Miss Woodhouse's Musings

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When the Jury’s Actually Out – Episode One

I’m convinced that there’s nothing quite as character-shaping and life-defining as serving on a jury. It should come as no surprise that I’m a huge fan of people stepping up and doing their civic duty. Chalk it up to my mum’s early exposure of me to Perry Mason and Matlock, but I love anything related to law or courtrooms. In fact, my next NaNoWriMo book is based on a court room drama…but that’s a posting for another time.

What I’m grappling with currently is as far from crime fiction as you can get. It is the effect of cold, hard reality. You see, I believe in my civic duty, and a few years back I reported for jury duty. I’d almost made it through my assigned month of Tuesday “on call”…and then that fateful Monday night the words “required to report” listed my name amongst the others. Now, let’s be honest here. I was excited! I’d get to go to the courthouse, see some of the cool things that go on in a courtroom, and eventually be dismissed from serving because who would want a 24 year old teacher/barista sitting on a case? Or, maybe it would be a low-key civil case and I would get selected and could see what cross-examination looks like up close and personal! Either way, I was excited to spend a day away from my students and customers and expand my horizons.

For most of the morning, it was all very awesome. I showed up on time, parked in the assigned lot, put my little pass up in the window, locked my cell phone in the car as per city laws, and made my way through security. Once in, the staff was very nice in helping me find the jury quarters, buried a bit in the back of the building and well into the basement. There were about 60 other people in the waiting room with me, all from the various age groups, ethnicity, and walks of life which makes our justice system so awesome. After an awkward, let’s-check-each-other-out-but-avoid-eye-contact hour with my “peers,” we were herded into another room to watch a screening of the courthouse blockbuster of the year, “How to be A Juror and Thank You for Giving Up Your Soap Operas to Come Do Your Civic Duty Since We Won’t Accept Anymore of Your Reasons to Be Excused…Again.” I managed to get through the film without falling asleep by imagining that it was actually created to be a torture device for captured insurgents – 10 minutes of the rampant patriotism and bad acting would have me spilling secrets almost as effectively as waterboarding if I had any secrets to spill. After the movie (which definitely needed some soda and popcorn), we retired to our now familiar waiting room and resumed counting the ceiling tiles silently to ourselves. At some point, either in the room or before the movie, we were informed that there was one court case that day, and it was a criminal case. All I really remember is a collectively uncomfortable shifting in our seats. It’s one thing to be on a jury…but a criminal case? I could see the gears beginning to turn in the minds of my fellow potential jurors; “what do I have to say to get dismissed from the case?” Still feeling confident, I returned to counting ceiling tiles while holding a folder of papers that I should have been grading. Who can focus on British Literature when there’s Law School happening right in front of you?

About an hour before lunch, new and official-looking people entered the waiting room, and you could feel the energy change even though they said nothing. As one, all the potential jurors packed away whatever they’d been holding in their hands to occupy them, and gathered their belongings closely. Sure enough, within 5 minutes we were ushered on the beginning of a journey through the court house that would become all too familiar over the next days. Outside of an airport or shopping mall, I’d never seen so many escalators and stairs and elevators and open balconies and fake plants and large windows. I’d also never seen so many lawyers since freshman orientation at my university (it was a very well-respected Law School as well so they were EVERYWHERE). Feeling very civilian and undereducated, I allowed myself to be ushered along from escalator to landing to escalator and so forth. During the movie we’d been warned not to interact with anyone in the environment, not even each other. Until voir dire was complete, we were our own little islands. Take that, John Donne. My nerves grew as people stopped talking and turned to stare at us. I couldn’t discern what stares were merely idle curiosity, and which ones held hostility. I observed as much as I could peripherally, and noticed almost immediately a man in a white polo watching our every move. I couldn’t make out the logo on his shirt, but it looked official. As we took the escalators, he watched us from a distance, taking elevators to keep abreast of our floor-to-floor progress. I knew I should feel safe and secure and assume that this very muscular and unsmiling man was there to protect us, but honestly it just made my heart beat faster with uncertainty. We didn’t stop until we reached the top floor. With no where else to go, we made our way down a hallway.

We filed into a court room, and it was everything my little law geek heart could ask for. Darkly carved wooden chairs, tables, benches, a beautiful judge and witness stand, rich green carpets, creamy walls, and brass lighting fixtures on the walls and hanging from the ceiling. Double wood doors lead into the courtroom, and a door stood on either side of the back. The one on the right was for the judge, the defendant, and bailiffs, and the one on the left lead to the jury room. The first 14 of us filled the jury box, and the rest of us were seated in the spectator seats. All told, we filled up half the room, all shifting uncomfortably in our seats. The first few questions were generic, broad, and had already been answered when we sent in our jury screening surveys. But repetition, form, and clarity are at the heart of law. I feel like defining “law” as “check…then double check…then triple check…then check at least once more but probably twice at the minimum.” Again, all the respect in the world for our legal system. We answered with stand-up, sit-down and it crossed my mind more than once that this must be what going to a traditional school must be like. After weeding out a few people who apparently didn’t read the questionnaire carefully, we got into more specific questions. I don’t remember them all, but I do remember the one that made my blood start to chill: “Can you devote more than one day to serving on a jury to this case?” I wanted so, so badly to say I couldn’t, that I needed to work my shift at Starbucks the next day. But I knew that wasn’t true; I’d been in contact with my manager about jury duty and we had contingency plans in place. Question after question rolled out, and pool became smaller and smaller. I stifled the urge to roll my eyes at some of the responses – they were blatantly and artlessly answered in a way to get them dismissed. I swear there were moments where the judge had to suppress an eyeroll himself, and I began to feel a sense of camaraderie with him.

The questions grew more specific. Being reminded constantly that we were under oath and expected to keep confidentiality, they began to reveal what the case was. To my horror, I realized that I genuinely didn’t have a clue as to the case at hand. The alleged incidents occurred during my last semester at university, and I’d been far too busy to keep up with local news. As the questions continued, the case continued to unfurl…race issues…minor’s involved…sex crime. That’s all I will say about the case, but I think it is enough to give you a rough idea; and rough it was. My blood was well and truly frozen over by this point, and I worked very hard to keep my voice steady when addressed for questions. As the pool shrank, the bailiffs kept moving us up closer and closer to the front, not allowing any empty chairs between any of us. By the final questions, I was sitting in the jury box, enjoying being able to see the whole court room from that vantage point. I figured this was my only chance to enjoy it, so I soaked up every detail I could. Even now, I can picture that courtroom clearly with my eyes wide open. It is indelibly etched on my mind. ¬†Finally, voir dire came down to something that felt like the lightening round in a game show, or worse yet team selection for dodge-ball in PE. Each side ranked the jurors with a check or an x. The jurors refused by both sides were automatically dismissed. The ones that were split came down to an each by each basis. Either side could absolutely veto a juror, but they only had a small number of vetoes (I think three or five). If both sides could say they didn’t absolutely hate you, you stayed in. I could catch glimpses of the sheets they held, and I remember thinking “Oh, this is juror bingo.” It is an odd feeling, to say the least. Finally, the scores were tallied and as Ryan Seacrest used to say, the results were in. The group collectively held their breath as each juror was named, letting it out a little in relief every time their name wasn’t called. Twelve names were called, then they called two more so we would have a jury of fourteen (two alternates in case of illness or corruption). Name thirteen was mine.

I was stunned, sitting there in shock. During the process we had individual interviews, and I knew based on what I told the court that the defense didn’t want me. I saw the look on the lawyer’s face as the names were being called for final consideration, and I saw him decisively mark an x over my name. But, apparently there were three other people he liked less than me. I was in. The prosecution had succeeded in getting me in. The judge congratulated us all, reviewed some rules with us (mainly that “don’t talk to anyone about anything” stuff), then dismissed everyone to reconvene after lunch. The fourteen of us were taken back down the endless escalators, back to the waiting room. Too much in shock to consider leaving for lunch, I sat and ate the snacks I’d brought “just in case” and stared at a wall. I was a juror, on a criminal case.

Cut to commercial break…more story on the next episode of When the Jury’s Actually Out.