Monday, December 15, 2008

Thirteen Annoyed Persons

[This is a repost of a story I originally posted on May 19, 2005, about the first time I served jury duty. Tomorrow, a new post about my second time around with jury duty. Enjoy - ]

Thirteen Annoyed Persons

The vacation I had been anticipating had to be postponed when Rob, my former co-apartment-renting-guy, brought me some misdirected mail back in April. Included was a jury summons. For the first time in my life, I had been called to jury duty.

This is what I get for voting. My candidates never win, and I have to take an hour and a half commute to the downtown courthouse.

It could have been worse. My first stroke of luck was that, with "The Amazing Race" on hiatus, I didn't have to take any time off from work... work was already taking time off from me. And not a moment too soon; I was to report to the courthouse the very first Monday after my last Friday of work. So, no chance of lost wages. Still... I had been looking forward to this vacation time. Oh well. Duty calls.

So I plugged the address, 210 Temple Street, into Mapquest for directions. They estimated it would take me a half hour to get to the courthouse. Mapquest does not know how to figure L.A. traffic into the equation.

I was instructed to be at the courthouse at 8am. Figuring in the morning traffic jam, I would have to be on the road by around 6:30. But then, it occured to me. I didn't WANT to be on time. How many times had I been called to any sort of gathering of people, only to find that the REAL start time would be 15 minutes to an hour after the requested time? I've played the fool too many times in situations like that. This time, I would be one of the late people whom the on-timers would have to sit around and wait for.

And what if I were wrong? What if they started right at 8 o'clock? What then? The worst they could do was fine me. But I was taking the gamble that they probably wouldn't do that. On the contrary, this could work to my advantage. "Your honor, I would request that the court dismiss the late, unreliable gentleman whose tardiness renders him unfit for duty." Motion granted. I go home.

To increase my odds of being quickly dismissed, I premeditated a few other ideas to make myself undesirable to a judge or lawyer. I would stop trimming my beard for four days in advance. I would shower that morning, but I would not use any deorderant or cologne, and I would leave my hair to fall as it may. I would wear a t-shirt and jeans. And I would be openly hostile with everyone I encountered. Indeed, I would be so passive-aggressive, they'd never know how passive-aggressive I was.

I've only ventured into downtown L.A. on two previous occassions. One of those times, I wasn't driving. The other time, I got lost. And so it was that this time as well, I got lost. Well, not "lost" so much. I knew I had made it to the right area, and I knew which direction would get me home; so I wouldn't say I was lost. But it was impossible to find the jurors-free parking lot. Downtown L.A. is nothing BUT parking lots. I turned into several, only to be told I was in the wrong place. I drove around in circles (well, rectangles) trying to find the proper lot. At one point, I glanced a sign that said "Police and Juror." I turned into that lot only to discover, on closer look, that the sign said "No Police and Juror Parking."

I finally parked, and immediately began walking in the wrong direction, toward a building that looked like a courthouse. In fact, it WAS a courthouse. It just wasn't the correct courthouse.

See, here I was thinking that I had to go to "THE" courthouse. Apparently, there are numerous courthouses in downtown L.A. I found at least five. And they're all right next to each other. I knew that L.A. had a Fashion District and Jewelry District (not as pretty as they sound), but not a Courthouse District. This begs the question: why not just make one big courthouse building?

I eventually asked someone to point me to Temple Street, which he did. Once on Temple, I proceeded to walk in the wrong direction. Again. The 300 block gave way to the 400 block, and I needed to be at 210.



By the time I got to the right building, and the right floor, and the right room, it was close to 9 o'clock. And I was right on time. Moments after I showed up, a woman appeared on a closed-circuit television to give instructions to jurors throughout the building. If I had been there on time, I would have spent an extra hour waiting. And believe me... there was already plenty of waiting to look forward to that day.



If you were ever wondering why there is no such TV show as "Law & Order: Jury Selection" (or "J.S." as it would eventually come to be known), I am going to tell you. Jury selection is a boring process. By 9:30, the woman with the gentle voice on the TV had finished explaining the way things would work. All day, they would call out about 30 names at a time, as needed, for each jury panel. Since there were three or four floors full of aspiring jurors, with each floor holding what I estimate to be 150 civilians, there would be long periods of waiting between panels. And so, our floor waited.

10 o'clock. 11 o'clock.

11:30, a panel was called. Only 20 people. I was not one of them. It was announced that these people were in contention for a trial that was projected to last 14 days. 14 days! Things were looking grim.

In the matter of money, the pay for jury duty is as shitty as rumored. The woman on the TV had informed us that the first day of service is complimentary on our behalf. That is to say, we get nothing. If we are called back for any additional days, we will be paid $15 a day. In addition to the 15, they will pay you $.34 per mile driven... but they only pay the mileage one way. In other words, they only care that you arrive. Whether or not you get home is of no concern.

More waiting. And then lunch. Lunch lasted an hour and a half. It can be said that the judicial system, at least in L.A., is very liberal with time. They started the day an hour late, they had us waiting around for 2 1/2 hours, they gave us 1 1/2 for lunch, and they call it quits at 4:30.

About an hour after we returned from lunch, another panel was called. This time, they called about 35 people. And I was one of them.

If I were to be excused from this panel, I would not be dismissed from service. I would have to return to the room on the fifth floor and await the possibility of being selected for another panel. If I were not selected for another panel that day, I would be required to return to the courthouse the next day, at no pay, and make myself available for panel selection until noon. At noon, they would declare that I had put in 24 hours worth of service, and I would be excused.

No matter what, I would be required to return to the courthouse the next day. That's why I consider it my second stroke of luck that I landed on this particular panel. We were informed that this trial was estimated to last until Wednesday. Great! Perfect! I'll take it! With this, I could avoid possible 14-day trials, and I would receive at least SOME compensation to make up for the cost of driving downtown and buying my own lunches. What did I do to deserve such a blessing?

***

The courtroom bugged my eyes. The ceiling was about 20 feet up. The four walls were all wood paneled -- a really deep-brown color of wood that refused to cooperate with the fluorescent lighting. Halfway between the floor and the ceiling, the walls ceased to be simple wood panels and turned into a picket-fence pattern -- wood, black, wood, black -- which could easily suggest prison bars to a conscience-stricken defendent. The carpet was tan, worn down everywhere except directly in front of the judge's bench, which I gather is some sort of sacred ground. All of the court officials made special efforts to avoid walking there.

The lawyers stood and faced the panel every time we entered or exited the room. I was very put off by this. I understand that it's meant to be some sort of sign of respect, but was it really necessary? The courtroom was small, so there was not much room to walk. No matter how close I tried to hug the wall, it felt like the lawyers were right on top of me. They were staring me down, defying me not to rule in their favor.

The judge was rather long-winded. (Not to say this is the shortest thing I've ever written.) It wasn't enough for him to tell us what to expect or what was expected of us. He was giving us an entire remedial history of the judicial system, and he described every step of the process in thorough detail before that process would begin. Honestly, law school cannot be more comprehensive than this guy was.

We began the process of describing ourselves to the court. There were four basic questions to answer. Which section of L.A. were we from? What is our occupation? What is the occupation of anyone we live with over the age of 18? Have we ever served on a jury before? Based on our answers, the judge would ask some follow-up questions. I was asked no additional questions, but was ridiculed for working on "reality TV", which the judge said was an oxymoron of a term. He later apologized.

By the time each of us went through our questions, it was past 4:30. We were to come back tomorrow. This meant I wouldn't have to worry about being on any other panel. I would either be on the jury for this trial, or I would be excused. Either way, I was done by Wednesday.
On Tuesday, the questioning continued. Their were yes-or-no questions asked to the entire group. Anyone whose answer conflicted with the rest of the group's would be asked some follow-up questions.

At this point, I felt like I was on "Jury Idol." I had to perform the right way, or be sent home. But I knew I wasn't going anywhere. There was no doubt in my mind that I was going to be on this jury. And why is that? Because, ladies and gentlemen... I. Am. Perfect.

I'm sorry, but it's true. I am the ideal American citizen. I do my work, I pay my taxes, and I spend my disposable income on entertainment. I'm college-educated. I complain about the government neither too much nor too little. I have a pleasant disposition. I am neither too attractive nor too repulsive. I am open-minded, objective and fair. I am young.

But, above everything else, I am a sucker. I didn't try to pull any stunts to get myself excused. I didn't lie in any way to try to make myself unappealing to the lawyers. And one of the other guys beat me to the "I'm angry at the world, and therefore too biased to serve as a juror" card. You can't have two people trying to do that on the same panel. It won't work. So that guy was excused, and I was left in.

When it got to the point where the lawyers were allowed to ask any questions they wanted of the panel, no one had any questions for me. Why would they? I'm perfect. If it were at all possible, every lawyer in the country would want twelve of me on every single trial. I'm not saying this to boast or brag. Not at all. I hate the fact that I'm the perfect juror. But, so be it. At least I was on the fast trial. I imagine I would have fought harder to be excused if I had been on that 14-day trial. For this trial, I had given up all hope of being excused, accepted my fate, and started looking toward getting this thing finished as quickly as possible.

By noon, they had found their twelve, plus one alternate. I was juror number eight. After lunch, the trial began.

***

So... selecting the jury is the long part. The trial breezed by in half an afternoon. The prosecution had four witnesses. There was no physical evidence, just testimony. The defense had nothing except the cross-examinations.

What was the trial about? Ha! I can't believe you actually think you would care. The charges were tresspassing and loitering. Seems a young man had had some run-ins with campus security at USC. USC is, apparently, a private college. Who knew? So the campus is private property. The young man had been told to keep off the property before. So, one night, when he was discovered lingering around a bike rack, security believed he was looking to steal, and used his previous warnings as a way to bring him up on charges.

If I missed any testimony, it was for two reasons: 1) I am easily bored when people start talking about uninteresting things, which leaves my mind wandering off in any number of other directions. And 2) the court stenographer was much more compelling than anything else happening in that room. I could barely stop myself from staring at her efforts the whole time.

The court stenographer was a busy, focused woman who looked not unlike Judith Light. She had this specialty keyboard hooked up to a laptop. This keyboard made not the slightest sound. That fact was all the more incredible because of her methods. She was pounding the keys harder than a jackhammer hitting cement. And it looked so sloppy that I couldn't believe she was creating actual words. Her hands flapped carelessly up and down, like a dog struggling to propel itself through the water. And yet, from my vantage point, I could see complete sentences appearing on her monitor, while fold after fold of narrow paper would glide through the equally silent printer and rest gently in a perfectly sized box. Watching this woman work was amazing. I'm sure the specialty keyboard has some sort of trick buttons that stand for entire words, like "the" and "testimony", or something like that. Still... that's some hardcore typing.

Before the day was up, we were able to begin deliberating. I felt bad for the defendent. He had no case at all. His story was that he had a friend that lived near the USC campus, and he would cut through as a shortcut. So, why didn't the friend testify that this was true? Why didn't the friend talk about what they were doing that night? Why didn't the friend just show up in the courtroom for support? Why wasn't there any family there for support? The poor guy had nothing. He was all alone in that courtroom. He is probably all alone, always.

As 4:30 rolled around, we knew we had to wrap things up. God forbid we keep court in session past the witching hour of 4:30pm.

So we were back the next morning at 9am. And let me just say... ker-ching ker-ching! My earnings were now up to $30, plus 30 paid miles! I was raking it in with this trial!

Anyway, deliberations were a lot of laughs. I'm not being sarcastic. This was a funny group of people, and we were getting our zingers in at every opportunity. Which makes me hate myself. That poor guy is sitting out there, waiting for us to determine his fate. This wasn't a life-or-death trial by any stretch of the imagination, but still. Guilty or not guilty will make a significant difference in his life. And here we are, laughing it up. I also enjoy laughing at the disabled and the infirmed, thank you.

For a while, it seemed like we were going to pronounce him guilty on one charge and not guilty on the other. In order to be guilty of loitering, you have to linger in an area and presume to commit a crime if the opportunity presents itself. In other words, he didn't steal a bike, but he probably would have if he'd had the chance. True. As for trespassing, you can only be pronounced guilty of that if the prosecution has shown beyond the shadow of a doubt that it was your INTENTION to commit a crime. To me, it didn't seem like he went to USC with the specific purpose of stealing a bike.

But here's the thing... the way the law is written, trespassing is the intent to harm or damage property or property RIGHTS. And since USC is private property, and this guy was told not to set foot on campus again, we had to find him guilty of intentionally violating those rights. So, after a couple hours of deliberating, we found him guilty on both charges.

And that was it. We were done. They sent us home. Who knows what the punishment was? The thing is, we think this guy is on parole from a previous crime. So, he'll probably get more than just a slap on the wrist for this. But the judge reminded us -- multiple times and in lengthy detail -- that it's not our job to worry about that. We have to ignore the consequences and objectively determine guilt.

As promised, the trial was over on Wednesday. I was home by noon, and my vacation was officially allowed to begin. First order of business for my vacation: a midnight screening of the new "Star Wars."

And now, all I have to do is kick back and wait for my $30 check to roll in. How much do you want to bet it's taxed?