Sunday, September 19, 2010

Juris Prudence :: Ideas Are Everywhere Day One

As proof that ideas are everywhere if you're just open to them, I'm posting a few days of a journal I kept while undergoing jury duty back in 2008. Note: These are unedited because I didn't want to lie to you or show you anything more polished than it really was.  Read more of my reasoning HERE.  -Scott


Day One

A hundred and twenty strangers sit in a windowless room. We sip coffee, type on laptops, read books or newspapers and generally ignore one another in the manner typical of such gatherings. Every once in awhile a yellow light flashes. Numbers are called and some depart, leaving the rest to wonder when our turn will come. Some of those called away return. Most do not. Our eyes drop back to our screens and our books, waiting for the next flashing harbinger of a new selection.

We are all of us here, none of us voluntarily, and each getting paid ten dollars for our presence. Plus mileage. Welcome to my very own corner of the Criminal Justice System.

This morning, Kristin packed me a lunch, made sure I remembered to put my MapQuest directions in my bag, patted me on the head and sent me off to do my part in the whole "smiting evil" thing. I didn't know it would entail an actual bat cave... okay, to be honest I haven't seen any bats per se, but that's not proof that they're not here.

To be honest, I’ve never done this before, and the whole thing has a certain ‘down the rabbit hole’ feel to it. Like most people, I really wanted to get a good solid case in front of me, a mustachioed villain facing life for tying a rancher’s daughter to the train tracks. Or a man in a purple suit stammering out a defense and blaming it all on the guy dressed as the giant bat. Real criminal justice is just so… banal.

Most defendants are just normal people in a bad place, at a bad time. Having a bad day. Or a series of bad days. Cause and effect. If they are guilty, then their choices put them here, if not, then our choices will set them free... at least theoretically. Hence the assumption of innocence. And the appeals process as well, I suppose.

With this in mind, was I summoned early by the amber light to endure the oddity of Voir Dire.

Handed an 8x10 number I'm herded into a small courtroom to be asked penetrating questions by savvy lawyers to discern your prejudices and biases. All questions will be general, if you have an affirmative response, raise your number.

Voir Dire, by the way, means “Telling the truth.”

Questions: Have you ever been in an auto accident where you were injured? (Scott’s hand rises) Do you have any problem or have you had a past negative interaction with law enforcement? (Scott’s hand stays down), Have you ever been prosecuted for Wreckless Driving (Scott’s number remains in his lap). Why are you here, why didn’t you beg off like most people do? (Scott is called on and says “If I didn’t do it, who would?” they nod sagely and move on) etcetera, etcetera, ad nauseum.

Some of the questions seem pertinent. Others don’t.

At one point near the end of proceedings, after several rounds of questioning by both parties, the defense attorney singles me out. Consults his jury list, addresses me by name. “You’ve been quiet this morning. But I guess no one has asked you any questions, have they?”

Well, there was the one about why wasn’t I smart enough to figure out a way to get out of jury duty…

“What do you do for a living?”

I tell him.

“Then you can teach me how to write?”

Scott swallows his first smartalecky impulse and says: “Yes, I probably could.”

What does that have to do with anything in a wreckless driving case? Or racing? He doesn’t ask me any more questions. Neither lawyer ever asked me about the accident I was injured in, how I felt about it or anything pertaining to the case.

I’m chosen for the jury. I have no idea why. Maybe they like people who work in education. Maybe because I have glasses. Nerdy guys with thick glasses make good jurors? I assume I’m less offensive to the needs of either party than those who were dismissed. There are seven of us. Five men and two women. A good mix of ages and people pinning down several levels on the graduated scale of melanin. Nice that we’re not all the same age and backgrounds, I like to think that justice is a bit more blind the farther the net is cast across the spectrum.

We’re told that one of us will be eliminated at the end of the case as the ‘alternate’. Like some kind of Jurisprudence Survivor. I wonder if they’ll make us eat anything icky?

Both sides and the judge tell us this one will be over quickly. They repeat it several times. Everyone there says it at least once. One day unless deliberations drag on into tomorrow. They kind of laugh when they say it. Seems odd. Some kid’s criminal record is in the balance but everyone’s being just a little laid back. The lawyers are almost flippant. Everyone seems laid back, confident in a win.

How weird.

The county’s prosecuting attorney for the county is new. Young. Green. I swear he needs to find someone to tailor that suit for him because it looks like he’s wearing his dad’s jacket. He has a senior attorney with him as co-counsel who is acting as a trainer and giving whispered input on everything the guy says. It’s a little distracting, but I’m good at ignoring things. The defense attorney is older, has an earring. Longish hairstyle. Hip old guy.

I squint at the defendant. No curly mustache. No purple suit. He’s just another kid. Young, good looking, wearing street clothes and a determined look. How are you supposed to tell the good guys from the bad guys when they all look like good guys? How do you know when you’re looking at a basically normal person who is having a bad day?

Opening arguments. The cop who pulled the kid over testifies. Cross-examination. The kid testifies. Cross-examination. Jury instructions are given. Closing arguments are given. They each go over the legal definition of racing and one of the women is eliminated from our jury by a random drawing of names.

(No one had to eat anything icky, alas.)

A jury of six? What happened to twelve? Must be different in lower courts, I suppose.

We bid our alternate goodbye. We’re locked in the room. We elect a foreperson by the age-old method of whoever doesn’t say ‘no’ fast enough gets it by default. We discuss things. Two of the older men have a history of drag racing as kids. They tell some stories to illustrate their points. It gets a little too "American Graffiti" at one point and some of us have to intervene to get things back on track.

After some discussion, we find for the county.  It's a very near thing and I don't fell like the case was presented well by either lawyer.

We notify the judicial assistant (which is the new term for Bailiff) and the verdict is read.

Afterward, the attorneys follow us back into the jury room.

This is odd, I’ve never heard of this before. We present our finding and then endure a debriefing? An after-interview?

This is strange. I just want to go home now. "This is voluntary," we’re told, "just a way for the attorneys to get some perspective on how they handled the case."  Poorly. Especially the scribbling on the big sheet of paper that was supposed to illustrate where each car was at what time.  I'm told that I can leave, but I don’t want to be the only one to do so. Awkward. I read the newspaper through the whole thing. I want to quiz the attorneys but I don’t. It was either a strategy that I don’t understand or not in which case… I don’t see any value to knowing. Some of the others ask desultory questions about the young prosecutor in training and then we’re thanked for our service and told we can leave.

Home by four o’clock. Asleep in the couch by five-thirty. Even though I was on a jury I'm to report again tomorrow to go back in the pool. Two weeks of this.

At least I get Memorial Day off.

No idea what happened to the kid. Is he sleep on his couch?
Guess I’ll never know.

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