I was lucky enough to be chosen for Jury Duty not long ago — much the way I was lucky enough to catch meningitis when I was in high school — and after two postponements my date of service finally came up on June 1. So, like any good citizen, I got up extra early, put on a nice shirt, and tried to fake my own death.
I’m just kidding, of course. I didn’t really put on a nice shirt.
Unfortunately, my ruse didn’t fool my wife, 4-year-old-son, or either of our dogs — I guess they saw my belly moving — so I accepted my fate and went to the courthouse for my call time of 8:30 am. After I went through the metal detectors I found myself in a huge room with about 300 seats, all facing a podium. A short video that touted the greatness of the modern justice system by dramatizing a medieval witch trial (“If she floats, she’s guilty. If she sinks, she’s innocent!”) got everyone’s attention by combining the production value of a Learn-To-Speak-French video with the raw charisma of a pre-earring Ed Bradley. (And even though the person on trial in the video sinks to the bottom of the lake, the camera thankfully holds on the scene long enough to see her pulled safely from the water. I’m not squeamish, but bearing witness to a drowning death so early in the morning would not have been an ideal start to the day — grateful though it made me for the modern jury system.)
Then we are all instructed to fill out a form declaring our occupation and whether or not we’ll be paid our full wages while we’re at jury duty. And here is where the game begins.
From the moment everyone arrives at jury duty, we’ve all got one thing on our minds and one thing only: How Do I Get Out Of Serving More Than One Day? While I must admit that a week or two spent listening to the gory details of a murder trial might be a nice break from my day job, I was uncertain whether my employers would provide full compensation for my jury duty absence (I meant to find out before I went to the courthouse but forgot), and I just can’t afford to take a week or more of unpaid leave, civic duty be damned.
So, unsure whether it was true or not, I checked the box that said “No,” indicating that my employer would not be paying me for the time off. I fought the temptation to scribble something about a wife in grad school and a kid in a less-than-frugal preschool in the margins. I did write it in pencil, which I hoped would subliminally convey an air of poverty. I did all this having no idea whether people are excused on the basis of whether they can afford the time off, or if it’s even a factor. But it can’t hurt.
Now it’s time to wait. I brought a book with me, and though it really is the book I happened to be reading at the time (and am still reading), I am hoping that its title will get me out of further duty. The book is Popular Crime: Reflections on the Celebration of Violence by Bill James, and it’s an examination of why certain murders capture the public imaginations and others don’t. I’m hoping that a defense attorney will see that I’m reading it and decide that I’m much too inquisitive in the area of murder to buy into whatever smoke and mirrors they’re readying on behalf of their obviously guilty client. Until I’m called in for a voir dire, though, all I can do is read it. (It’s a very good book, by the way.)
After not that long a wait, my name is called and I am told to go to Room 1. I follow directions and find myself in a tiny, windowless room with 19 other people, all of whom look like they also tried to fake their own deaths this morning (and a few of whom look like they have not yet given up on that strategy). We are soon joined by a pair of attorneys: one a female of apparently Hindu extraction, the other a silver-haired Brooklyn dude in a nice suit. I position my book prominently on my lap, making sure that it’s turned right side up so they can read the title.
We are told that the lady lawyer is representing the plaintiff in a civil case involving a car accident, and that, if chosen, our jury service will begin on June 9 and last five or six days. My mind reels with conflicting emotions: It’s a civil case?!? How is Popular Crime going to get me out of a civil case? Ack! Unless it’s like the O.J. case, and an obviously guilty man acquitted of murder is sued for damages by the family of his victims because they have no other recourse. But how often does that happen? Maybe it’s time to put this book away.
On the other hand: A car accident? I have been in nearly as many car accidents as I’ve been in cars. My nickname all through college was “Crash,” and I didn’t get it because I went to parties uninvited. This just might work!
Sure enough, the attorneys begin questioning us. They ask everyone the same questions: Are you able to be fair to both sides? Though everyone answers “Yes,” their inner struggle plays out on their face like a punch-and-judy show. If I say I can’t be fair, I won’t be chosen. It’s obvious that we’re all thinking this, but no one can bring themselves to actually say it.
And besides, it’s not that easy, because if we’re not chosen for this car-accident lawsuit case, we’re sent back to the big room, where we might get called again for another voir dire in another case. If I get out of this room before lunch, that’s probably what will happen. I decide my best play is to ride out this process and just hope they’ll ask me if I’ve ever had a car accident. They’re asking everyone that question. If you’ve had a car accident, that means you’ll be oversympathetic to the driver in the case right? Instant DQ, right?
My plan hits a snag, though, when the girl sitting right next to me — and I mean right next to me, because this is a very small room with 22 people crammed into it — is asked if she can be fair to both sides. Her reply: “I mean, I guess so, but my best friend was in a car accident last year and she almost lost her life so if you’re a driver, you better know what you’re doing because it’s serious. My friend almost lost her life. Too many people get in too many accidents because they don’t take driving seriously enough.”
I’m not sure how to spell the gulping sound I made, but suddenly it didn’t seem like such a great idea to start bragging about my old nickname.
But I’m next, and the lady lawyer asks me if I can be fair to both sides. “Sure,” is the closest I can come to saying “no.” And then… she goes on to the next person. One question? How am I supposed to disqualify myself with one question? How are they supposed to determine my fitness for this jury with one yes-or-no question? She didn’t even ask me if I drive! Are they going to pick me for this? Should I just go nuclear and start feigning Tourette’s Syndrome? I never should have put that book away!
We’re all dismissed for a lunch break. When we return, it’s the defense lawyer’s turn. He’s infinitely more engaging than the plaintiff’s attorney, if a little smarmy. He goes through the first eight people in front of him and engages them in conversation, gets more than yes or no answers out of them. I’m surprised to see that these eight people don’t seem to be very worried about having to serve on this jury. None of them is answering sullenly — as opposed to me and the girl next to me, whose body language resembles that of a maximum-security convict at chow time — they all seem to be very nice and very intelligent, and they are like a demographic salad, representing all ages, races, and classes. Once again it’s my turn to answer questions, and the defense lawyer asks if I have ever been in a car accident. “Yes. Several,” I reply, momentarily forgetting the strong feelings of the girl next to me on the matter. The lawyer does not press me any further, and I once again find myself in the curious position of being wildly disappointed not to be asked about my deeply embarrassing driving record.
We’re all dismissed again for a ten-minute break, and when we return we’re told, “We have a jury!” I am terrified and start wondering about what the penalty is for failure to appear, but the lawyers tell us that for the first time in either of their 30-year careers, they are taking the first eight people they spoke to. Persons #9 (the girl who hates bad drivers) and #10 (me, the bad driver) breathe audible sighs of relief, and the ten in the back half of the room, who were never questioned at all, stir from their collective fugue state with the good news.
Those of us not chosen are thanked for our time and sent back out to the big room, but by now it’s 3:30 and I’m not worried that I’ll be called into another voir dire. My strategy was correct: I was right to stick with my car-accident case.
I have to say, I think the system worked pretty well. Out of 20 prospective jurors, about 8 or 10 clearly wanted no part of it. The eight they picked were the best eight for the job, and if I was either plaintiff or defendant I would be comfortable with them deciding my case. Our justice system really is something special. I just hope I never have to participate in it again.