Drowned in the Jury Pool
by Stephen Cox | Posted June 13, 2014
The other day I reported for jury duty. In California, you report for one day, and if you aren’t lucky enough to get on a jury, you’re out for at least the next year. I’ve gone through this four or five times now, and only once did I land on a jury. That jury was hung, partly because the august legal minds empaneled a woman who claimed that her profession was teaching the principles of jury selection to students in a junior college. She proved to be, as almost anyone would have anticipated, an enormous pain in the ass.
This year, I waited in the “jury lounge” for several hours, not even pretending to watch a propaganda film about how wonderful it is to serve on a jury. I puzzled over the wording of my next book, chatted with a couple of people who, like me, wished devoutly not to get on a jury, celebrated the fact that it was 11:45 and no calls for jurors had been made — and then it happened. My name was announced as one of the 40 people who had to assemble in Superior Court, Section Such and Such, to be examined by the judge and attorneys to determine whether we were fit to decide whether someone should go to jail for burglary and such and such and so and so, and possession of methamphetamine.
The way they do this is to get all 40 victims into the courtroom, and then particularly examine the first 21, to see whether some of them should be replaced by some of the other 19. Why 21, I don’t know. I was randomly assigned a position as Prospective Juror No. 9.
Once we jurors had been properly infantilized, we were taken into the courtroom, seated in our places, and asked a series of questions by the judge.
My cohort’s progress into the jury room was impeded by a court official who spent 25 minutes checking off the list of 40 randomly generated names. He made jokes about his age, and his eyeglasses, and his difficulty reading the list, and our names, and his mispronunciation of our names, as if it mattered how he pronounced anything. He may have been wasting time because the judge wasn’t ready to invite us in. So if the dentist is late, does he have one of his assistants come out to the waiting room and start drilling your teeth?
Once we jurors had been properly infantilized, we were taken into the courtroom, seated in our places, and asked a series of questions by the judge. She turned out to be very sensible. She explained what she was doing with great succinctness, asked her questions clearly, and found ways to limit our answers to what was relevant. She was a welcome relief from my last judge, who when confronted by an elderly man who announced with pride that he had been a member of more than 30 juries and had always enjoyed himself, invited the aged idler to entertain us with stories from his service to American justice. The current judge wasn’t like that. After her round of examination, she gave the prosecuting attorney and the defense attorney just 15 minutes each to ask their own questions. I quickly grew to like her.
But what I’ll always remember is the responses of my fellow prospective jurors.
The man who answered the judge’s question, “Would you believe that the defendant is guilty just because he’s sitting at the defendant’s table?” by saying, “Yes. I mean, why else would he be the defendant?” Body language suggested that he wasn’t just trying to get off the jury. He was being honest.
The woman who, thoughtfully and repeatedly, said that she could not serve on a jury because her religious beliefs did not allow her to judge her fellow men. When I spoke with her at the end of the day, she proved to be a Christadelphian, a member of a sect that I had studied but of which I had never met a single member. This was a big deal for me. She was a nice person and probably the most intelligent person I met all day.
She tried to argue me into it. Surely I could vote on a question of fact?
The woman who, when asked whether she or any member of her family had been a victim of crime, revealed that her mother’s car had once been stolen, “and she never got it back!” She started crying hysterically and was told to go home.
The woman who, almost as hysterically, answered several questions by saying that she wouldn’t have a bias about someone accused of drug possession, but if she thought he committed a crime because he was “addicted,” she could never forgive him, “never! never!”
The woman who said she had friends who were going to law school, and they told her that “there were things going on behind the scenes,” evidently “things” in the legal system, and therefore . . . something. The judge tried to get her to say what the “things” were, tried to joke with her about how law students sometimes make remarks that don’t mean very much, tried to get her to put some definition to anything she said. But her efforts were futile. She gave up.
The man who answered every question about things that might affect his judgment with some story about his “partner,” his “current partner,” or his “partner in the 1980s,” and who was concerned that his “partner in the 1980s” had a relative who was a “correctional officer.” “Do you know that person?” the judge asked. “No . . . I never met him.”
The woman who answered the question about whether police officers ever lie with an adamant declaration that no, they never do. Never? the judge asked. No, never. The judge’s eyes widened; she was obviously repressing the desire to say something like “What kind of an idiot are you?” Members of the jury pool had less luck repressing their laughter. The judge kept questioning the woman, trying to get her to say whether there was any possibility that any police officer might ever say anything except the truth. Finally the woman conceded that if you got together enough thousands and millions of police officers, one of them might possibly, on some occasion, probably in private, deviate very slightly and unintentionally from the exact truth.
The several people who plainly did not speak English with any facility but who were emphatic in correcting the judge about her pronunciation of their names.
The several people who, refreshingly, laughed off all mispronunciations.
The man who, very, very seriously, reviewed the long and irrelevant history of his employment.
The woman who, very enthusiastically, responded to every question with an account of the social work that she and her husband perform.
The many people who recounted friends’ and relatives’ run-ins with the law, almost always incidents about driving while under the influence (not injuring anyone, mind you) or using recreational drugs, then shrugged and said, “No, the punishment was fair; he brought it on himself.”
If you’ve been adding up this list, you can see that there were a lot of people in that first cut of 21 who may not have belonged on a jury.
What about me? I didn’t belong either. At the appropriate moment, I advised the judge that I thought it was immoral to convict anyone on a drug charge. She read a statement about juries not deciding the law for themselves, and I said that yes, I understood, but in the case of victimless crimes I was in favor of what the statement was trying to exclude, which was jury nullification. She smiled and said, “Yes, that’s what we’re talking about.”
The judge’s eyes widened; she was obviously repressing the desire to say something like “What kind of an idiot are you?”
The defense attorney of course wanted me to be empaneled, so she tried to argue me into it. Surely I could vote on a question of fact? Surely I could determine whether someone possessed methamphetamine? Surely that wouldn’t be convicting anyone? Surely only a judge can sentence anyone? I told her I could see where that train was going, and I wouldn’t get on it. The prosecuting attorney smiled and joked with me, suggesting that I was arrogant enough to think I knew better than everyone else. Maybe he was right, but I was wondering why he bothered. Maybe he was trying to discourage anyone else from acting like me in the jury room. By this point, ironically, I was getting interested in the process and mildly regretting that I wouldn’t get to serve.
After a couple hours of jury examination, punctuated by a short break that turned into a longer break, the judge called the attorneys into her chambers. A few minutes later they came back, and she announced that five people were excused: me, the young Mexican American who sat next to me, the Christadelphian lady, and two others whom I couldn’t connect with the answers they’d given. The Mexican American was a working class kid who had started responding to questions about drug convictions with answers like, “I don’t know. . . I could follow the law. But with recreational drugs . . . I dunno . . . It doesn’t seem right. . . . Well, yeah, I guess so.” After listening to the back and forth about me, he reached a more definite position. He said he would not vote to convict anyone for drug possession. I didn’t talk to him during the breaks, or at any other time; but maybe I was responsible for his values clarification.
And so it ended. I walked out of the courthouse, chatting with the Christadelphian lady, then proceeded to the eight-dollar-a-day parking lot, having experienced the American jury system in what may be nearly its finest hour.
Stephen Cox is editor of Liberty, and a professor of literature at the University of California San Diego. His recent books include The Big House: Image and Reality of the American Prison and American Christianity: The Continuing Revolution.
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