Trial and Tribulations

I was summonsed for jury duty for the first time recently. Fortunately, the week I was supposed to report, I was supposed to be out of town, so I got out of it. But then two weeks later, I was right back in it with another summons. I figured it might come across as fishy to submit another excuse form (plus, I was out of excuses), so off I went to do my civic duty thinking, what were the chances I’d actually end up on a jury?

The first thing I really appreciated is how nowhere on the summons does it reveal that if you do the orientation online, you can show up hours later, rather than at the ungodly hour of 7:45am. I discovered this secret at 9:30pm the night before when I went online looking for some information on how jury duty works (read: how I could get dismissed). As luck would have it, the window for online orientation closed at 9pm.

My boss at work had told me that jury duty was a very productive time for him, and based on the first few hours of the morning, I could see what he meant. In the downtown criminal courthouse, there was a jury assembly room with tables, chairs, outlets to charge phones and laptops – it was a veritable virtual office. I thought to myself, “Well this isn’t so bad.” Even the mind-numbing orientation wasn’t as torturous as it could have been, as the woman leading it had a kindergarten teacher-like, peppy yet soothing demeanor that made it impossible to be grumpy. And the snack shop had sour gummy bears – score!

At noon, just as I was looking forward to a leisurely hour-and-a-half lunchtime and possibly perusing a nearby art museum, 35 of us (out of over 100, easily) were called upon to relocate to East LA to sit on a jury panel. Say what?

So I scarfed down a quick bite and set off on unfamiliar highways for East LA, in what would turn out to be my very own Twelve Angry Men experience that lasted a week.

At the new courthouse (that lacked a cushy jury assembly room), we (the chosen ones) huddled in a stark hallway to receive our juror numbers and instructions. For the duration of our service, we were known only by our numbers (call me #31), which also dictated the order in which we lined up and sat down (we did a lot of lining up and sitting down).

Over the next couple of days, each juror was interviewed. Numbers 1 through 18 went first, while the rest of us sat in the audience seats, listening and waiting for our turn to answer questions like, “Have you or anyone close to you ever been the victim of a crime?” and “Have you or anyone close to you ever been arrested or convicted of a crime?” and “Have you ever interacted with the police in a positive or negative way?” Based on the questions, I figured anyone who answered yes would automatically be weeded out. Which meant that I would get weeded out since I’d been the victim of a few petty crimes, and I generally have a lack of faith in the justice system (which I planned to casually mention). And that just may have happened if those first 18 weren’t such duds.

It was obvious even to an untrained audience member such as myself that this group wasn’t going to make the cut. Five people had yes answers that were so serious in nature that they didn’t wish to elaborate in front of the rest of us, and after the first day, one of the five didn’t come back. A couple more days into it, after we’d all been through the questioning, it was time to make the picks. Which surprisingly happened in a similar manner as picking elementary school kickball teams. The team captains (the prosecutor and defense attorney) each took turns dismissing one juror at a time, until 12 of us were left that they both felt good about. As the kid who was always picked last-ish in sports, I guess there was some sense of satisfaction in making the team, but at that point, I’d have been as happy as the one juror who shouted out “YES!” when she was dismissed, if I’d been let go too.

The trial began, and over the next few days, we heard the witness testimonies (which were a joke as not one person was reliable enough to believe – not the sketchy victim, the defendant’s mother or his shaky friend, and most of all not the police officer who arrested the defendant without a lick of investigation). We also saw photos of evidence such as the world’s largest Sharpie and a full can of Coke. Compelling stuff. When that was all said and done, we heard the attorneys’ closing arguments and were then escorted into the jury deliberation room for the moment we’d all been waiting for – a chance to finally talk about the case. And that’s when the whole experience took a turn for the unpleasant. Not to say that fights broke out (although one particularly emotional juror did almost cry) or that anyone pressured our fellow jurors into joining the majority vote (perhaps we should have), but it was a headache-inducing couple of days in that room with those people. If it wasn’t against all the rules, Jury TV would be the greatest reality show ever (oh the drama!).

Much like in Twelve Angry Men, those of us on the not guilty side were very expressive in breaking down both sides of the case and explaining the rationale behind our vote, while the three (ultimately two) who voted guilty were annoyingly tight-lipped about their side. I had to keep reminding myself that each of us has an equal right to our vote and thank goodness it wasn’t a felony where someone’s actual life depended on us doing the right thing. In the end, disappointed to say, we were a hung jury 10-2, and it was a mistrial.

I could rant for days about what a waste of tax dollars and whatnot, but instead, I’ll mention the bright, shining spot in the whole thing – the judge. He single-handedly saved me from losing the very little faith I had in the system to begin with. In the mail a few days after the trial was all over, he sent a letter to all of us jurors thanking us for our contribution and reminding us that we should feel good about what we did (and also that he recognizes the system is broken). I’m actually considering framing it.

Despite my initial hesitation towards the whole thing, in the end, I was glad to have had the experience, and if I could get paid more than $15 a day, I might consider a career change as Professional Juror.


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