Jury Duty Did Not Make Me A Better Human

Tonight’s brew is Snow Roller by Magic Hat, a seemingly apt choice as we finally have snow on the ground. The bottle describes it as a hoppy brown ale, but it’s more like watery, not-much-hop brown ale. No matter. We had, ahem, QUITE the beer selection from Christmas, and this was one of the leftovers. So drink I must; you know, to make room in the beer fridge for the good stuff. Though I sniff my nose at the brew now, I probably would’ve gulped it like gatorade yesterday and the day before. In the morning, yet. No, I wasn’t at Chuck E. Cheese’s, or an equally annoying electronic- filled establishment that requires mind numbing beverages in order to function. I was in our local courthouse, having been summoned for jury duty.

I made the usual harrumphs about interruptions in time, and how is it this is my third time when others have never done it, but on the whole, I didn’t mind. Of course, that was before I woke up to the worst weather of the year and navigated treacherous roadways in whiteouts for forty five minutes. You could say I minded then. Of course I wasn’t alone in the hardship, as eighty other disgruntled citizens were also called and led to a room to wait. To wait and watch two short videos which I already have zero recall as to their content, other than jurors should dress appropriately. We were told to be at the courthouse by 7:45, and eighty people without cell phones sat in the room until 930. I guess the good thing about the rule is people were almost forced to talk to their neighbor, if their neighbor wasn’t too annoyed by not having a phone.

Within minutes my neighbor Karen made no bones about the fact she wasn’t comfortable being a juror. “Who am I to judge?” she said to me.

I nodded. “I know what you mean.”

“People judge unfairly all the time. They judge that I have two unmarried daughters with children, one who lives with us, but what they don’t know is I had another daughter who died in a car accident and a few years ago our house burned down. And I was a victim of verbal abuse by my boss for years, until I walked away. She was a horrible, horrible person. Always criticizing, judging. I feel like we’ve been here for hours, what time is it? Oh, I hate not having my phone.”

I swear to God I am not making this up. People tell me stuff and ramble in a way I’m certain would go unsaid to other, maybe brighter looking people. So at first I wasn’t sure if she was being truthful, but after sitting there for an hour and a half, I think she was. I kind of stopped talking to her after she was going on to another neighbor about buying two ipads for her four year old granddaughters and how all the hundreds of apps had made them “sooooo smart.” Yet in the next breath she complained how at night one of them is up every two hours and she doesn’t know why she has so much trouble sleeping. Ugh.

At 9:30 Karen and I were called to the courtroom, along with forty others. The rest were meant to sit in that original room, and watch the procedures on video. They wouldn’t be released until fourteen jurors were selected, but the clerk assured them they were the lucky ones because she had coffee and they could chew gum. She was right. Because after three hours on a rock hard bench in the courtroom I was chewing gum, and I didn’t care who saw me, and I wanted her coffee.

Let me say I love my country and I have respect for our judicial system. I think most of the time, it works. But the “voir dire” (jury selection) ordeal is enough to make a sane person want to drink watery, not hoppy beer at ten thirty in the morning. It is the most eye-rollingly repetitive experience I’ve had in forever, and I’m not sure how I forgot that fact the first two times. Part of it was because this go around there were two defendants, each with their own lawyer. So the prosecuting attorney along with the other two asked the SAME questions over and over and over of every prospective juror.

“How would you rate our justice system?” 

“Do you have problems with race?” 

“Can you put bias aside easily?”

“Ever been a victim of a violent crime or someone close to you been a victim?”

And from the judge: “Do you have the ability to understand possession? For example, you have a pen. If you put your pen in the car, and you go back inside, do you understand that the pen is still in your possession, and that you have a right to assert control over that pen?” Although nobody admitted it because nobody wanted to hear him repeat the example for the umpteenth time, the “right to assert control” phrase tripped up everyone. (How do I control it if it’s in my car?) So this went on and on, with the worst part the judge repeating the same damned questions the attorneys had already asked individually, back to them as a group. “Is there ANYONE who sees themselves as being unable to render decisions based on facts?” As if we are all four years old and can’t quite grasp the meaning the first eighteen times around.

Naturally there were some who answered in a way they knew would get them booted. After about a half hour my new friend Karen was called. When asked if there was any reason she would not be able to be a juror, she said:

“Well, actually I know I would tell my husband about it. I tell him everything.”

Judge: (peeved) “Do you mean to say you could not keep the trial’s proceedings to yourself, knowing you could talk away the minute it’s over?”

“I’m sorry, I’m just being honest. I know I would talk to him.”

She was thanked and excused. So was another guy, clearly irate, who was called after me. When asked how he rated the system he said: “Well, if you would’ve asked me at eight o’clock, I would have said a seven, but now that it’s 1:30 I’m giving it a three.” He shook his head. “I get it, man. Everyone wants someone sympathetic to their client, but this is ridiculous.” Out he went. I had to hand it to him; he only said what everyone was thinking. We were all starving and getting crankier by the minute. And I get it too. I get the attempt to weed out the bigots, the wild cards and the dim bulbs as necessary. I just wish it wasn’t so excruciating to arrive there. In the end though, I guess it all worked, because our panel really was a good cross section of society. Our group consisted of a college student, security guard, farmer, mechanic, dietician, two business owners, two pastors, a male nurse, a waitress, a Whirlpool executive, one guy whose job I didn’t catch, and me. Three women, eleven men, one black and the rest white, and here’s the kicker: nobody managed to grate on my impatient self. Usually there’s one clown or blowhard making everyone cringe, but not in this crew. And it was a good thing, because there were loads of down time in which to become better acquainted.

THAT is what grated more than anything: the inefficiency with time was astounding. The incessant lecturing about no discussing the trial and reminders about protocol drove me nuts. I wasn’t alone with this, either. The male nurse whose name was Jeremiah had a second calling as a performer, because he could imitate all the players in the courtroom dead-on. “Is there ANYONE who doesn’t understand that if you have a pen and you leave it in your car…” He made us laugh, in particular one time as we were shuffled back to the room again for at least forty minutes. The bailiff had to come in and tell us to be quiet, and one of the pastors was repentant. “We apologize, sir,” he said solemnly. And I thought, well, I’m not sorry. What else do you expect us to do, forbidden as we were to not discuss anything? I was also less than thrilled with all the formality and stuffiness and the way the bailiff jumped like a command dog at every breath the judge took. I don’t know what it is about this that bugged me so, because again I do understand the need for order. I guess I just have an inherent distaste for situations in which it must be made abundantly clear who is in power, and who is not, and being reminded every two seconds since most of us don’t have a bajillion years of law instruction, as such we need to be schooled.

So back to the bailiff, who did manage to slightly irritate me. He was friendly and did his best to meet our needs, providing water and coffee at regular intervals and answered our questions. No qualms there. I decided his job was to basically herd us like cats and be a courtroom servant  in any capacity, and he did this well. But when I came back from a lunch break the first day, as he was escorting me to through all the locked doors he kept turning around.

“I know you.” ( Not, do I know you?) “I’ve seen you somewhere. I used to referee high school wrestling, is that it?”

“Hmm. No, don’t think so.”

He went on to list a bunch of other possibilities, all denied, and he persisted until we got to the room. By this time I wanted to shout, “I DON’T KNOW YOU, and you have all the mannerisms of a tight ass ex-military and ex -cop that you’ve said you were, that would make me not WANT to particularly know you.”

The interrogation went on to the next day even, again as were on the escort trail, and this was the source of my ire. I felt like a freaking suspect whom he was sure was lying somehow.

“I was trying to think last night of how I know you.”

Really, dude? Please let that just be conversation. I shook my head and repeated I wasn’t from the area.

“Huh.”

He unlocked the door to the dungeon and went to herd more cats. 

On the second day of the trial, closing statements were made around five o’clock and the  judge informed us sandwiches would be delivered as we deliberated. Although everyone was tired, nobody wanted to leave while the evidence was still fresh in our minds.

And we could finally talk, and do what we were there for. 

While the cases were fairly open and shut, I think we did an excellent job pulling it apart and analyzing the facts. Exhausted, everyone still understood our decisions would essentially decide the direction of others’ lives, thus deserving of careful examination. We got hung up on one charge (possession!) and had to send the judge a note for clarification, and at ten p.m we were ready with five guilty verdicts and one not guilty. 

Our nurse Jeremiah read the counts out loud, and afterward we were ready to pounce at the exit door. The judge however, was not so eager. He pontificated about the merits of jury duty and produced a battered newspaper column.

“Whenever trials end, I always reflect upon the words of Anna Quindlan, who wrote a wonderful article on how jury duty made her a better human.”

Now, I’m an admirer of Quindlan, but at this point I am screaming at him in my head:

“It is ten fifteen. I am NOT a better human because right now I want to throw darts at you because you are still talking and we want to go home. DO not read that column in its entirety or I’ll be the one in the jail cell. Simply THANK US and send us on our way. “

He paraphrased, thanks be to God. The bailiff led us to the parking lot for one last time, probably still scratching his head about how he knew me, and we bid each other goodbye. We expressed thankfulness for the chance to get to know one another, and this was genuine. We’d overlooked the inconvenience, fought fatigue and horrendous weather, the pettiness of certain processes, spouses and kids and animals at home and jobs that needed our attention, to zero in on the importance of the task at hand. 

So maybe I was a LITTLE bit more human after all. 

Cheers, friends. And if you get called for jury duty, may you be blessed with a circle of good humans who will make you forget about craving watery, not hoppy beer at ten thirty in the morning. 

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