Odd as it may seem, I was looking forward to jury duty when my summons arrived in the mail.
The system requires those summoned to call the court each day after 5 p.m. to listen to a recording. If your number is within the range chosen for the next day, you must report by 8:30 a.m.
The first two nights I was spared. I started to feel relief, and told myself I didn’t want to be bothered after all. The third night, my number came up — we’ll see you in the morning, and bring a lunch.
I talked myself into it that night, the whole civic duty thing. Subconsciously, I invented ways to get out of it. (I have some legit excuses, and some creative ones I’ve heard over the years.)
But I wanted to play it straight and do the right thing. So I arrived at the courthouse and joined a group of maybe 30 other citizens of our democracy. We were ushered through the instructions, watched a video on the jury process and Law 101, raised our right hands to take the jurors’ oath and were led to a courtroom.
Among the first things we were told was that if you’re picked, you can’t say a peep about the case to anyone. All a juror is supposed to say is this: “I was picked for a jury. I get out every day at 4:30.”
Here are some things not to do, or risk being held in contempt: communicate via social media, go to the scene of the crime, conduct research on the Internet, talk to people in the hallway or elevator (they could be media, an investigator, a family member).
The wrinkle with our group: this was a criminal trial with two defendants being tried together. The charge? Robbery. I think a gun was used. The pair is alleged to have stolen heroin and cocaine from a third person, who was going to be given “consideration” in exchange for testifying against the two men — who were sitting in the courtroom with us.
OK. Now I’m interested.
Even though the judge told us the trial likely would last several days, in the back of my mind I was in grade school gym class: “Pick me! Pick me!”
I got the sense that few shared my enthusiasm. Prospective jurors in a criminal trial have a good chance to escape, and several took advantage. If they knew anyone in the prosecutor’s office, if they knew either of the accused or their attorneys, if they had been the victim of a crime, etc.
Several in our pool opted out this way, and were free to go — excused from jury service for another 10 years.
I couldn’t honestly use any of those excuses, so I was among the group that went to the jury box to be subjected to “voir dire,” the process in which prosecutors and lawyers ask questions to determine whether they want a particular person on the jury.
They asked us hypothetical questions about crime and punishment, to pick up any vibes, detect any bias. For instance, Mr. X kills a churchgoing grandmother while Mr. Y kills a drug-addicted prostitute whose kids are in foster care. Are these crimes the same?
The psychological gymnastics went on for a while until it was revealed that the actual 12-person jury had been selected the day before. All they needed from our group were two alternates. I was not picked. (We were assured that being passed over is not a reflection on a potential juror’s intellect or integrity. Thank you.)
As disappointed as I was at being let go, I was glad to learn that the full jury wasn’t coming from our entirely Caucasian pool. The two defendants are African-American. Given our belief in being judged by one’s peers, I trust that the 14-member group reflects some diversity.
I’ll be looking for media accounts of the trial this week. I’ll wonder about the jurors, the testimony and evidence they heard, their deliberations and how they arrived at their verdict. And of course I’ll wonder how I would have felt deciding the fate of two human beings.