Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Trial by Jurors

I got called for jury duty a couple of months ago.

This was the 11th or 12th time I've been called for jury duty. My wife, who's shared addresses, voter registration, motor vehicle licensing, and just about every other form of public record with me for the past 20 years has been summoned exactly twice. I've had to go down to a court house on all but one of those 11 (or 12) occasions; both times my wife, eager enough to do her civic duty, was able to ascertain from a voicemail message or website on Friday that she didn't have to go in on Monday.

I go to jury duty willingly enough, but resigned that in terms of performing a public service, I'm simply filling a black circle in a statistical pool and will never, ever actually serve on a jury. I've never been picked, and now that I've been called a relatively significant number of times, I am confident I won't be. I had a friend in Boston who got called when he was a graduate student -- in chemistry -- and who had the academic's uniform of a big bushy beard and long hair and a slightly sleep-deprived wild look about him. He returned from his stint at jury duty explaining how the prosecution and defense were all over themselves trying to excuse him for some reason after their pre-emptory challenges had been exhausted; the judge, in appraising Bob's appearance and list of graduate degrees, apparently abetted them in searching frantically for a legal reason to excuse him. As he explained it: if you want to avoid jury service -- which Bob did not -- wear a beard and talk in full sentences with thoughtfulness when asked questions during the jury questioning. I'm sure the beard did it for me once. The closest I ever got to being seated was, believe it or not, on a capital murder case. I was asked my opinion of the death penalty, and I explained truthfully and with perhaps too much nuance that I was personally opposed to it because I thought it was a barbaric practice which accomplished nothing other than spreading a culture of violence, but that I fully understood my obligations as a citizen and as a juror to carry out the law as my fellow citizens had agreed to it and that I would not hesitate to recommend the death penalty should the evidence and the instructions of the judge concerning the law require it. As I spoke my piece, which was rather brief, I could see furrows of concern across the prosecutor's face and then the defense attorney's. My recollection is that they were down to one pre-emptory challenge each and from the body language they seemed reluctant to use it on a potential borderline juror. Then they got to the list of witnesses, and way down at the bottom there was a police officer whom I knew very casually, and that was enough for an excuse for cause. The next closest time I got was on a civil case that looked very long and boring and which did not seem to me to be worth my time, so I was actually vaguely hoping to be excused but was judged acceptable by both sides. Then it turned out my neighbor's wife had already been seated on the jury and, jury of peers notwithstanding, apparently if you know anybody at all involved with the case, you're kicked off. So there's another hint for avoiding jury duty if you're of that school of thought: just get to know a lot of people.

Now these days I have no beard, short hair, and a boring resume with only one advanced degree on it, but I think rather that I now look like a cop, and no defense attorney is going to have me on, either, and my listed occupation -- stay at home father -- presents a burden for long trials that I would probably willingly claim in any kind of complicated adjudication, plus I bet it doesn't fit into a profile. And so it was that I went off to jury duty on a Monday morning relatively confident that I'd be home by the end of the day and possibly for lunch.

On the jury summons, it states very clearly in the instructions to jurors: Business Attire Required. I supposed I could've been sophistic and claimed my business attire for my regular job is a pair of dirty jeans and a t-shirt with banana and juicy juice stains on it, but being (apparently) an uptight East Coast type, I took the instructions seriously and showed up in a suit and tie. As I entered the jury room and checked in, I scanned the room of 300 or so people, and found exactly zero people in similar attire. There was one older lady who looked like she might be wearing her Sunday clothes, but otherwise it was a sea of polo shirts with commercial logos on them, low-butt-cut tattoo-revealing hip-huggers, and the occasional casually-rumpled button-down. Hey, it's California, I realized: maybe this is Business Attire.

The instructions to the jurors had one common theme: you will probably get out of jury duty! Even in the video they showed extolling the interesting and potentially educational process of being a juror, which occasionally mentioned the awesome powers in a democracy accorded to one as a juror, most of it was focussed on how the jurors had all really wanted to get out of jury duty but ended up being OK with the fact they didn't. The supervisor of jurors gave us a running play by play that morning of each of the four trials scheduled to open, in between reassuring updates on how she knew we all wanted to get out of there.

I enjoyed the Judge's instructions very much.

Fairly early on, she explained to us that in order to be a juror, we had to be 18 years of age, a US Citizen, and we must never have been convicted of a felony, and if we didn't qualify for any reason, we must come up and see her. I was stuck away in a corner doing a Sudoku and idly reading Collapse but within earshot of the little booth where the supervisor of jurors did her business. After the spiel about qualifications, one gentleman approached her. "Do you have to have been convicted of a felony to get out of jury duty?" he asked very hopefully. She explained that yes, you have to have been convicted and asked him, have you been convicted of a felony, and he looked disappointed and said, no, not convicted and trudged back to his seat. I wonder still whether he'd been freed on a technicality or simply never caught, and then shuddered at the idea of serving on a jury with him, and in turn, ever being in a position where I was being tried for a crime with a jury consisting of twelve of that particular kind of peer.

As the morning wore on, the level of noise and conversation in the room increased. There were several complaints about there being no TV (thank god for small favors) and two requests by separate potential jurors that the supervisor of jurors turn the TV in the front that had been used for the instructional video to a soap opera. No dice -- no antenna or cable connection. Actual TV having been denied, there was significant talk around me that reminisced fondly of various TV legal dramas, trials, and so forth. One guy did a repeated Jack Nicholson, saying "YOU CAN'T HANDLE THE TRUTH!" to the guy next to him. It was a credible impersonation, I must say, I half expected him to whip out a golf club and take it to the windows.

The guy I was seated next to happened to work at one of the golf courses near where we live. There are a lot of them around here, so this is not a terrible coincidence, but he wanted to know my opinion of the course played, the lunch at the restaurant, how the greens were kept, whether I preferred a cart or carrying a bag, and so on. My answer to the first question was, "I don't play golf, I'm afraid", which, with variations, was also my answer to the next ten or twelve questions he asked.

The woman in front of me had a tattoo just above her ass that read, at least in part, "Too Hot to..." I almost discovered what the rest of the inscription was when she leaned over to answer her cell phone, but fortunately I had Collapse with me, which I quickly deployed to block my view.

The presiding judge came down mid-morning to welcome us and provide us with a civics lecture on how great it was to be a juror and how much he, too, wanted us all to get out of jury duty, which I took to be an elaborate campaign speech in the end. He mentioned 9/11 six times in his speech, underscoring how if we don't serve on a jury, the terrorists win. He mentioned (inaccurately) that only six countries in the world have a trial by jury system, and that with only six democracies in the world, we had to serve as jurors to keep Democracy alive, and he'd do the best he could to make sure we never actually had to serve on one. I wondered if he was counting the US as one of the six democracies in the world.

Towards the end of the day, there was a heated discussion behind me about the OJ Simpson trial. Both parties agreed that the jury was idiotic and they would never be that idiotic and then proceeded to discuss all sorts of things that to the best of my knowledge were never brought into evidence in said trial as evidence of OJ's guilt. At this point I looked around the room of about 300 or so, and counted up the number of apparently African-American people present. One. Two. Two was the total.

The supervisor of jurors came out about 11 AM and informed us that she'd just been on the phone with the bailiff or judge from the last trial...and they had been working hard on the case...and blah blah blah about it she went on, before finally getting to the point that the case had been settled and we were all free to go. Why the first words out of her mouth weren't "you can all go home now!" is beyond me. Here's how I figure her speech cost society in terms of lost leisure or productivity time: let's just assume everybody there had time worth at least the Federal minimum wage of $5.15 an hour. 300 people were there, and we all listened to his completely unnecessary speech for about five minutes, which is 1500 minutes. That's 25 hours of lost time, collectively, to find out we were allowed to leave five minutes ago, which I make out to be about $128.75 of lost time, not counting the time it took my wife to iron my necktie that morning.

On the way out to the parking lot (a few blocks away from the courthouse) my golfing buddy tagged along and wanted to talk about what had gone on that morning and his big decision about whether to go back to work today or just take the rest of the day off. "Why don't you take the rest of the day off and play a round?" I suggested. "You must get bored playing your own course all the time." "Golf? On my day off? No way!" he replied. The last thing he said to me as we went to our separate cars was, "Hey, come down and try the lunch at the clubhouse! It's great! You'll come try it, right...?"