I’d like to sit on a jury. But then, my tastes skew toward Ed Wood movies, Yoko Ono’s music, and Janeane Garofalo’s comedy (all right, not Garofalo’s comedy so much as her political commentary—that makes me laugh).
So I admit that the things I find interesting and fun are outside the norm.
Also, some gullible part of me believes that if I am qualified to have to spend a day sitting in the jury pool, which I recently was required to do, then I deserve the illusion of one day actually serving on a jury.
The possibility of serving on a jury weighs heavily on the minds of my 50 some-odd brethren who’ve likewise been summoned to Pomona Superior Court to become the jury pool from which a lucky 14 (12 jurors plus two alternates) will be chosen.
Inside a room where we’ve been told to appear, a female employee of the court takes roll by calling out the names of the presumed assembled. An old man answers, “Here!” to three different names.
We’re told to sit tight until we hear further.
Two hours later, half of our pool is told to report to a courtroom. The rest of us are again told to wait and so we sit, legs crossed, braving phlebitis, pulmonary embolisms, and cobwebs.
Mid-afternoon, I notice that the walls are adorned with a sort of hall of fame showcase of others who’ve served bravely on behalf of the Los Angeles County judicial system: Harrison Ford, Catherine Mannheim, Edward James Olmos, and Jamie Lee Curtis. Shortly thereafter, we the remaining jury prospects are told to go down to fifth floor where we, too, might serve valiantly in the cause of justice.
Again roll is taken. This time the girl dispenses with any names and relies on the last four digits of our juror ID numbers.
“8611” is called, but no one answers. The person calling numbers asks if anyone’s number has not been called. “1198” speaks up. He’s been reading his card upside down and relying on the old man with three names for confirmation.
Inside the courtroom, the judge has us recite something that sounds like the scouting oath then goes over jury instructions. The only other voice in the chamber is that of a woman translating for the benefit of the freshly scrubbed defendant who—an extra chromosome or two withstanding—looks downright like an upright in his newly pressed JC Penney long sleeve.
The assembled are then told what the defendant has been charged with: assault with a deadly weapon, namely a knife. At least it’s not the guy who groped Minnie Mouse.
Each prospective juror has to answer seven standard questions: name, marital status, etc. The only two that strike me as concerns for exclusion are type of work and whether or not we’ve been a victim of a crime.
Although I am a retired sworn employee from a the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, when asked on the work thing I plan to say, “associate editor.” That is my current employment. If asked who I work for, even though my political inclinations are just left of Attila the Hun, my initial inclination is to say “Amnesty International.” But I remember I’m under oath.
The whole victim of a crime thing has me worried, too. But as neither Jamie Lee Curtis’ victimization at the hands of Michael Myers nor her employ as a cop in “Blue Steel” precluded her joining the jury duty hall of fame, I rationalize that my chances may not be so bad after all.
In anticipation of possibly making the next round of interrogations, I mentally prepare a list of crimes I’ve been a victim of, keeping it down to various assaults and batteries, one attempted mayhem, and two attempted murders.
The judge introduces those destined to spar throughout the proceedings: Denny Crane and Vincent Bugliosi.
OK, no. But I can wish, can’t I?.
The defense attorney actually seems a nice enough guy as far as the species goes. He tells the jury that unlike on “48 Hours” or “C.S.I.”, the wheels of justice turn slower in real life. It’s a redundant point, and the reason so many of my brethren are scared shitless at being seated.
He reminds them that the burden of proof in a criminal case is higher in a criminal case than a civil one. He doesn’t define what a civil case is, and this lack of clarification is evident in the confused facial expressions of some of our would-be jurors.
The defense attorney also contrasts the relative weights of direct evidence (as in the case of an eye witness) and circumstantial evidence (that which is inferred, as when Thoreau noted, "Some circumstantial evidence is very strong, as when you find a trout in the milk.").
Eighteen people are called and to the sounds of squeaking chairs and rustling corduroy, a United Nations of men and women of various ages occupy the jury box and the six seats in front of it. I am not among them.
Juror number four finds himself seated directly below the clock and cranes his head to check out the time. I can only hope he has better luck discriminating numbers than juror “8611” at that angle.
As each prospective juror answers the seven questions, we get a clearer picture of who they are. There’s a widow, a secretary, a construction worker, a shipper, a professor, a psychology major, and a couple of pre-law dudes—one of whom is a cadet with a local PD—and an exotic dancer, I think.
Concerns as to what impact their personal history will have on their votes occupy the minds of both attorneys, and some of responses prompt clarifying follow-ups like: “Since your husband beat you, do you feel any particular bias against abusive spouses?” “Why, heavens no.”
As a retired cop, I realize that mine is a presumed vote for guilty.
But I want to go against type. In the world of “Twelve Angry Men (and Pissed Off Women)”, I don’t wanna play Lee J. Cobb’s role, I want Henry Fonda’s. I want to be the guy who convinces everybody—against all odds—that the defendant is innocent.
What can be more invigorating than to surmount my considerable prejudices: Knowing how difficult it can be to get a case filed; aware that the prosecution has announced a litany of witnesses to be called and the defense only one (a doctor, no doubt on a consultant’s commission); realizing that the defense attorney wants to make sure that the prospective jurors aren’t prejudiced against drunks because his defendant apparently was during the time of the incident; speculating that said defendant probably made incriminating statements that could only be mitigated away with a “he didn’t know what he was saying” defense; knowing that there is a woman who has been stabbed and slashed and who better to know who tried to make a jigsaw puzzle of her than she?
Contemplating the defendant’s prospective innocence is something I’d really enjoy doing, and I have no doubt that the ability to suspend belief that came in so handy when I watched “Star Wars,” “Alien,” and “JFK” could likewise prove of benefit here.
As it stands, several of the jurors apparently have other bias issues to contend with. One says that he’s continually harassed by cops and doesn’t trust them. Another says that he’d be too distracted worrying about his job to do justice to the proceedings.
The vetting continues and the widow admits to having been arrested, explaining that her husband had forgotten to pay for her ticket. At least it explains her husband’s fate.
At 4:30—right after the guy who says he was racially profiled admits to having two brothers in prison—we’re excused for the day.
Before I leave, I ask for the court deputy’s business card, knowing full well that he is required by LASD policy to present one upon request. He says he doesn’t have one. Normally, I’d appreciate the nonconformity. Today, it just pisses me off.
The next morning we’re back and everyone takes their seat.
Juror number four looks at the clock.
Addressing the jury box, the defense attorney asks, “How many of you right now, not having heard one word of testimony, would vote my client guilty right now?”
Five hands shoot into the air. I think the defendant just crapped his pants.
Juror number four steals another glance at the clock.
After the first round of questions are concluded, a sidebar is requested.
While the judge and the two attorneys are out of the room, I motion for the court deputy’s attention, holding up my index finger to indicate it’ll only take a minute. He shoots me down. I make a mental note to use a different finger next time.
They come back in and several jurors are immediately dismissed, including juror number two, the clean-cut police cadet. He looks disappointed.
With each exclusion, another prospective juror takes a seat. The ensuing musical chairs rotation of those in and about the jury box gives new meaning to kangaroo court as the summoned hop from seat to seat.
More sidebars follow.
A pattern emerges: Those who obviously want to serve are exempted while those who want to get the hell out are seated. The judge reminds one of the latter how much money she’ll save foregoing her planned vacation.
Just when I think things are not looking good for juror number four, he’s excused. The defendant couldn’t look more relieved.
Finally, 26 hours after we’ve first reported for duty, 14 jurors have made the cut.
Reminding us not to gloat, the judge thanks us for our patience (he has NO idea) and excuses the rest of us for the day.
But not before reminding us that we’re the reason the system works the way it does.
When I think of how many people have been imposed upon by the defendant’s idiocy and the county court system’s intractable policy of having people show up for court who will never be seated, thereby wasting county time and money–not to mention impositions to the employers of those so summoned-I can only ask myself one question:
Why aren’t we allowed to hold the court in contempt?