Thursday, November 06, 2008
Jury duty. I was on jury duty. That’s where I was all of last week. That’s why there were no new postings. Jury duty.
Life has real tragedies – death, for instance, or being forced to watch "Wife Swap" – so I know better than to compare jury duty to something truly horrible. Just the same, among life’s minor irritations, jury duty is right up there with jock itch. You ask yourself, "Why me?" and about all you can do is wait for it to run its course.
This all started a year ago. I got a notice in the mail telling me to report to… well, I’m going to use a fictitious location. This is because I don’t want to make it easy for someone to connect me with the case I heard. It involved litigation, and if the jerks involved were willing to get all litigious with each other, who knows what they might decide to do with me concerning writing about it? So, let’s call it Lower Palookaville Superior Court.
Now, you’ve got to understand something important. I live in Watertown. Watertown is about ten minutes from the Cambridge courthouse, where I’ve previously done jury duty. Watertown is also about an hour from Lower Palookaville. To say I was surprised to find that they wanted me in Lower Palookaville is like saying Custer was mildly irritated at Little Big Horn. What I was, was... well, if there’s one good thing about all of this, it’s that I get to use one of my favorite words. What I was, was flabbergasted.
Luckily enough, one of the things they let you do is postpone your service for a year. That’s what I did, of course. I sent back the form saying that I’d like my jury duty postponed. Soon enough, I got a notice in the mail saying that it was rescheduled for October 27th, 2008. Well, hell yeah! When something is a year away, it’s as good as non-existent as far as I’m concerned. I put it completely out of my mind - until October 1st of this year rolled around, at which time I started to dread it.
Not that I expected to become part of an actual jury. I had served jury duty some four or five times previously and I had never been part of an actual jury any of those times. It was just a few hours of sitting around reading a book, then being sent home, secure in the knowledge that I was safe for at least another three years, since that’s the least amount of time before you’re eligible to be called again in Massachusetts. Not this time. This time, I was actually put on a jury.
Jim? This is jock itch. Jock itch? Jim. I hope you have a pleasant week together.
Before I tell you about the pleasant week – actually, eight business days - let me tell you about what was almost a pleasant month. The first time I did jury duty, it was in Suffolk County. Boston, that is. And it was all very interesting because it WAS the first time. I wasn’t so overjoyed with the experience that I wanted them to call me back immediately to do it again, but it wasn’t hideous. I somewhat enjoyed seeing the inner workings of the judicial system – especially since, given my iffy background, I wasn’t seeing it from the defendant’s point of view and thus sweating the outcome.
Anyway, on that occasion, I just missed being a member of a jury that was sequestered for over a month. The defendant was a guy whose name I will never forget for as long as I live – Vinnie "The Quahog" Paradiso. He was serving a term for murder, as I recall, and now he was going to be up on a rape charge. Or maybe vice-versa. In any case, arrangements had already been made for him to be in the custody of the state for a very long time. To me, it seemed rather superfluous to be trying him for something else. But, who knows? Maybe this represented the possibility of Vinnie The Quahog never actually seeing daylight again and the state wished to make certain of that, even if the daylight he might see was currently forty years down the road to begin with. In any case, it was a big deal criminal trial. It dragged on for weeks. I followed it in the newspapers because I was (notice me holding my thumb and forefinger about an eighth of an inch apart?) this close to serving on the jury. I was considered, but not seated.
(Seated. That’s real honest-to-gosh technical jury terminology!)
As I say, that jury was sequestered for a month or so. I always figured that was as close as I’d ever actually get to being a juror. Wrong, subpoena breath!
Where was I on the morning of October 27th, 2008? I was driving from Watertown to Lower Palookaville. Where did I want to be? Just about anywhere else.
I arrived at the Lower Palookaville Superior Courthouse at 7:45am. Now, despite the fact that I didn’t want to be in Lower Palookaville, I’ll give them their props. The directions for how to get there were perfect, except for the fact that they took me 30 miles out of my way. If I had used Mapquest, it would have saved me a half-hour. I took a different route home. One good thing about Lower Palookaville, with no qualifier, is that they have a parking lot reserved for jurors, one you don’t have to pay to park in. That’s a distinct improvement over every other place (Boston and Cambridge) where I’ve done jury duty. And all of the personnel at the courthouse were kind, polite, good-humored, and in all respects swell people. I sincerely mean that. They were the nicest group of government employees it has ever been my pleasure to encounter. Not a grumpy face in the whole bunch and every single one of them tried to make the experience as painless as they could. I’m tempted to tell you the real location, so that those people might get a pat on the back from their superiors, but I won’t, for reasons previously given. If they’re reading this, they’ll know who they are. I want them to know they were wonderful.
By 8:30, all of the jurors who were supposed to be present and accounted for were. We sat under the watchful eyes of the very good-natured jury pool officer. For my part, I had brought a book to read. I figured to get through a few chapters, and then be told to go home, having done my duty as a citizen of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. That’s how it had worked all of the other times.
After checking in, I had been given a card with my name on it, as well as a number. My number was 35. I had no way of knowing what significance that number might have. As the process moved along, I found out that it was somewhat important. It would determine my fate for the next week or so.
The jury pool officer told us that there was one trial for which a jury would be empanelled. This would require 14 jurors – as we understood it, 12 actual jurors and 2 alternates. There were approximately 70 people in the jury pool. Being a good gambler of long standing, and therefore able to calculate odds quickly, I knew there was an immediate 1 in 5 chance of my becoming an actual juror. Not bad odds. I wasn’t too worried.
I looked around and saw that there were about twice as many women as men in the jury pool. This raised my level of concern. I assumed that they would try to empanel a jury comprised of an equal amount of both sexes. Just a guess on my part, of course. It might turn out that the lawyers would prefer more women - or more men - but without any further information to compute, that meant that the 23 or 24 men available would be contributing 7 members to the jury. My odds had dropped to a bit more than 2 to 1 against being picked. Not as good a prospect for avoiding service. If they actually preferred more men, my odds might be close to even money.
At about 10 o’clock, we were led to a courtroom. After being seated, the judge told us a few minor details concerning the case. She said that it was a civil trial, a lawsuit. She then told us that she would ask all of us a few questions, and if our answer to a question was "yes", then we were to hold up our numbered card, at which time one of the court officers – there were three on duty – would relay that number to the court clerk, whose task was to record such things. The idea was to find out if we could serve without prejudice, as well as whether or not we would endure any undue hardship serving for the entire length of the trial.
The judge informed us that she expected the trial to last between 5 and 7 days.
She introduced us to the lawyers. We were asked if we knew the lawyers. None of us did. Similarly, we were introduced to the plaintiff and the defendant. None of us knew them, either. We were asked if we had read about the case in the newspapers, or heard about it on TV or radio, or if we had any knowledge from other sources, such as the internet or just plain word of mouth. Nope. So far, we were all perfect prospective jurors.
Now the judge asked about personal prejudices. She explained a minimal amount about the case; that it was a dispute concerning neighbors, each suing and counter-suing for supposed mental anguish and the like. Any of us with a prejudice concerning such a case, perhaps a past history of our own disputes in similar matters? A few cards were raised, and the court officers called them off to the front of the room – "7!" "42!" "66!" "51!"
A few more questions were asked concerning prejudices – I really wanted to yell out something about hating the entire human race, to see if it would get me the hell out of there, but I didn’t have the guts – and then the judge asked if any of us would endure a specific personal hardship if we had to serve for 5 to 7 days on a jury.
About a third of the cards shot up into the air. I came close, but I honestly didn’t think telling her that I worked in a small office, and perhaps they’d be burdened by my absence, would be enough. I kept my card down. The numbers were again relayed to the clerk.
Now the clerk started calling out our names and numbers. Each person called would be seated in the jury box. We were told to answer “Here!” when our name was called.
"Number 1, Radcliff Q. Tiddlyblatter!"
"Did you answer ‘yes’ to any of the judge’s questions?"
"Seat Number One!"
And so, Radcliff Q. Tiddlyblatter was escorted over to the jury box and seated. Then the next call went out.
"Number 2, Poopsie Frankenstein!"
You see, Poopsie had answered ‘yes’ to one of the judge’s questions. Now the judge and lawyers examined her further. We were not privy to their conversations, but in the end, Poopsie was sent downstairs, presumably to soon go home. The rest of us, now seeing how the system worked, racked our brains to see if there was some way to amend our previous answers. For my part, I would have been happy to give the judge printed out copies of every entry ever made in this blog, which surely had to contain some sort of impropriety that would have resulted in her dismissing me. However, it might also have led to my being tried for something, too, so I didn’t.
"Number 4, Crackhead Jones!"
The judge did not accept Crackhead’s excuse, and he was sent to sit in the jury box, seat number two.
"Number 5, Paddy O’Furniture!"
"Did you answer ‘yes’ to any of the judge’s questions?"
"Seat Number Three!"
I began to understand that they were calling us in numerical order. Why they skipped 3 was a puzzle. Was there no number 3 in the crowd? In any case, I could now get a better grip on my actual odds. The judge might or might not accept the excuses. That was encouraging, and made my earlier reticence to raise my card seem like a reasonable course of action. It would probably have resulted in nothing more than a walk of shame past my fellow prospective jurors when my excuse was found to be insufficient. In any case, they had gone through 5 numbers (four actual possible jurors) and already seated three people. My holding number 35 seemed like a reasonably safe position.
Long story a bit shorter, they had seated a full complement of 14 jurors by the time they reached number 19 on the cards. I felt extremely safe. The safe feeling, however, lasted for only about three minutes. The lawyers were at the sidebar, conferring with the judge. I had forgotten that each lawyer could ask for a certain number of jurors to be dropped, no questions asked.
The clerk asked one juror to step out of the box. She was dismissed and sent back downstairs. They now called juror 20, who was ordered to the sidebar. And so on, through number 24, at which time they again had 14 jurors. And I, again, felt safe. As before, this feeling of safety lasted for about three minutes. The lawyers AGAIN met at the sidebar with the judge. This time, the clerk asked THREE jurors to go away. They did so, with very big smiles on their faces, and the process began anew.
Now I was sweating. As a number was called, and I heard "Sidebar!" my heart sank. I longed for the judge to say something like, "What in the name of...? You call THAT an excuse, you sorry piece of trash? Get in the jury box and be thankful I don’t have you whipped!" Unfortunately, the judge was a reasonable woman, so no such admonitions issued forth.
At number 34, the box was again filled. If I didn’t think it somewhat blasphemous, I would have now been praying that there were no more objections from the lawyers. I saved my prayers, though, because I figured if God wanted me in the jury box, He was going to get me there, and if He didn’t, He wouldn’t. How about it God? Cut me a break?
The lawyers again met with the judge at the sidebar. I saw a juror’s card being passed over to the clerk. I wanted to run up there, grab the card, set it on fire, and then throw it out the window. And maybe sing a few stanzas of the Horst-Wessel-Lied while I did so, if that would help.
"Mary Lou Luckyfuck! Please step down!"
"Number 35, James S. Sullivan!"
"Did you answer ‘yes’ to any of the judge’s questions?"
No, but right about now I'm willing to start humping her leg if that will that get me sent home.
"Seat Number Ten!"
Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck.
This was the seat that had just been vacated. I walked over there with what I hoped was a sour enough look on my puss to get one of the lawyers concerned about such a hothead hearing his client’s case. No soap. The bastards were all smiles.
The judge asked, "Are both sides satisfied with the composition of the jury?"
The lawyers answered, in unison, "Yes, Your Honor."
And there I was, the reluctant juror, seat number ten, the very last one seated, destined to spend the next eight business days listening to one of the most convoluted and bizarre lawsuits you could possibly imagine...
Go To Part Two.