Yesterday I Went Swimming in the Jury Pool

I didn’t mean to. I didn’t want to. I got pushed in, as it were. That’s one of the things I hate about swimming in the jury pool; no one ever does so by choice. The other thing I hate is that it’s filled with shark-infested water. In this age of big-brother paranoia, there are two places I avoid if I can: government facilities and airports. But today’s jury pool experience was different than others I’ve experienced before. It seems, the Massachusetts court system has discovered the value of a good story.

I’ve been called to jury “duty” twice before. The first time was many years ago. I was very young, in my teens, or maybe early twenties. I entered the courthouse by a special entrance for jurors. There were no fancy security procedures. I checked in with a bailiff and shuffled into a network of basement rooms that resembled a cheap basement den. Thirty or so of us sat in black, plastic chairs to watch an indoctrination video about how important juror service was. At the time, I took it very seriously. Then I read something by C.S. Lewis–I don’t remember what, only that it was written by C.S. Lewis. I remember sitting in a chair in one of the musty, uncarpeted hallways, looking at a worn, wooden floor, with an attacher case and a book.

During a bathroom break, I met one of my fellow would-be jurors. We got to talking and were exchanging phone numbers when a list of names was called over the loudspeaker, including my name. I almost didn’t make it in time to catch up to the group of jurors being guided outside and across the street to the courtroom where we were needed, which was in a different building.

I was among those impaneled on a drunk-driving case. We saw the evidence, which included testimony of the arresting officer describing the defendant’s erratic driving and field sobriety test, testimony of the defendant and his friends that he didn’t have too much to drink in order to drive safely, and a video of the defendant’s behavior in the police station. The judge, a wise-sounding elder gentleman, warned us that the video showed the defendant handcuffed to a chair and said that we should not be shocked by this practice, that it was not unusual. But that we should watch the video for evidence of whether the man was drunk. He also noted that the video was taken hours after the arrest, so some of the alcohol may have worn off.

After we heard closing arguments, the judge told us our job was to determine the truth, and he gave us other instructions. Then he appointed an elder gentleman as jury foreman. There was another young person on the jury, a girl who might have been able to pass for a hooker, were she not sitting in the jury box. The judge named her as alternate juror, which meant she would not take part in deliberations, unless one of the other jurors turned out to be unable to.

We voted the defendant guilty, but I don’t know why. I remember yielding to pressure–perceived only by me–to vote guilty with everyone else, but I didn’t really know how we were supposed to know that he was. I also remember being overly concerned with what would happen to the defendant should he be found guilty. And I also remember that we got to witness the sentencing. But I don’t remember what the sentence was. I guess it wasn’t that important after all. The judge thanked us told us that juries usually don’t get to see what happens after the verdict, and he revealed something that he could not reveal before, that this was the defendant’s third drunk-driving conviction, which is probably the only reason it reached a jury trial, because he was desperate.

In retrospect, it was probably the right verdict. But if I had it to do over again, I would definitely neither feel pressure nor yield to it if it were present. That’s a function of my age and life experience now. And I would seek to understand exactly how I should know that he’s guilty or not guilty. That’s me: Analyze everything to death.

The second time I was shoved into the jury pool was in my mid-twenties. I brought a book to read, and we all sat in a semi-finished basement room that resembled a basement den, including a couch and TV, but not including the pool table. I also remember one of the other prospective jurors complaining that he was self-employed and that he was not getting paid, as everyone else was, for being there. I sympathized completely, because even back then, I knew exactly what it meant to be self-employed. At lunch-time, they sent a bunch of us home, including me. No more details, and that was that.

Some time later, I was put on “standby” juror status. That means that you get to rearrange your entire life to make plans for taking the day off for jury duty, but the day before they get to call it all off, and it doesn’t even count as “jury duty.”

This time, I was also on “standby” status, but they called us all into the courthouse. It appears, they had a full docket. Ironically, I would have preferred to have been released from my “civil obligation” this time, even if it ended up not counting, because that means I could have gotten stuff done that I otherwise couldn’t have. But another part of me wanted to be on a jury again. And ironically, I knew that the day would not be wasted in any case, and indeed it was not.

This time, I needed to go through security, a degrading experience, especially considering that I didn’t even ask to be there. It was as if I invited you over to my house at gunpoint and then proceeded to frisk you before allowing you admittance. If you ran away, would that make you the criminal? But serving on a jury is one’s “civic duty,” as they say. A bizarre, Orwellian world we live in. Anyhow, I brought a novel and a notebook, and I got some reading done and, more importantly, a lot of writing, pages and pages full of new fiction, raw and unedited.

But what interested me most was the way they had improved communication with prospective jurors, at least at this particular courthouse. My guess is that they’re getting tired of prospective jurors complaining that jury duty is an unreasonable imposition (which it is, with threats printed right on the mailings they send, of fines and prison, at gunpoint if necessary, unless you’re one of those people who actually believes the police would arrest you with gentle words of persuasion) and a waste of time (which it isn’t, but then again, the government always takes the easy way out, which is why it’s an imposition, so there’s little you can do about the perception that it’s a waste of time).

So there was the indoctrination video, which after 20 years I could write in my sleep, and make it more interesting to boot. But then an actual judge came down to the jury room, escorted by a bailiff. And she welcomed us in over-exuberant tones. Okay, it sounded fake, but it was personal contact. Actually, she reminded me a little of a boss I used to have, the best boss I ever had. So it wasn’t a bad experience, just weird.

But then the really interesting part happened. The jury commissioner, who had already introduced himself by name, explained that there were a number of cases and that he was going to go upstairs and get more information. When he came back, he said there were 8 cases. Of these, 3 had come to a settlement; 1 was a “maybe,” which I took to mean it was in conference, and that it was being transferred from courtroom 3 to courtroom 2 (or something like that); and the fate of 3 more were to be determined. I waited to find out how long it took for the other prospective jurors, at least the talkative ones, to realize that this added up to 7. Only a couple minutes, a new world record.

Time passed, and I filled up several more pages of my notebook. The jury commissioner left and returned with more news. Now, the one case that had been a “maybe” had settled and was currently before the judge. One more had defaulted; that is, one of the parties never showed up. Two of the remaining three had also settled, leaving only one case up in the air.

Time ticked on, and the prospective jurors were on the edges of their seats. Our afternoons rested on the psyches to two lawyers who were right now playing chicken, each pointing the prospect of a jury trial at his opponent like a loaded gun he prays to God he’ll never have to fire, because his opponent has an equally loaded gun pointed at him and might even be a better shot.

Eventually, the jury commissioner returned with more news. The case was indeed going to trial, and the judge would be down soon to speak with us and usher us up to the courtroom. The whole room groaned with disappointment. And we waited some more.

By this time, I had finished writing all the scenes I wanted to that day, and I had gotten through about a quarter of the 50,000-word novel I had brought. (A decent story, but I’m never again going to feel bad about typos or weak passages, even weak beginnings, in my own writing. And anyone who tells you that “published” novels don’t have such things obviously doesn’t read much, at least not critically.)

The jury commissioner left and returned yet again, and told us that the case had settled after all. The whole room cheered. He explained that the judge would be down soon to say some final words, and then we could go.

At this point, one of the prospective jurors, a woman who had been quietly reading the whole time, gathered up her stuff and began pacing nervously back and forth across the front of the room. Someone asked her if she was anxious to leave.

She said, “Yeah. I just want to get out of here. I hate it here. I hate the law. I hate courtrooms. I hate judges. I hate lawyers.” She earned eye-rolls from several of the talkative prospective jurors, but I sympathized with her. I don’t know what happened to her to sour her on our legal system. Maybe she was the victim of a criminal, or a hateful ex-spouse, or maybe just a hyperactive, blood-thirsty shark. But I think I know how she feels. Here in America, the political indoctrination begins in the womb. We are taught that our government is the best in the world. But you only need to actually experience it a little before you realize that it’s only as average as everyone else’s government.

Finally, the judge came down to talk to us. I had seen three judges that day, two in person and one of video, and all of them were women. What’s with that? She thanked us for being available and explained that even though we didn’t get to be on a jury, she actually used the fact that we were there as a threat, in order to get the lawyers to be more reasonable and to work it out. Then she asked how many of us had been jurors before. To those who hadn’t, she said that it may seem like an imposition to come and sit in that room, but it’s still taking part in the judicial system. And those who have actually had the opportunity to serve on a jury probably were happy to come that day, because they had actually experienced what happens in the courtroom. Finally, she reminded us that courtroom proceedings were open to the public, and she invited us–nay, urged us–to stay for a while longer and see what it is they do there.

Indeed, I’d recommend to any writer to attend court at least once in his writing career, even if you don’t write courtroom drama. But will it make you any less sour on the legal system or on jury duty? That’s for time to tell.


P.S. I should note that while the above actually did happen to me, the narrative is only as accurate as my memory. In other words, not! I had no notes and even took some liberties to fill in information I wasn’t sure of.