Although I’m moving away from New York in just a couple of weeks (which, more on that later), I was fortunate enough to be summoned to jury duty just under the wire! How lucky, because I would have hated to miss out on the experience.
I was required to report to the Kings County Supreme Civil courthouse at 8:30am. When I arrived (after losing my way and being screamed at for no reason by a very rude cop), I was herded into a huge jury selection room with a long podium at the front, and a couple of TVs to either side. The TVs were playing a video about jury duty. The volume was too low to hear all of it, but I did catch the voiceover explaining, “Trials in America used to be like this,” over a scene of a screaming mob at a witch burning, and then there was a shot of a contemporary (well, 1970s-era) man on the street saying, “Jury duty? It’s a pain in the *bleeped*.”
A little after 9, a man settled himself behind the podium and instructed us on what to expect, how to behave, and how to correctly fill out our summonses.
“Before we get started,” he said. “I want all of you to check that the front of your Summons says “April 11th.” If any of you have a Summons that does not say “April 11th,” you should not be here and you need to come see me.”
About a dozen people ran up to the podium and he pointed to where each of their Summons said April 11th.
“Next,” he continued. “If any of you feel you do not have a basic understanding of the English language – now, you don’t need to be able to read or write in English and you do not need to be familiar with legal terms, but if you do not have a basic understanding of English, please proceed through the door to my right, where you will be tested and it will be determined whether or not you are able to serve.”
About forty people rushed the door.
“You people are all coming right back here!” he shouted at them. “You are not going home, you are coming right back here!” (And sure enough, over the next few minutes, they all filtered back in and took seats, looking sheepish.)
“Next,” he continued. “If any of you do not work, are solely responsible for the care of minor children and have the birth certificate on you – and you must be all three of these things – then please see me to be excused.” He spent a few minutes telling a great many women that, since they work, they did not in fact fit all three criteria.
Next, he moved on to explaining the rules of conduct for the day.
“You will remove your hats in the courthouse,” he said. He made eye contact with a young guy slouching in cap and earbuds. “Sir!” he said, vigorously miming removing a cap. The kid took his hat off, rolled his eyes and slouched down in his seat.
“Cell phones are not to be used at any time in this room,” he continued. He then made eye contact with a businessman who was muttering into his phone. “Sir!” he said, and the man put his phone away, rolling his eyes and huffing audibly.
“You may all go outside for 10 minutes at a time to have a cigarette break, and that is all! Ten minutes. Now, those of you who do not smoke are wondering why you cannot take a 10-minute break. I will explain that to you. If we were to allow everyone to take a break, some of you would go out front, get a coffee from the coffee cart and come right back. Others of you would go down the street to the bagel store, get a bagel sandwich and come right back. Others of you would go to the diner near your house, have a three-course breakfast, go upstairs, watch some Maury Povitch and show up back here at 3:00 asking me if your name has been called. Ten minutes for a cigarette. That is all, jurors.”
I should mention, this guy was a lot funnier than I’m making him sound. He was like a world-weary municipal vaudeville performer, and I really appreciated the levity he brought to the proceedings.
He then reassured us that, no matter what, all of us would be staying until 5:00pm, and we should reconcile ourselves to that fact. He then said that some of us would be called for the next day, and that if you had a particular reason why you could not come back tomorrow, that you should come up to the podium and explain it.
At least a hundred people stormed the podium.
“There are way too many of you up here!” the man said. “If your excuse is that you have to be at work tomorrow, that is not a valid excuse! We all have to be at work tomorrow.”
Rather than cut down on the number of people waiting to speak to him, however, the line gradually increased, as the people still seated had time to look at all of those people getting to have a special word, and thinking that maybe there was something they’d like to say, as well. After every single person in the jury pool had had the chance to have their special excuse heard and rejected, we finally passed in our Summonses and some wizards off behind the curtain somewhere started announcing lists of names over the loudspeaker, directing people to various empanelling rooms to be questioned.
I sat in between a very angry-looking woman, and a chubby Asian kid who had tried to be excused for language difficulties. This kid was clearly incredibly confused by everything, and he kept studying his Summons receipt intently every time names were called, as if he might forget who he was if he didn’t focus.
Before very long, my name was called with about 30 others to go into the next room, where we assembled and stood in a clump while a guy called roll. I looked around at the group – it was sort of like the Speed bus in that there seemed to be at least one representative of every imaginable race, ethnic group, social class, sex and age group, but there were significantly more of some people than others – more black people than white, more men than women, more middle-aged than young people, more shitty dressers than not. There was only one attractive person – a young South Asian man with model-thick hair wearing a shiny blue pin-striped suit. Incidentally, I later realized that he was the only juror in our group other than me to have a Kindle on him, and I will attribute his extreme reluctance to make any eye contact with me to his involvement in his reading material.
Our roll-caller told us we were all going over to the criminal court on Jay Street, and he then led us in a long line outside into the beautiful, sunny, 70-degree weather, and then into another courthouse, up an escalator and into another giant jury pool room, where we all sat down for a minute before having our names called again and filing into a small room where a bailiff called roll again, directing each of us to take the elevator up to the 17th floor (“Do NOT take the elevator bank to Family Court!” he said, several times. “If you take the Family Court elevators, you will become lost!”) and wait for him by the windows.
We waited by the windows for 15 or 20 minutes. The windows provided a sweeping, panoramic view of downtown Brooklyn, the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges, and the city spread out past the river. I sat next to an old lady who was reading a supermarket circular and talking to herself constantly: “Splenda. I need to buy some Splennnnnda. $4.99 for a box of Splenda packets.”
Eventually, the bailiff came up and collected us, and led us into a courtroom where we filed into the spectator pews. The judge, court reporter, attorneys and defendant were all in place at the front of the room. The defendant’s attorney was an old man in glasses and a tweed coat with long, ratty hair that whimpered Legal Aid, whereas the prosecutor from the DA’s office was a young, clear-skinned peroxide blond woman who stood to introduce herself in a clear, ringing voice.
The Judge explained a little bit about the case and gave us the trial period (which was too long for me). She explained that we would each take the stand and be questioned, but that first, if there was anyone in the Courtroom who could answer yes to one of a series of questions (knew someone involved with the case, lived or worked near the area in question, had particular personal trauma associated with some aspect of the case, was moving out of NY in the next two weeks, etc. etc.), they should come and see her and the attorneys in her office.
At this point, everyone in the courtroom other than the jurors went in the back, and then there was a 15-minute pause, and then the bailiff asked that anyone in the first pew who needed to speak to the judge privately should stand up.
Everyone stood up.
So, we all spent the next hour and a half sitting there while everyone went in one at a time and explained why they couldn’t be a juror, and then we took a two hour lunch break, and then were back at it. I was amazed at how many of my fellow jurors – several of them young – passed the hours upon hours by just staring at their knees. What are all these articles on about, saying the digital generation is increasingly unable to switch off from external stimulation for even a mere minute? The jury pool is made up of Zen masters, apparently.
I was one of the last people to see the Judge and be dismissed. I don’t really know why everyone was so hot to get out of sitting on the trial. Presumably, all of us under consideration had indicated on our forms that our employers paid us for jury duty. If I had been able to serve for the trial period, I would have liked to be a juror. I think it would be an interesting experience – more interesting, at any rate, than going to work as usual during those two weeks. But I guess most people would prefer not to be jurors if they can come up with an excuse not to.
By the time I was sent back down to the main juror holding pen, it was 3:00pm, so I read my Kindle for an hour, and then they called us all up to collect our diplomas and go home.
So, I would have liked to juror-ed a trial, but I didn’t get to. And that’s fine, too.
If this narrative seems kind of beige and square and not as interesting as it had the potential to be, well, it’s inspired by the courthouse environment. Courthouses are generally square and neutral-colored – square wood boxes and wood pulpits and wood benches and wood doorframes, gray laminate square tiles on the floor. And trials are probably more often than not less interesting than they have the potential to be.
Because crime is fascinating. Crime is one of our favorite stories. But unfortunately, if the legal system had a spirit animal, it would be the box. No one really ever wants to go hang out in a courthouse, and jury duty mostly entails a lot of sitting around, so in terms of civic obligation, jury duty is more along the lines of driver’s license renewal than voting. It should be more exciting than it is, as should this concluding paragraph.