The republic is safe. I've fulfilled my jury obligation for the year without inflicting any damage on the system.
As instructed, I called the jury office at eleven this morning and was ordered to appear at the court at twelve thirty. Somehow I managed to let over an hour go by before I started getting ready, and as a result I was out the door with barely enough time to wander ineptly around the county center complex, trying to make sense of the map they'd provided.
By the time I found the right parking lot, and then the right building, I was able to walk into the jury assembly room only a few seconds late. No one seemed to notice, since I was not the last one there, and they didn't start the feature presentation for another fifteen minutes anyway.
As I sat in the assembly room waiting for something to happen, I looked around at my fellow jurors, trying to gauge the likelihood that I would be picked over any of them. For the most part, they seemed good candidates, not that I would have asked any of them to decide whether or not I should be locked up.
Some were reading books and magazines. Others chatted amiably. A few, like me, stared at the backs of the chairs in front of them, thinking of all the other things they should be doing and wishing the time would pass just a whisker faster. Or maybe that was just me.
One woman lost herself in her knitting. Whatever she was creating was still in its early stages, but she was using both pastel pink and lime green yarn, so it probably wasn't going to turn into a sweater. At least not one that anyone would be caught dead wearing.
After what seemed like an hour, our jury liaison Marsha stood at the podium and gave us our instructions, which were basically to sit in the chairs and wait for more instructions. The coffee was free, but you had to buy sodas and snacks from the vending machine.
She couldn't tell us what was going to happen to us, but she did know that our little group of about seventy-five citizens had been called by the judge to put pressure on the parties in a criminal case to plead it out. Just by being there, she assured us, we were providing a service to the court. Unfortunately, it was one that didn't pan out, because after watching a twenty-minute video about the history and procedures of the jury system, the bailiff showed up to usher us upstairs to the courtroom.
First, though, we had to pass through the metal detector and get frisked by the magic wands of the private security service that the county hires to keep everything from knives to AK-47's from being smuggled into the courtroom in a handbag or up a sleeve.
The line moved at a glacial pace, but nothing seems to happen quickly in this system. There is more down time than there is time spent in the actual pursuit of truth and justice. I knew we still had a wait ahead of us when the knitter was told she had time to take her needles out to her car, lest they fall into the wrong hands. You could put an eye out with those things.
Even after we passed inspection and had all our weapons confiscated by the surly guards, we still had to wait in the hallway outside Courtroom 2 with the bailiff. He was kind enough to remind us to remove our hats, and not to read newspapers while court was in session. Keep the cap on your water bottle. No recording devices or flash photography during the performance. There must have been a silent signal of some kind, because with no warning he abruptly opened the doors and had us all file in.
The judge in this case was a woman who had been defeated for reelection last month. Her opponent was endorsed by everyone who had contact with her — attorneys, other judges, even the local paper. She still nearly eked out the win, but she's now a lame duck. She's a quite congenial one, though, and I found myself highly entertained by her patter. Finally, we were getting to the interesting part and standing inside the engine that turns the wheels of justice.
After the welcoming speech and yet another tutorial on the value of the jury system, the judge asked if it would be a hardship for any of us to be in court through Friday, which was the longest the trial was expected to last. Naturally, there were many good citizens who just couldn't bring themselves to give up that much time.
One investment adviser convinced the judge that his clients needed him desperately in this time of financial crisis. A woman with a sick child was thanked and excused. A couple of students were sure that a few hours of lost study time would doom them to failure.
There was a man who stood up and ranted for several minutes on the failings of the American justice system. He'd lost faith in it. It had gone downhill so much that it made him sick. He just didn't believe in it any more and didn't want to be any part of it. After the judge had excused the investment adviser and the worried mother and the anxious students, this fellow stood up and asked, "How about me, your honor? May I be excused, too?"
"No, I want you to stay," the judge replied. "Sit down, please."
She apparently didn't think ennui and disillusionment were hardships.
The defendant in this case was charged with resisting arrest. He was an African American man, and the arresting officer was a woman. This led to repeated questioning of the potential jurors about how they felt about persons of color, and what they thought about female police officers.
No jurors' names are used in California courts these days. For the sake of anonymity, we are all referred to by our juror numbers. So when the first eighteen prospective jurors were asked to come forward and be questioned, the numbers were pulled randomly. I couldn't decide if it was a lottery, where the winner's prize is the right to serve the public good, or a raffle, where having your number picked meant you got to pay with your valuable time and were rewarded by knowing you'd aided a worthy cause.
Once the eighteen lucky folks had been seated in the jury box, some of them did their best to convince the judge that she didn't want them in her courtroom. Most of those who were that determined were allowed to leave, to be replaced by others in another round of lotto.
One woman didn't like "cops." ("We object to the use of the term, your honor" the district attorney piped up, when the judge good-naturedly repeated it back to the woman.)
Another had recently been involved in a demonstration against the DA's office. ("Your honor, the people would ask that this juror be excused for cause." She was.)
A man claimed to be a "conscientious objector." The judge tried to get him to say what he objected to, and what aspect of his conscience was the basis for the objection. "I don't feel right judging another person," was all he could come up with.
"That's my job," the judge informed him. "All I'm asking you to do is tell the court whether you believe the prosecution has proven its case."
In most instances, the judge was able to convince people that they could overcome their own biases, as long as they were aware of them. Each side used one or two peremptory challenges, but that still left twelve jurors and an alternate. The fifty or so of us whose numbers had never been called were allowed to leave. Under the current system, after one day or one trial we've served our time and can't be called again for a year.
It was three hours that I didn't think I could spare, and I came home to a house that still looks as if it's been recently ransacked. And messages on the answering machine, and faxes from the Boss, and work I'd had to leave in the middle of. But as I've said all along, I believe in the system, and I never seriously considered trying to duck my responsibility. I'm just glad it's over.