began adjusting backwards my diurnal clock. Each day the alarm would wake me an hour sooner, in anticipation of the upcoming early-morning call to action.
I was instructed to contact the court on the Friday before the first day of service to find out which of our groups would be needed on Monday. The court would let us off the hook if our group never got listed during the week in question. I was in Group 72. The court’s webpage announced that, for the following Monday, it would require the presence of “Group 001”. I took this as a good omen: at this rate, they’d never get to my group’s number. Besides, it was August: how many court cases can there be during vacation season?
A lot, as it turned out. Monday evening I checked in to find they wanted Groups 2 through 26 for Tuesday. Uh-oh. My dream of escape was in tatters. At this rate, they might dig down all the way to my group number before the week was up. Tuesday evening it got worse: the court required groups 27 through 54 for Wednesday. By Thursday I’d be toast.
And indeed my group was chosen, among groups 55 through 84, to show up for duty on Thursday. The court suggested we dress in “business attire.” Oh dear. I hate wearing ties. I compromised: I’d clothe myself entirely in black, including a plain t-shirt tucked into slacks, over which I’d wear a black blazer. Very “Miami Vice”. Elegant, if not fully formal. A black cloth cap would protect my shaved head from air conditioning breezes.
I arrived fifteen minutes early, found a seat, and proceeded to stare in amazement as nearly all the other jurors paraded in wearing t-shirts and jeans or camisoles and shorts, flip-flops or tennis shoes. I was easily the best dressed person in a room of 200. This never happens to me.
I twiddled my thumbs. The jury manager switched on the microphone and read off the names of 57 who were to go upstairs to a courtroom that needed jurors. My name was on the list. We walked there, stood about aimlessly in the hallway, and finally were ushered inside.
The two attorneys stood at attention as we entered. The defendant, a young clean-cut man, also stood and smiled. (They would repeat this small ceremony each time we re-entered the courtroom after breaks.)
As I walked in, a bailiff pointed to me and said, “Hats off.” I’d forgotten I was wearing one. I pulled it from my head, stuffed it in a pocket, and sat next to a man who spent the entire morning snorting and hocking and gurgling. It was a miracle he didn’t spit. I feared I was sitting next to the one person in the room who might have Ebola, but soon I realized the noises were merely an unpleasant habit of his.
Immediately I knew I was in trouble from another source: a gentle breeze from the A/C wafted across my bare pate, chilling me. I wondered if I could quietly don my hat again. I discarded the idea: those bailiffs had guns. I hunkered down, hands in pockets, collar turned up, and shivered.
The attorneys were both young females, each attractive and long-haired. Defense counsel was a blonde who wore large glasses; the prosecutor was a brunette with olive skin. She looked like a movie star. (It turned out her parents were East Indians by way of Britain.) As a man, I appreciated that the eye-candy quotient at this trial would be considerable. But the two lawyers were roughly equal in looks, so I concluded I could discount any bias due to attraction. (Hey, I’m a guy. I have to reckon with these things.)
The judge, an elderly female, entered from her chambers. We rose. She told us to sit, gave us some introductory words — among them, that this was a criminal trial concerning an armed robbery and burglary and that it would take about four days of our time. She then proceeded to manage the room with the professional ease that comes from long experience, demonstrating command yet showing a warm courtesy toward those who raised their hands with requests to be excused from service. Some of these requests were patently ridiculous; others, heart-wrenching. A number of people were let go, and soon the room’s population had thinned.
A group of twelve were selected at random to sit in the jury box. The judge and the lawyers took turns interviewing them, making sure they understood the rules, probing for bias. This procedure is called voir dire (from the French, but pronounced badly: “vwore dyer”), and it’s how the jury gets whittled down to the twelve the court hopes will give a fair verdict.
The attorneys possessed a number of “peremptory challenges” that allowed them to dismiss those they thought likely to vote against them. After a series of peremptories, a few of the rest of us would be selected at random to fill empty spots in the jury box. I began to understand why it could take 57 people to get to the dozen or so needed for trial.
Some of the prospective jurors gave answers that indicated they were clearly unsympathetic toward any defendant. These people were quickly excused by the defense attorney. The prosecutor, meanwhile, found a few not to her liking; they, too, took a walk. Some folks were clearly odd or eccentric or geeky, and these were soon gone. The attorneys whittled away at the panel until it had no sharp edges, until it had acquired a dull sheen of sameness. That’s how the System works; that’s what it wants from jurors — not the smartest, but the most middling.
This process goes on for hours and it’s dreadfully boring. We got a bathroom break, then more voir dire, then a lunch break, then more voir dire. Tedious.
I didn’t particularly want to get chosen for the panel. I’d sat on a jury once before, an interesting experience but nothing I yearned to repeat. And there’s a downside risk: I could get impaneled, we hear the trial, we vote to convict, and the defendant jumps up and screams, “I’LL KILL ALL OF YOU! ALL OF YOU!!” before being wrestled from the room. That would screw up my sleep.
I decided simply to speak my truth to them and leave it to the Fates. I’d probably say something eccentric anyway, whereupon they’d stare at me, aghast, and point to the door. If worse came to worst, I’d end up on the panel for a few days of boredom, fulfill my duties as a citizen, and — notwithstanding any sudden threats of violence from the defendant — be done with it. So I stopped worrying.
Sitting patiently during the endless hours of voir dire, I’d rehearsed the answers they required from a printed questionnaire, so I was prepped for the interview. When finally I was called to fill a seat in the jury box, I felt relaxed and at ease.
Yes, I informed the judge, I did have attorneys in my family, but none worked criminal cases. Yes, I’d been the victim of a few burglaries over the years; no, I didn’t believe it would affect my judgment in the case. “I’d like to get my leather jacket back,” I quipped, “but it was my fault. I shouldn’t have left it in the back seat of the car.”
The defense attorney sashayed over and asked me several questions. In the process, she brought up the OJ Simpson murder trial, and I ran with that, opining that I’d considered him guilty but had accepted the jury’s verdict on account of the botched case presented by the prosecution. She smiled.
Now it was the other lawyer’s turn. She placed her elegant self in front of me and proposed (hey, a guy can dream) — or rather, described a scenario: the bailiff hears witnesses to an altercation in the hallway, and they agree that so-and-so had slugged someone, but they can’t agree about the color of the shirt he wore. The prosecutor referred to this hypothetical shirt as “blue or black”, whereupon I argued that those colors can be confused. “In all the excitement,” I added, “it’s easy to get the details wrong.”
One is tempted, in this situation, to try to anticipate the answers they want to hear. But they’re good at camouflaging their intentions. I reasoned that one side was likely to present evidence involving witnesses who contradict each other about secondary details, and she wanted to know how picky I’d be about it. But that’s as far as I could reckon. And I was there to tell the truth, not to second-guess them.
Then she asked whether I believed I could remain unbiased and fair as a juror. And here is where I suddenly went full goofball. “This entire procedure,” I said, “seems to demand of us that we behave like Mister Spock. You know, rational and dispassionate.”
The prosecutor stared at me. Cautiously she said, “I’ve heard of him. Isn’t he a big tall guy from ‘Star Wars’? My husband’s really into that stuff.” Someone behind me in the jury box blurted out, “Star Trek.” I said, “Spock’s the one with pointy ears.” She asked, “Is he human?” I said, “Half and half.”
Not quite satisfied with my responses, she asked again how I’d treat the evidence. I thought a moment, then said, “I’m sorry, I can’t resist. I’d have to look at each piece of evidence and say, ‘Fascinating!’”
She didn’t get it. I went on: “That’s what Spock would say! You see, he’s always coolly logical. He doesn’t get all emotional.”
Well, what’s wrong with my analogy? It makes perfect sense. It exemplifies what the court wants of us. Doesn’t it?
She was finished. She sat. A few minutes later she called a peremptory on me, asking the judge to “Thank and excuse James Hull.” I rose, stepped from the jury box, and walked past her desk toward the exit. She looked up briefly and smiled; I smiled back. All nice and civilized.
As I pushed through the courtroom’s double doors and gained the hallway, it occurred to me that she’d just gotten rid of the one person in the room who had signaled his objectivity and had voted for conviction in a previous trial. She didn’t know about the latter; it hadn’t come up in voir dire. Ironic, though.
I got back to the jury room. It was late in the afternoon. Shortly we were dismissed. It was a one-day-one-trial system, and anyone idle in the room at day’s end had, by default, completed a year’s service. I was free to go.
As I drove home, I realized that, on that day, I had totally nerded out in front of a roomful of people. A shock of embarrassment coursed through me. And then a stab of guilt: had I deliberately given the Spock speech to avoid being on a jury?
I hadn’t wanted to hear a trial. But I didn’t want to lie to the court, and I could give them a few days of my time, if it came to that. So I’d decided in advance to be myself. I wouldn’t try to impress them or ingratiate myself or anything like that. I’d simply be good ol’ me, the guy who talks too much and is a bit too erudite. What my subconscious might make of this was out of my conscious mind’s hands.
The result was surprising and awkward and funny and, somehow, perfect. I’d told the truth; I’d demonstrated a willingness to be objective. I’d also made it obvious that I possessed a rather eccentric brain that ponders too much. I’d sat there in my black clothes and shaved head and glasses, pontificating like a quirky man-child. There was no way any self-respecting lawyer — especially, in this instance, a prosecutor — would want me on the panel.
In jury selection, those who stick out get chopped off. For people like me, they bring on the big mower. The System chews me up and spits me out. I’m definitely jury-proof.