A few thoughts on civic duty

“God,” she said, “this is such a pain in the ass. I hope I get out of it. You know, I think that the jury pool should be restricted to retirees and people without jobs.”

“But that would hardly be a jury of your peers,” I remonstrated.

It reminded me of an experience I had in the winter of 2004.

I had a good job, I was preparing for the winter residency at Goddard, and I had all my ducks in a row. And then, I got a jury summons to the Ukiah court. In a curious twist, coastal residents may be called to Ukiah (a 1 1/2 hour drive, for those unfamiliar with Northern California geography), but Ukiah residents are never called to the coast. At any rate, there was my summons, clear as crystal, for a day I wasn’t working, so all was well.

I duly called the courthouse the night before to make sure my jury pool was still being called, and it was, and I got up at six in the morning to drive over a tall windy ice encrusted hill to my jury duty. I brought my knitting, well accustomed to long waits in uncomfortable places.

“I have a summons,” I beamed.

“Uh, ok, jury assembly is down the hall and to the left.”

I stepped through the metal detector, which, praise be, did not go off. (This can be an occupational hazard of for those of us who have made lifestyle choices which involve lots of metal–especially in airports, which have highly sensitive metal detectors at this point. When they go off, one is faced with the somewhat humiliating experience of being wanded and forced to explain when the wand goes off in peculiar places. For a while I considered providing a diagram for the use of airport personnel.)

“You have scissors,” the inspector said accusingly, much as I imagine someone might say “you have a bomb,” or “you drank the last of the soymilk.” Indeed, his expression was one of some incredulity mixed with a sense of betrayal. Clearly, I had not foreseen the heightened security I would face in the county courthouse, foolishly assuming that scissors would be permitted into the jury selection room. (Had I perhaps been an aficionado of the sorts of films where people do nasty things with scissors, I might have realized otherwise.)

“Yeah, for my knitting? I am doing something with stripes, and…”

“You can’t have those in here. You can walk them back to your vehicle or I can confiscate them.”

Momentarily perplexed at the thought of walking scissors, I imagined walking seven blocks through the streaming rain and kissed my scissors goodbye, walking sadly down the hall to the jury room thinking of all the great things we had done together. To my general nervousness, I realized there were rather a lot of khaki clad sheriffs lounging in the halls. Perhaps tightened security necessitated their presence? I reminded myself that peace officers were people too, and smiled nervously as I strode towards jury assembly room one. The halls were filled with a truly astounding mix of people, some in suits and ties, others in jailhouse orange. An assortment of people milled about looking confused in street clothes, and I assumed that they were either fellow jurors or bewildered victims of the court system.

The multilevel construction of the court gave me room for pause, but after a brief interlude with a gentleman in khaki, I found my way to jury assembly room one. I marched up to the counter, waving my summons, and the nice lady behind the counter took it. The jury room was full of people merrily awaiting their turn to sit in justice on other beings. I sort of assumed that Tuesday was the big day in court, that we would be shunted off to various rooms and allowed to sit on juries for smallish crimes, the kind of things that happen in small counties where people bore easily and the country is wide and free. I reminded myself that if I got on a drug case, my knowledge of jury nullification might come in handy.

In the corner, two men discussed ripping and distributing mp3s. A woman next to me read the Ladies Home Journal and tried not to look too bored. I merrily knitted away, tearing the yarn with my teeth when I reached a new stripe. I realized that not only was I the only one knitting in the room, I was the only one under thirty. I was receiving quite a few stares.

When a courtroom official strode in, we all looked up expectantly, and that was the moment that the next two months of my life were dramatically altered.

I was, you see, in the jury pool for a murder trial. One of the biggest murder trials in quite a long time, with a jury pool of over six hundred people. It was such a high profile case that the lawyers were distributing a pre-voir dire questionaire, to prepare themselves for striking large numbers of jurors. It was over twenty pages long, and began with average sort of questions, ending with a list of potential witnesses–we were expected to put checks next to their names if we knew them. We were assured that because of the nature of the trial, our identities would be protected, and we would be known only by number.

What was eye opening to me about the experience were the central questions, which dealt with the case directly. I discovered that I knew nothing about the case and the people involved. I had neutral feelings about the organization they were involved in. I was, in other words, an ideal juror.

Alas, I was sent back to Fort Bragg that day without ever making it into the court room. For the next two weeks, Monday-Thursday, I drove to Ukiah to sit in the jury selection room, waiting to be called for voir dire. I struck up friendships with other potential jurors. We went to lunch together and those of us from the coast carpooled.

I had numerous interesting experiences in the jury selection room.

“Ok people. I am going to read from this list again. If you are on it, please speak up. This is a list of people who are absent according to our roll. The judge will be issuing warrants for these people, who will be placed under arrest and held until they can be seen in court and they will be fined up to 1,500 dollars.”

She read the list and there was a moment of silence, broken by a woman scrabbling for her cell phone.

“Tina! Yeah, you need to get down here. You were summoned? There’s a warrant!”

Ten minutes later, a flushed and guilty looking Tina arrived.

The long suffering coastal residents listened in silence as another woman berated the clerks in the jury room:

“I live in Willits,” (approximately twenty minutes away) she said, “and this trial is totally distruptive, and it’s so disrespectful to make me come all the way over here just to send me home, and I want to complain to your supervisor, and…”

At this point, one of us stood up.

“Look, lady,” he said. “I live in Albion. Shut up.”

And she did. And the jury room clerk shot us a grateful glance and slipped us some cookies later.

Finally, we were told that selection was taking so long, we would be called again in a month for our voir dire. Now, it so happened that the date in question was the day before the start of my Goddard residency. I was supposed to be on a large aircraft crossing the midwestern states around the time my jury summons called for.

We had a problem.

Luckily for me, after some pleading with the administration, it was agreed that I could miss the residency on these grounds, as not only was it my civic duty, it was also an educational experience.

My day in court dawned rainy and foul.

I didn’t, of course, know it was my day in court yet, but I did wear my lucky rocketship underwear and a pink polka dot skirt, so maybe my closet did.

We made it to the court in time for our nine o’clock summons, and sat around until eleven, when we were at last called into the court. We sat in rows behind the jury box, waiting for people to be struck so we could replace them. I fairly vibrated with excitement, and to my joy made it into the jury box shortly before lunch recess.

After lunch, my star would shine.

I’m not really sure where I started to run into trouble.

“It says here you were at the (famous university)?”

“Yes, sir. In the (well known) program.”

“The what?”

“(Well known). I mean, I was originally in political science, but, uh, that program was really big and (well known) just seemed more…better.”

“And what was your perception of that program?”

“It was mostly the professors cramming their viewpoints down our throats, sir. Although I liked my ROTC classes. I think the people in (well known) didn’t like the fact that I was taking ROTC courses. But they were good. Better, for sure, than the (well known) ones.”

“And now you go to…Goddard?”

“Yes sir. It’s a low residency program, I have been excused from the residency because of–this.”

“Thank you.”

The defense questioned me while his aged, palsied client trembled behind him.

“If you were asked to return a verdict on my client today, what verdict would you return?”

“Not guilty, sir.”

“And why is that?”

“Because it’s the foundation of the American justice system that an individual be innocent until proven guilty. No proof of guilt has been provided.”

“Thank you.”

The prosecution, again:

“Do you feel you can judge people who live alternative lifestyles fairly?”

“Yes, sir, I do.”

“Could we return for just a moment to the question of guilt my colleague was discussing with you earlier? You say this individual needs to be proven guilty?”

“Yes, sir, by you, actually, since the prosecution bears the burden of proof.”

“Would you require my colleague’s client to testify to return a verdict?”

“No, sir, I would not.”

“What do you intend to do after you graduate from college?”

“Well sir, I’m not sure, I would like to attend law school but I would also like to get my doctorate. I’m not certain which I am going to do first.”

“Thank you.”

And it went on in this vein, all of us seated, being struck one by one. It went on for days. Days that I drove back and forth over the hill, cheap car fishtailing on the ice, nearly being killed by truckers. Days where new pools of jurors would rotate in to fill our depleting ranks. Yet, sometimes there were strange judgments–the woman next to me, for example.

“Do you think you can sit in judgment on another person?”

“Well, I’m like, you know, a libra, and, like, it’s really hard for me, you know, to make decisions. I guess if the rest of the jury thought one way, I could go along with it.”

To my shock, she wasn’t struck.

I maintained my place in that jury box for over a week, and then, one day, at the close of court, I was a peremptory strike from the prosecution. My day in court was over, and I made my way sadly down the aisle, out through the corridor bounded by FBI agents*. Helicopters whirred overhead as I walked through the muggy weather to my car, even the trees drooping in the heat, and I drove wearily home.

Why hadn’t I been chosen? I had all the characteristics I thought a lawyer would want in a juror: I was intelligent, I wasn’t prejudiced against the case, I understood the legal system. It was a shocking experience for me when I realized that lawyers don’t want smart jurors–they want the case decided even before it begins. They don’t want a jury of peers, they want a jury of sheep, of people who will do as the court directs.

I returned glumly to my ever accomodating workplace and that was that. The jury room clerks assured the coastal residents that in thanks for being so patient and cooperative, we wouldn’t be called again until January 2007. Three long years would pass before I did my civic duty again, although this time I would probably be called to the Fort Bragg court.

What’s the big problem with jury duty? I feel in a lot of ways as though the American legal system is broken, perhaps beyond repair, and I rather view the jury as a chance to set things right. For all the machinations and cleverness of lawyers, ultimately the case rests with the jury, and it should be a jury of peers. It should be pulled from the widest group of people in order to ensure the most fair trial.

And that’s why it makes me angry, flamingly angry, when people complain about jury duty and try to “get out” of it. If I was on trial for murder, I would expect every single damn person who received a jury summons to show up, whether they were struck or seated in the end.

Yes, jury duty can be inconvenient. That’s why there are legal protections around it–you can’t fire someone for their jury service, for example. It can be a pain to sit in a damp dusty courtroom for hours only to be sent home–that’s why you bring a book, or knitting, or needlepoint, to entertain yourself with. Think of it as a temporary vacation, a change of place. Weren’t you getting burned out at work anyway? Well look, here’s a free day. A free day which may come with financial hardship, since the compensation is hardly extravagant, but a free day just the same. A free day that could make a huge difference in someone else’s life. Or a free day where you sit in traffic court all day.

Because here’s the thing: being on trial for murder is pretty inconvenient too, kids.

*There were a number of controversies surrounding this case, not the least of which involved the attorney who struck me, an assistant to the state prosecutor. In a clever move of jury intimidation, he asked for additional security at the courthouse, and the FBI delivered–both agents and overhead helicopters. He claimed that the defendants posed a threat, otherwise. Curiously, the events they were on trial for had occurred over twenty years ago–they were old and wizened, with canes. They didn’t look terribly menacing to me. Which is good, since I was on the end seat in the jurybox, essentially right next to the primary defendant. Every now and then he would give me a small, weary smile. So much for anonymity–they ended up knowing a great deal about me, as the defense lawyers kept coming back to me. The prosecutor’s tactics worked–the defendants were deemed guilty, and honestly, they probably were. But I wouldn’t know for sure, seeing as how I didn’t sit on the jury.

[jury duty]