Entries from August 2008 ↓

In case you were wondering…

I just haven’t felt like blogging lately.

Although the summer has been slow, I have done things. I just haven’t felt like writing about any of it. You can watch the Olympics on your own and get news digests from other bloggers, so there’s no real point in me giving you any of that. I admit I’ve become addicted to Facebook, but that’s not an excuse. I just don’t have much to say.

Maybe my feelings will change next week.

My Civic Duty

I was called to jury duty this week, at the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York. More than one hundred of us got summonses to report to the federal courthouse at 500 Pearl Street in Lower Manhattan bright and early at 8:30 this past Monday morning.

The Daniel Patrick Moynihan United States Courthouse is a fairly modern multi-story structure tucked behind some of the more stately old court buildings we’re used to seeing. Just off Centre Street in Foley Square, the neighborhood is a maze of city, state and federal buildings on streets now blocked off by security gates with armed officers in little booths. I know security was always tight, but I have to figure it has been heightened in this post-9/11, war on terrorism era.

Entering the building, we were obliged to go through a screening checkpoint reminiscent of the airport, but far less onerous. The federal security officers could teach the TSA a thing or two about courtesy. Cell phones, Blackberries and digital cameras are not allowed in the building, so we had to check those. Then we checked ourselves into a large, attractively appointed jury waiting room, with plush leather seating, named in honor of Justice Constance Baker Motley where after dispensing with some paperwork and watching a short film on jury service, we waited…and waited…and waited until one of the courtrooms upstairs called down in need of jurors.

That first day, the call came around 10 or so. Names were announced and a pool of jurors was taken upstairs. A short while later a second group was also called. The rest of us were left to read, sleep or go to the bathroom, but never wander too far from the waiting area. Now in a typical day, I read a lot of news sources, but mostly online. For the first time in ages I got to read the entire New York Times in print form. I can’t say I’m better for it. Doing nothing for an entire day is just plain tedious.

Shortly after four, and after some of the earlier called jurors had returned to the room, apparently unpicked for trial, they dismissed us all with instructions to call a telephone number the next day to find out when or if we’d be needed again. All of us had been told we were subject to service anytime over the next two weeks.

Now I’m all for doing my civic duty and have certainly criticized juries that have come back with questionable verdicts in high profile cases. But I hate being at the mercy of someone else’s schedule, and frankly the prospect of having to decide someone else’s fate is quite intimidating. I’d rather have been at the office. The upside to all of this however, is that once we’re done, we are exempt from jury duty in federal or state court for four years.

Wednesday we had to return, but only half of us were there. Those who had been called Monday were done with their service. After a short wait, they took all of us upstairs to a courtroom where jury selection was to begin for a criminal drug-related case. A Spanish-speaking male defendant was accused of distribution. There were 58 of us, of whom 34 were seated in the jury box for preliminary screening. The rest would be slotted in as others got screened out. Yours truly was lucky number 30.

This is the part where it got amusing. It seems jury duty is one of those things nobody really wants to do although we all recognize the value of it. The judge reviewed a lengthy questionnaire relevant to the case and asked us to state if there were any aspects of it that might make it difficult for us to be objective. Some of the creative ways in which people tried to disqualify themselves bordered on laugh-out-loud funny. Anybody who lived within ten miles of the crime scene tried to claim they were familiar with that area, but upon further questioning from the judge, had to admit they just knew the name of the street but had no real awareness of anything that happened there.

I had my own ace in the hole. Because of where I work I figured there was no way the prosecution would want me. In a sidebar conversation in judge’s chambers I tried to milk that even further, talking about some of our dealings with the Justice Department and my feelings that they sometimes follow an agenda that has nothing to do with the pursuit of the truth. Again, I was pressed as to my ability to be objective and had to fess up that I probably could put all that aside. It’s amazing how a face-to-face with a judge, with opposing counsel, the defendant, his interpreter, a court reporter and clerks around makes you tell the truth.

By the end of Wednesday, and through two cuts, I was still in the field of 34. As we sullenly departed together at the end of the day, someone remarked, “This is one unhappy elevator.”

Thursday morning, we were all back in the courtroom trying to whittle the cast down to 12 jurors and 2 alternates. Right off the top, some people were excused for cause based on the previous days interviews. The court clerk filled in those slots with members of the original field of 58, then the one person who remained was dismissed. Now the judge interviewed us one-by-one, to find out who we were, where we were from, the kinds of things we read or tv shows we watched, hobbies and interests. It was a strange touchy-feely moment that allowed the lawyers to gain better insight into who they wanted to keep before using their peremptory challenges. It was also some jurors last opportunity to provide disqualifying information.

One Black woman made sure to mention her interest in African American History and openly displayed her copy of The Autobiography of Malcolm X from her front row seat opposite the prosecution’s table. Several White jurors mentioned friends in law enforcement. Everybody it seemed was a fan of Law & Order.

After a short break, the moment of truth arrived. The judge, counsel from both sides, the court reporter and court clerk all huddled on the side and pored over the big board where our names were posted corresponding to our seats in the jurors box. They would pull out a name and both sides would look at it, giving a silent yea or nay we couldn’t hear from our side of the room. We speculated as to whether they were separating out the ones they wanted to keep or the people who would be dismissed. You could cut the tension in the room with a knife.

Then with an understated professionalism befitting a person who probably does this a hundred times a year, the court clerk read off the names of the jurors who were dismissed. It was quiet enough to hear a butt clinch. You’d have thought she was pulling lottery numbers.

As each of us heard our name read, we tried not to seem too happy, but failed in our mission. I don’t personally remember hearing anyone else’s name after she read mine. A child-like end-of-the-school-year giddiness came over all of us. The judge thanked us for our time and we were free to leave. The herd of us galloped to the elevators, leaving behind our somewhat stunned friends we had made over the past three days who now made up the jury. One man who sat next to me and had retired from his profession earlier this month, had a dazed look on his face as he muttered, “I can’t believe they picked me.”

In one of those New York moments, where strangers bond in an instant then go their separate ways never to see each other again, several of us passed each other on the sidewalk as we made our way to subways. The only other Black man on the jury pointed out that fact to me and that we’d both been dismissed, as were several other Black and Latin women. As I contemplated my own freedom from this civic responsibility, I was now forced to ponder the kind of trial that would ultimately take place.