Monday, January 11, 2010

Gold Stars for Jurors

Like cattle, we entered the main jurors room, Rm. 261. If people had personalities, they had left them somewhere along the way, on the subway or out in the freezing cold. Packed together, unsmiling, row after row, all different, the only constants U.S. citizenship and a Brooklyn address, we sat, waiting.

I read Bukowski, hoping no one was reading over my shoulder at the steamy scenes, judging my choice of material. But in between writing about sex, even during, his insights are sound, like the one where he said, "It was, finally, for everyone, a matter of waiting. You waited and you waited - for the hospital, the doctor, the plumber, the madhouse, the jail, papa death himself."

He was so right. Here I was, waiting. It seemed, after all, just like waiting for death this waiting for jury duty to begin, to commence to, hopefully, be over. And then, the movie began. Oh, the movie. The video to convince us all of our civic duty, the video that began with bad actors dressed in Medieval dress to depict how bad it was back when people had to be tried "by ordeal," when guilt or innocence was determined by how fast your hands healed after being stuck in boiling water or whether you floated when they threw you, hands tied, into the river.

"Was this fair or impartial justice?" Ed Bradley asked seriously, staring into the camera. "Justice has come a long way since Medieval times," he said. I laughed. So did my neighbor. Good. At least one kindred spirit to share the wretchedness with, I thought.

The video went on to show modern-day jurors' reactions to serving, including one honest gent who offered up: "Jury duty is a pain in the you know what." And, then, another history lesson, the beginnings of the modern jury under King Charlemagne, then how it evolved in England, then the U.S. And here we were.

My neighbor and I started chatting and, eventually, he asked what I wrote about. I reached into my bag, thinking I'd show him rather than tell him, that there was almost no better place to give out gold stars than on a Monday morning to people called out of their lives to serve jury duty. I gave one to him and passed them along to my entire row. People didn't exactly pep up, it would have taken more than that in this situation, but they seemed slightly pleased, at least slightly acknowledged for having to put up with something that was, indeed, a pain in the you know what.

My name was called not long after and I followed the signs into a windowless, grey flourescent-lit box that reminded me all too much of my last job. Except I had nothing to do, except wait. And, then, unlike my reporter job, I was the one being asked questions. Strong in my mind as I filled out the form about my background and potential biases was the last time I had been asked questions to be on a jury panel, a similar civil case. I had answered the lawyers' questions honestly but knowing that any strong hint of bias would get me off. The judge had begun to fume at my dithering over whether or not I could put these biases aside, and had pulled me along with the lawyers outside into the hall.

He let fly once the door was closed. "Are you going to tell me that you are a Northwestern-educated young woman and that you cannot put your biases aside to be impartial in a court of law?!?" He took out on me all the rage that had been building up inside him for years as busy, educated people figured ways to get out of their civic duty.

I felt bad, but...I had a job that did not look kindly on my taking off work, I was strapped even without the distraction of jury duty. I did not want to serve. I shrugged sheepishly. "I was just answering the lawyers' questions honestly..." I had said. He had stumped away, back into the court room. I was not picked.

Damn that judge. His words rung in my ears today as the lawyers asked virtually the same questions. I was forced to say when asked if I could be impartial despite various and sundry things that I have seen or done, people I knew, that indeed, "Yes, I would try..."

Everyone laughed, including the questioning lawyer, the plaintiff's lawyer, the one on whom rested the burden of proof. "Try?" he said, "I need more reassurance than that!"

But, apparently, he didn't. He and the other two chose me. Just me and two others out of the 10 they questioned, seven others whose biases seemed to suggest they might not try as hard. Of course, in the end lawyers know: all you can really do is try. We all have our biases, we will bring them, of course, with us into the court room. There is no other way. Even in modern times, justice is not meeted out perfectly.

As Diane Sawyer so aptly put it in her role in the jurors' movie, "If we want freedom in this country, if we want fairness, we all have to support it."

I'll do my best come Jan. 21, when the trial I sit on begins. By law, though, I cannot blog about it specifically. I have made my vow. But I'm sure there will be lessons learned, many stars to give out, much waiting. I'll have to bring Bukowski along to pass the time.

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