Friday, July 14, 2006

I should, indeed, prefer twenty men to escape death through mercy, than one innocent to be condemned unjustly. - Sir John Fortescue

Is it kosher to tell you NOW what case the jury selection was for?

Double homicide.
Freaking double homicide.
I have never before been called for criminal court; my previous two experiences were for civil court, and I wasn’t picked – I wasn’t even impaneled – either time.

I have to admit I was a little pissed that I was called for jury duty at all.
I’d already managed to get deferred once, due to the breastfeeding/pumping thing.
But duty called, and I answered.
Hey, I may be a card-carrying member of the ACLU, but I love my country and do my patriotic duty, damn it! Besides, it was a fully legit excuse to be away from the kids for eight hours, in peace and quiet, to read.
So by the time my call rolled around and for precisely that reason, I was so hoping to be picked for the jury.
Well, that, and watching a criminal case could have been really exciting and interesting.
Upsetting, too, I suppose.
But I have a strong stomach and am smart and can be fairly rational when required – I really would be an excellent juror.

Formerly, parking downtown for jury duty was a huge issue - before I became the self-assured – and cheap – person I am today, when the thought of taking public transit anywhere filled me with dread and anxiety and caused me to break out in a cold sweat. They only pay you around 10 bucks, and parking downtown for the day can take more than that. I know this from previous experience, and because the woman sitting behind me during the questioning explained it all in GREAT. DETAIL. to her poor neighbor. “Well, first Fred – Fred’s my husband – Fred said to me, you should park at the wharf but then I saw it was raining. So then Fred said, well, you can park in the Kaufman’s garage but the garage was really busy today, something must be going on downtown (Um, a little thing called THE ALL-STAR GAME, lady) and then Fred said [wasn’t that a band sometime in the 80s?], he said, you could park…” by which point I wanted to poke my eardrums out with my specially-issued county courts ballpoint pen; besides, *I* was smart and took the bus.

I wore a grey t-shirt, a long black skirt, and my Crocs. I was operating under the delusion that the courthouse was air-conditioned, which, in theory, it was. In reality, it was hot, and a lot of people- some of whom, may I say, had not showered anywhere near as recently as I had – generate a lot of heat. By mid-afternoon I was just grateful that I hadn’t been assigned to one of the chairs by the windows, through which the sun was beating. Yes, it stopped raining long enough to make twelve or so potential jurors really miserable. Fred’s Wife spent a great deal of time after lunch explaining how she’d chosen what to wear to jury duty: “Well, I said to Fred, I know it’s hot, but I might be cold so I will wear a dress with no sleeves (yes, that is called a SLEEVELESS dress. Twit.) and a sweater over it. But my pink sweater was in the laundry, and my purple sweater was missing a button – so I thought I’d go to Kaufmann’s and pick up something, but they wanted 42 dollars for a sweater, I mean, a sweater you could get anywhere, and I just couldn’t see plunking down 42 dollars for an ordinary sweater! I mean, it wasn’t anything special, although it would have been perfect. But 42 dollars for a sweater seemed a little high, but I needed a sweater…”

How many books did I take with me for an eight-hour day?
Three.
And I was glad, because The Plague started putting me to sleep right after lunch and right around the time they spirited away the coffee in the jurors’ rooms.
So I dived into Penny Vicenzi’s No Angel and that engrossed me. Well, when I wasn’t eavesdropping on the defense attorney and the prosecuting assistant D.A. questioning prospective jurors. Or listening, no matter how I tried to block her out, to Fred’s Wife.

They spent almost fifteen minutes questioning me. I can’t decide what made them not pick me – (sob! I feel so rejected!) It might have been my admission to ACLU membership. It might have been my three kids (one of the testifying witnesses is the seven-year-old daughter of one of the victims). It might have been my maybe-not-quite-decisive-enough “Yes, I think so” or “No, I don’t think so” answers to many questions, said quietly, but purposefully in the hope that I was coming across as open-minded yet sensible and intelligent juror material. It might have been my lack of appropriate solemnity while talking about my husband’s brush with sort-of-violent crime ten years ago (um, at the time it was scary but really? He was kinda dumb about approaching an occupied parked car, at midnight, and got knocked down and clonked with the roll sausage he’d walked to the grocery store to get for the post-Christmas brunch we were hosting the next day. Not that, you know, I mean to minimize his experience or anything but since at the moment I myself am contemplating pushing him under a bus, I can hardly get too riled up about the Sausage Clonkers. (No, I'm not an idiot, I shared NONE of this explication with the attorneys.))

Fortunately Fred’s Wife kept her opinions to herself re: the case and the defendant, but I could tell it was a struggle for her, and only the threat of being held in contempt of court kept her silent. She did spend a great deal of time speculating on the other case up for jury selection that day, in the courtroom: “I wonder why they only picked like five jurors? And their questioning went so much faster, I wonder why. I wonder what they asked them? I wonder where I’ll eat lunch, maybe I’ll go to Bruegger’s but there will probably be a huge line. Maybe I should have packed my lunch. Fred said I should have packed my lunch but we were all out of jumbo…”

The defendant was handsome, clean-cut, polite, respectful, and wearing a ginormous black cross on a chain outside his shirt. Even if in dress pants he still had the butt-sag going. He was three feet away from me, across the table. We made eye contact. He was - I say this now, now that I have not been selected to participate in a jury of his peers – a MURDERER. It boggles the mind. I in my sheltered little middle-class existence had some trouble wrapping my brain around the fact that this….BOY….allegedly shot and killed two people in cold blood. In front of one of the victim’s six-year-old daughter. He looked like someone I would ride the bus with, or see walking down my street. People capable of murder should LOOK like they are capable of murder, don’t you think, and not like honor students at one of the decent public high schools in the city?

And while we are at it – the jury pool. The judge – who resembled William H. Macy very much – reminded us that every defendant is entitled to a jury of his peers, if s/he chooses. Yet every defendant I saw that day – three – were black. The jury pool? Mostly white, mostly middle-aged. I’m willing to wager they were mostly comfortable, at least making a living on their own, if probably pretty blue-collar. Yet where do they get prospective jurors from? Voting registers, drivers’ license lists, home ownership rolls. I generalize a bit here, but by and large, the defendants in most of the cases that have caught my attention are black, poor – or at least too poor to own property, and I’d guess – completely unscientifically – odds are good they don’t drive. The ridership of the buses I take seems easily 80-20 African-American/white. It didn’t seem quite fair to me that the defendant, who was assured a jury of his “peers,” most likely drew mostly white, mostly middle-class jurors, who may not be able to empathize with him at all, who may, in fact, not understand where he’s coming from at all. (At least he didn’t wind up with Fred’s Wife.) I realize I am hugely generalizing and shooting in the dark here, but the ACLU membership part of my brain is fighting with the scared-of-a-dude-who-may-have-shot-2-people part of my brain, and trying to be fair to both. And you are the lucky recipients of my scattered and vague musings.

Pennsylvania still has the death penalty. I have always been against the death penalty. Now even more so. I understand the seriousness of the crimes with which this boy was charged, but my God, he IS just a boy. He’s 21. He’s still practically a child. Albeit a misguided, angry, and perhaps conscience-less child. But having never before had any sort of interaction with the alleged perpetrator of a crime, I have to say, I don’t know how you can speak with a person thusly accused, or make any sort of contact, and then convince yourself that you have the right to condemn another living being to death. That really DOES boggle my mind. Or maybe Texans just have much more self-assurance than do I?

However, around 3 pm when I wandered into the Beverage Room of the Juror Complex to get a cup of coffee only to discover that the court lackeys had cleared it all away, (How could they not appreciate that a juror might need caffeinated stimulation by 3pm? How, I ask you? It seemed cruel and unusual to me.) I walked into the middle of a discussion among my fellow potential jurors regarding why THEY should get out of serving. I offered in a timid voice that I actually wanted to be picked. I thought it would be interesting. You could make a difference, a real difference, feel like you were truly contributing to society, however small that contribution turned out to be. (Not to mention I’d have an ironclad excuse to get a babysitter for the next five days.) And everyone else agreed that if you WANT to serve as a juror, you darn well should be allowed to so everyone else can go the hell home and attend to their dying parents, lonely pets, and brain surgery practice.

[A little addendum: ”One Courtroom, Two Juries, in Homicide Trial”.]

11 comments:

cityfarmer said...

Oh my goodness, I used the breast feeding excuse, too years ago. It worked.
Thanks for stopping by cityfarmer.
We'll chat soon, I hope.
Have a nice weekend.

Paula said...

I don't believe in the death penalty, it diminshes us as a society, it steals a bit of our collective soul.

Even in the face of having a murdered relative, I still don't believe in it. The guy got life without possibility of parole. That is hell, so he got what he desereved.

Sarah Louise said...

Yeah, I think living with what you did is worse punishment than dying. (So I guess that means I don't believe in the death penalty?)

Badger said...

Well, I am kind of the opposite of Sir John up there. Don't know whether it has anything to do with living in Texas. Or maybe with the fact that my brother was in prison so I've spent a little time up there and whatnot.

Take 'em out, sez I.

Katy said...

I am on standby jury duty for Monday. I am hoping that I at least get called in, pretty much because a full day of reading and knitting sounds much better than going to work. Also, I'm curious about how court trials work. As long as I sign my check (for $17.50) over to the company, I get my regular pay (way more than $17.50, since I make more than minimum wage).

ssheers said...

Thanks for the interesting blog. I think you would've made a great juror.

I used to be against the death penalty until the DC snipers threatened my children (and all of the children in the DC area). Then my mama bear instincts kicked in.

Katya said...

I loved this entry -- the bits about Fred's Wife are priceless. I see you also eavesdrop. :) Some people make it impossible not to.

I've always been interested in the jury process. I was called for a jury once when my son was a baby and I couldn't go because of the breastfeeding thing -- also I didn't drive and in a city with bad public transportation that made a difference.

Joke said...

My wife says the greatest advantage to NRA (or, in the case of people with opposite views, ACLU) membership is an instant ejection from jury duty.

That said, I think I should be in charge of who gets the chair. Because I know what I'm doing.

-J.

P.S. Child molesters & child murderers? Garrote. Is my Goldwaterism showing?

Joke said...

Oooh! Idea! We should have professional jurors. You sign up for however many trails/weeks you want, civil or criminal, etc.

That way people whose only qualifications for serving on a jury are a near-total isolation from news outlets and an utter inability to get out of jury duty.

-J.

Carolyn said...

Poor Fred probably wished his wife would get jury duty so he would have eight hours a day of peace.

And murderers that look normal scare me far more than the ones that don't.

Lazy cow said...

V. jealous of your experience. I'd like to be up for jury selection but not actually make the panel. I'd make a terrible juror: too easily swayed by arguments for both sides.
Love the eavesdropped conversation. It's almost as good as reading a book :-)