Sunday, January 10, 2010
There is a rule forbidding picture taking inside Federal Courthouses which is a drag for someone like me, but my summons to jury duty was unavoidable as my request to be dismissed had been refused already by the clerk in Miami who oversees our jurisdiction. So I walked Cheyenne at six o'clock in the morning and we drove into town together where I left her in the car at the Park and Ride structure at Grinnell Street. She is getting better about being left alone but this had the potential to be an all day affair so I preferred to take her with me. I wolfed a large con leche and a cheese toast at the Cuban Queen and hiked down to the Federal Building. I need not have hurried, as the line was out the door with part of the sixty potential jurors waiting to get through the security checks that are endemic these days.
Many people view jury duty as a chore but to me it is part of the privilege of citizenship, however that privilege is tempered by the fact that I am never going to get picked by virtue of my trade. Which means I am in the pool of potential jurors in a small town where the pool is necessarily small, but my only function is to flesh out the numbers to give the appearance of a choice in the selection of a jury.
The selection process is laborious and it goes by it's French name (French? Zut alors!) of Voir-Dire, which means "to see" and "to hear." This is the method by which lawyers and the defendants get to choose who judges the evidence in the case. The whole process has to be spelled out painfully by the judge who has to assume that there are people in the jury pool who are complete novices in the process, and it is a fine thing actually to see how carefully justice is administered. However it takes a l-o-o-o-n-g time. We each had to define ourselves by our jobs and by the jobs of our nearest relatives. That being the case I can say with absolute certainty no defense attorney in the world wants a Police Department employee judging the veracity of an accused drug smuggler and here we had three of them all lined up with their attorneys. I was clearly not going to be selected but I had to go through the questioning.
The interior of the Federal Building is as you might imagine, cream walls, wooden floors and heavy oak doors. Federal Marshals glide through the corridors in their blue blazers looking like clerks and not at all like gun wielding Tommy Lee Jones in some improbable movie role. The building makes no provision for jury selection so we were shuffled into a courtroom and got some instructions, a room full of strangers with nothing much to do or say, and while we waited the late comers who had seized up the state of affairs better than I, were shown into the room.
"Ha," said Phil as he slid into a seat next to me. "You look like a pro at this." I was reading a penny dreadful novel about serial killers and the FBI but I refrained from pointing out to Phil that he was clearly the expert as he had timed his appearance just right, while I had gulped my breakfast and rushed to be exactly on time. We chatted and Phil told me how people used to gather in the Federal Building when it was also the Post Office to exchange gossip. I ran my idea past him that to return to those halcyon days we should blow up the seven mile bridge and force people to come by ferry. "And so we'd all experience a drop in our standard of living?" Phil the pragmatist said, thus reminding us all that the "good old days" were a time of no money and not much opportunity. Phil plays the piano at Little Palm island resort and has done so for two decades. "I'm the longest serving employee at Little Palm," he said thoughtfully, just before we were called in to another courtroom for the Voir-Dire.
I made the room laugh when Judge Martinez asked me his rote question about marital status: "Happy" I said, which set the theme for the morning. One juror said she was happily divorced, "I took him to the cleaners," she said when asked if she worked outside the home. There were quite a few "investors" and women who didn't work outside the home in the pool, but I noted they were from Key Largo, home to the wealthy people of the Keys. Federal Jury selection is county wide. Phil contrived to draw attention to himself immediately when the Judge noticed he was not taking the oath. "I don't like to swear to God" Phil said. He got a separate oath asking him to swear or affirm without being helped by God. The when he was asked if he could be impartial Phil looked glumly around the room and said "I don't really agree with the drug laws relating to marijuana in this country." There was a stricken pause. Judge Martinez, with a twinkle in his eye said. "I suppose we should take it you feel the drug laws should be more draconian and more strictly enforced?" Phil the musician ran his fingers through his wildly tousled hair and said: "I'm not sure I see the point of prosecuting marijuana dealers." Judge Martinez started down the path to discussion and then pulled back, "This isn't the place for a debate about our drug laws." Later while we were sitting in the corridor on another of our interminable pauses, Phil's name was called and he was excused. He grinned unabashed at me, the "professional juror in waiting" with my novel, and ran for the exit. I sighed; I knew I wasn't going to get selected but I had to go through the motions, so help me god.
"Could you agree to a not guilty verdict and go back to work and tell your colleagues what you voted?" asked the ever jovial judge when I said I could be impartial despite my job. "It would be an interesting debate," I said, "but I know how to defend my motives and my opinions." When the final fourteen jurors were called (twelve plus two alternates who get to sit in judgement but only vote if there is a member of the jury who has to drop out before the end of the trial which was projected to last two weeks) my name was not among them. I dropped off my request for parking reimbursement and ran out of the building into the pale winter sunshine outside. Cheyenne was glad to see me when I awoke her from a deep sleep, and the rest of the day was ours.
Had I served on the federal jury I would have been excused for two years from further service, as it is I am excused from state and federal duty for one whole year at this point. Then I know I will be called again, and again as usual. While strolling the dog park I noticed a poster for a play which had a very well received run at the Waterfront Playhouse. We went to see the play before Christmas and enjoyed the production thoroughly. It was more thought provoking than the well known movie by the same name featuring Henry Fonda. I came away from the play with many more questions in my mind than I had after the last time I saw the film. A friend of ours said, to our surprise, that she had never seen the film so the plot came as a complete surprise to her. It has since occurred to me that perhaps not serving on a jury is a blessing, I am judged by my trade and that will preclude me forever from sitting in judgement on some else's motives and actions. Following the drama of the play it is clear that presentation can be everything and who knows what truths would be presented in the course of the two weeks of the trial that I might have had to sit in judgement upon? Perhaps my non-selection spared me from making some horrible mistake, and sending someone to Federal prison for decades for smuggling marijuana might cause even drug free me some sleepless nights. Much to the surprise of the defense attorneys who rejected me from their jury.