Friday, December 16, 2011

Doing My Annoyingly Crucial Civic Duty

I promise to catch up on our Reverb Broads prompts and commenting in the next week or so, but I have a pretty good excuse for not keeping up with it this week!

I just spent the last five days serving jury duty. It was the first time I've been called, and of course I hit the jackpot with a week long trial. After being released this afternoon, my head is kind of reeling still. It was easily the most significant and somehow excruciatingly dull way to spend five days. For five days, I felt a weight that I have never felt before. The weight of someone else's future on my shoulders. The weight of making the "right" decision. The weight of listening and gathering and processing testimony, evidence, statements, demeanor, photos, and taking all this supposed "fact" and somehow coming to a fair and measured decision. In the end, I feel like we did as a jury. But the process had more of an impact on me than I anticipated.

That weight is heavy. And I didn't realize how much it would sit on me. I feel rather exhausted and have felt that way all week. Like my head and heart are both full with the consequences of my decisions and judgements on another person's life. Thankfully this wasn't a criminal trial, because I cannot imagine the responsibility of sitting on a jury for a death penalty case or a murder trial. Instead this was a civil trial against an insurance company, but it was a significant and complex case. A day spent for jury selection, three hours of voir dire or questioning of the potential jurors, then three days of testimony and a day for closing statements, instruction and deliberation. Not the longest or the shortest trial by far. Not the biggest or most important case, just one of thousands heard all over the country, but the weight came not from the significance to the media or the city or our country as a whole, but the significance to one woman and one company.

My temporary work place.

I had this whole funny post that I was writing in my head about the jury selection process while I waited Monday. I made notes and captured my observations, funny comments and interesting people. Monday was spent waiting and waiting, watching everyone, 200 plus people, packed into that jury processing room for hours, watching a silly juror education video staring George Brett, when all I could think about was this video of him (Thanks, Matt,) listening to people's conversations, looking at things like an enormous homemade plastic tote bag with Garth Brooks' enormous face covering it, or a lady wearing so much matching maroon lipstick, mascara and eyeshadow that I was surprised she could hold her head upright, or the fifty year old woman coloring in a Dora the Explorer coloring book with no child in sight, or the older disgruntled gentleman who kept shouting that this "whole thing is communist horse shit," or the young woman with the tightest jeans I've ever seen in my entire life and a very ample rear end who kept stopping right in front of my seat to have a conversation with the man seated catty-corner to me. Her behind was in my face so often and for so long that I couldn't help starring at the intricate lace and beading pattern winding it's way all across it. She just left it there, occasionally wiggling it or bouncing up and down when her friend said something funny. I cleared my throat a couple of times and finally tapped her carefully on the hip, smiled and asked her if she could scoot over. She started laughing and said, "Oh, I'm sorry, girl, that thing was taking up all of your space wasn't it?" She flipped her long hair and sauntered back to her seat, in her jeans tucked in hot pink fur lined five inch heeled boots, and continued to carry on her conversation from two rows away, shouting back to her friend until someone from the court asked her to keep her voice down. Then she psuedo-whispered until enough glares and coughs made it clear we didn't care that her "grand-mamma was watching Tiara" or that "John was going to be late home because he was working a job in Independence." She was chosen with my jury pool, but thankfully not selected because I can't imagine having been locked up with her and that lacy behind for five days.

But once I got selected late on Monday night, the whole thing became less amusing. It was suddenly real and serious, and for some stupid reason I had assumed I wouldn't be selected. I felt sort of stunned, particularly knowing that the trial would run through Thursday at the earliest. I'm sure we all felt a little stunned after waiting all day, fingers crossed. But we were selected. It's a weird thing to not want to be chosen for something that's so integral to our sense of stability as a country, but that big picture is hard to see when all you can think about is the imposition and interruption of your normal life. No, no one would want to do this by choice.

My fellow jurors numbered fourteen, including two alternates that were actually necessary by the end of the week after we lost two jurors. Our jury represented a wide cross section of the community. Twelve men and two women, we women were the youngest in the room, and everyone else was over forty, and mostly over sixty. African American and Caucasian in equal number. A teacher, an attorney, an engineer, custodians, alarm system installer, automobile factory employee, a police officer, retired business men, a student, a few who were so silent that I have no idea what they do for a living.

We "lucky" fourteen had either said nothing in voir dire (the potential jury questioning process) or answered in ways that reassured either side that we would be impartial or side with them. The lesson here, if you don't want to be selected just answer as many of the questions that pertain to you as honestly as possible, exaggerate your own prejudices/feelings, throw in a little crazy and you'll probably be dismissed.  My approach was more like engaged silence. I simply couldn't act like a high maintenance fool to get released. There were a few of these. I could have postponed my service, but that was a guaranteed return trip in six months and at least another full day. So I took my chances. It was incredibly frustrating and entertaining to watch those few people that were determined to not be selected. Trying to one up each other in the crazy, or the sob story, or their bias against insurance companies or people with mental illnesses. No one seemed to be lying, but I felt like I was sitting in the principal's office listening to excuses and I wasn't about to misbehave. 

So we fourteen were chosen, numbered and assigned our seats for the week. We were now a part of the judicial process in action. Or more like inaction. For every hour spent listening to testimony or attorneys, we probably spent two just waiting.

Juror 11 waits.

We sat. We did nothing. We read. We chatted. We sat some more. We remained upstairs in the alternately freezing or stifflingly hot jury room. Such close quarters that you could hear everyone peeing in either bathroom. We drank too much caffeine. We ate carb-loaded crappy breakfast food and more pizza than is reasonable. We joked about sleeping in court, ways to get kicked off. We discussed the juror who borrowed money from two fellow jurors and managed to get excused the next day, probably for openly sleeping in court. We talked about quiting smoking, about marriage and women, with lots of polite nods to the two ladies present whenever a sweeping stereotypical statement about how we are "more emotional" or "remember every lie" or "can hold a grudge for 100 years" was mentioned. We tiptoed around the edges of our own very personal stories that linked back to the case in some way. We teased Jeff, the bailiff, about escape routes and hostage demands. We guessed how long we would stay and if we'd have to come back Monday. We (ok, everyone else) talked sports, and weather and military service, kids not being disciplined properly nowadays, the benefits of a good "whupping", our family histories, brief glimpses, at times shockingly personal glimpses, of ourselves and our lives, knowing we wouldn't see each other again after the end of the case. We talked about everything except what we all really wanted to discuss, which was whatever we had just heard in court. We skirted the edges of that, brief talk of judges and bailiffs and the attorneys' quirky habits. The fact that five minutes is really fifteen minutes in "court time" or forty-five minutes that stretches into three hours. The slogs up and down and back up and back down the stairs to the jury room at least 10 times a day while the attorneys and judge discussed matters that were not for our ears.

In other words, we did all the things that I'm sure most juries do, in the same ways that they do, with the same social roles, like mild versions of characters in some John Grisham novel: the joker, the guy that talks too much, the sweet young girl, the wise older grandfather, the Vietnam vet, the blunt talking cop, the silent napper, the man who never looks you in the eye, the analytical note taker, the head in her book girl. And the waiting, the seemingly endless waiting. Some of us with the desire to get back to work, others enjoying the treat of not having work on the factory floor for a week and still getting paid. We talked about the goofy paintings of former judges looming over us in court, and the way that our judge rolled her eyes, and her lack of a poker face. Our straining to hear what the attorneys were discussing in hushed tones at the bench. The fact that the system is nothing like what you see on Law and Order and barely resembles any movie you've ever seen set in a courtroom. It's all more real, more dull, more tedious, less dramatic, more beige. There were no surprises, no shocking cross-exam questions, no sudden revelations that the plaintiff was faking her injuries. The suits are cheaper, the ties are drab. The case isn't black and white. It isn't clear cut, wrong or right, good or bad. The drama was in the little details. In the accident photos, in the emotional testimony of a man who shot and killed his carjacker and hated reliving the event, in the description of flying bricks and flaming tires. But there was no drama in court.

So for a week we ate our crappy meals and sat around the battered drab of a 1930's built jury room, tiny everything, wearing our badges, going through security, being locked upstairs often with no idea of when we would get out, with gurgling radiators and a smelly mini fridge. Regardless of all the inconveniences and irritations, most of us took the duty quite seriously. While we joked to lighten the mood or pass the time, I think most of us, other than Sleeping Beauty who was dismissed, took our duties seriously. We did not sleep. We listened closely. Did we bring our own personal experiences and understandings into that court room and jury room? Absolutely. Could we have done it any other way? No.

This afternoon when the time came to deliberate, we were careful. We were analytical and orderly and fair with each other and with the plaintiff and defendants. We weighed evidence, and reviewed testimony, we read through the instructions closely, carefully, methodically, word for word. We listened to each other with respect, if not agreement. We let the long winded talk, but not too long. We didn't interrupt much. Our jury foreman, a former military JAG attorney, led the group well but was very light handed. We voted with raised hands and no big surprises. Those I anticipated would side with the defense, did. But in the end, a majority, including myself, awarded a fair settlement to the plaintiff.

The plaintiff kindly shook our hands and thanked us afterward. Even thanking those who did not vote for the agreed settlement. It was a nice feeling to receive her thanks and know that we had had some impact in helping to improve her life going forward, in helping to end a nearly six year struggle. The things that stick with me through this process are the waiting, the monotony, the slow way that this process has to move, my strong empathy with the emotional stories of other people both the plaintiff and prospective jurors who are required to share some extremely personal details when asked, the importance of jury service, the care with which the attorneys, though neither was particularly impressive, handled their cases, and the way that the court staff and judge all seemed professional, cordial and thoughtful. We were treated well throughout the trial, as well as possible with the limited parameters and budget of a court.

In general, I would say it was a worthwhile experience. I'm naive. I'm not a lawyer or a judge or a person with much experience in courtrooms, and for that I'm thankful. But based on my experience, I'm glad I was a part of this trial. I'm glad I was able to perform my civic duty and I'm proud for serving. Because the value of jury service is integral to our system of justice, as flawed and tricky and biased and infuriating as it may be. I hope if I have the bad luck to end up in court someday, that I have the type of jury that I participated in this week. I don't know my fellow jurors' names, I sat with them for five days and we never introduced ourselves, but as we left we thanked each other and wished each other happy holidays. I left with a sense of a duty fulfilled and a stronger, tangile belief in our court system. And I'll admit that my experience is only that, my experience, but as flawed and slow and tilted and biased as our judicial system can be, since of course there are humans involved, I think it worked today.  At least the weight is off of my shoulders and I'll sleep well tonight with our decision. And I hope at least eight other people will too.


Emily said...

Thank you for doing your civic duty...and that you for sharing it with us in such a thoughtful manner.

Nae said...

I love all the detail, particularly the horseshit guy. I knew you'd love it for some reasons. I think about you every day at work, especially when I write med briefs about super weird folks. I get bored too with all the jargon "it is questionable whether....." but like you said the weight of someone's transcribed statement holding up in a court of law, the fact that I can influence a jury and change someone's life exponentially (hopefully for the better) makes it worthwhile. I sat so still while reading this post, it held my utmost attention. And your taxed out court-photoface made me laugh!

Mary Jo said...

i was on a jury about 30 years ago and still recall how i felt the weight of the world on my shoulders. That bubble was popped when i talked to the lawyer after the trial and he admitted his client was wrong--but it was his job to take her case. I felt betrayed......

sarah doow said...

Very interesting stuff, not least that you spent all that time with your fellow jurors, but never got to know them. I can understand that it might be helpful though in order to keep clear in your own views apart from anything else.