The pool was full. Crowded as a matter of fact. With about 170 people to choose from, what were the chances they would pick me?
Recently I was “called” to Jury Duty. I’ve never “served” before.
In part, the Jury Summons read:
Tell your employer you are summoned to serve as a juror. Call after 5pm each evening before your appearance date to learn whether or not you are to report to the Central Jury Room.
Things to know:
- Jurors are paid $40 per day. Travel, parking and lunch, are not included.
- There are no exemptions everyone who is eligible must serve.
- You have a legal obligation to serve.
- Failure to respond to the summons is punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 or imprisonment of up to 30 days or both.
Jurors are on-call for jury selection for one week.
I forgot to call the first night. It was Sunday, May 10th, Mother’s Day and I’d just spent a truly glorious day with my two kids picnicking and hiking at a favorite spot. I completely panicked Monday morning when I got to work and remembered to call. Luckily, the recorded message from the night before indicated that there was no jury duty that day.
In fact, each evening following, the recording repeated the same message: “no jury duty” the next day.
By the time Thursday rolled around, I assumed I had dodged-a-bullet of sorts. While it’s true I’ve always wanted to serve on a jury, this summons came at the worst possible time for me. I’m an Admissions Coordinator at a private school and with barely 4 weeks left before the end of the school year, I was wrapping up tours, and contracts and solidifying enrollment for the following year. There were day-to-day dealings that needed attention and end-of-the-year activities I needed to attend and document. And that didn’t include the fact that my own two kids had end-of-the-year events at their school as well, that required my attention or attendance, including a sports banquet and a “moving up ceremony”. To say I was busy would be an understatement.
Needless to say, I was genuinely surprised when Thursday night’s message indicated that juror numbers 2001 through 2185, were to report to the Commissioner of Jurors at 9:00am the next morning. I was juror number 2164.
Friday, May 15
The line began to form outside the Jury Building shortly before the doors opened promptly at 9:00am. In an orderly fashion, we filed into a large room filled with seats. Somewhere I had read that Wi-Fi was available in the Jury Building so I brought a book and my laptop. Fridays are my busiest days at work. I also, had it in my head that I’d just be sitting around for hours before going home and I might as well get a jump on my work if I could. After taking a seat I glanced around the room. There were about 80 of us. Sometime within the two-weeks between when we all received our summons and being seated in this room, the pool had shrunk by more than half.
On the original Summons, there’s a statement that reads:
“You may ask for a one-time postponement of up to 6 months.”
If you cannot serve, contact the Commissioner of Jurors before your date of service.
A second postponement may be requested if:
- you have a family or medical emergency
- serving on a jury for 5 or more days will pose severe financial hardship to you
- you are a student currently enrolled in classes
- you are 78 years of age or older
I took my “postponement” several years ago when my kids were little and I was their “primary care taker”. Perhaps the missing potential jurors had exercised their request for a one-time postponement or were exempt for some of the reasons listed above. Maybe they just didn’t show up. What happens if you just don’t show up? I learned later that the Commissioner of Jurors will send the Sheriff out to escort you in. At least, that’s what she said when someone asked.
The Commissioner of Jurors was a professionally dressed, pleasant, no-nonsense, middle-aged woman with short blondish-grayish hair who spoke with authority. She clearly explained to us what to expect. We were being called for a civil trial that might “take a while”, she said. The words barely left her lips when one by one, row-by-row, hands immediately sprung up and excuses as to why people couldn’t or didn’t want to be a juror began to fly through air. Some of them sounded quite legitimate, some, not so much.
- I have no childcare.
- I’m a college student and taking summer classes that begin next week.
- I can’t hear very well.
- I have a wedding to go to.
- My daughter is graduating in another state.
- I have no transportation to get here.
- I own my own business and no one can take my place. etc., etc.
Swiftly and decisively the Commissioner addressed each person and their excuse. Within 10-minutes we lost about 30 more potential jurors. It was obvious she’d been down this road before. She was pro. I was impressed and told her so when the opportunity presented itself. The rest of us were asked to fill out some standard paper work and a Juror Questionnaire in carbon copy. The questionnaire was designed specifically for the type of case we were here for. We each kept a copy and the others went to the Judge, the Plaintiffs attorney and the Defense attorney to be used during Jury Selection.
Have you or someone close to you ever:
(among other things….)
Been the victim of a crime
Okay. I thought to myself, here’s why they’re going to let me go, for sure.
The Commissioner of Jurors then asked us to stand. She and a Court Officer escorted us to the Court House where Jury Selection would begin. Watches and bracelets were placed in small bins along with our bags and pocket items and then sent through an x-ray machine as we each walked through a body scanner to enter the building.
We were headed to the 4th floor. There’s only one small elevator in the Court Building. I, like many others, chose to take the stairs. One smiling woman and three gentlemen in suits greeted us into a courtroom directing us to take a seat in the gallery. The gallery is where “spectators” sit. This was a classic courtroom, much like the ones you see on T.V. shows. The gallery was filled with rows of beautiful, wooden pew-style benches. A bar or railing separated the gallery from the attorney’s tables, and in the front of the room stood the Bench, which is the raised desk the judge sits at, with doors on either side. Facing the gallery, the jury box was to the left of the judge’s bench. There was a separate entrance to the jury box where members of the jury sat that was also enclosed by a rail. The witness box (or stand) was a raised seat between the bench and the jury box.
The last time I’d been in a courtroom, the Judge had invited me into the “well” (the open space between the bench and the council tables) to read a letter I had been encouraged to write by a parole officer named Diane. As I faced the bench, Diane stood by my right side holding my arm ever so gently, in an effort to help me steady my shaking hand as I read an Impact Statement to the Court. That was about five years ago and the reason I thought I would be eliminated at some point from the pool.
As I sat in the gallery of this courtroom, I was immediately drawn to the stacks, of white cardboard boxes (the kind you might use to hold file folders in) that were placed along the inside of the railing behind the Plaintiff’s table. There had to be at least twenty of them. I couldn’t help but wonder what was in them. There was also a stack of about ten 3’ x 5’ white poster-boards leaning against a table inside the well, in front of the bench. They too captured my interest. The next thing I noticed was that there were three attorney tables. If there’s a Plaintiff and a Defendant, to whom did the third table belong to? It wasn’t long before we learned that the Plaintiffs had filed suit against “two doctors” and an “institution and its staff of nurses”. The doctors had one attorney and the institution and its nurses had a separate attorney. Two Defendants.
We were asked to come into the jury box via random selection. Juror “numbers” were randomly picked out of a clear tube with hand crank, similar to a bingo cage where the hand-crank is used to mix up the balls before they’re lifted through a latched opening and “called out” when the cylinder comes to a rest. The remaining juror numbers were typed on small pieces of paper and tumbled inside the tube before selected. The tube sat on the middle council table. If your number was called, you were asked to leave the gallery and come and sit in the jury box where the three sets of lawyers would take turns asking a variety of questions.
A civil trial requires 6 jurors and 2 alternates to be picked to “hear” the case.
The lawyers tried not to reveal too much detail about the actual case, only giving us information that was necessary and could aid in their selection process. When your number was picked, your questionnaire was pulled and a copy was given to each “side”. After the first eight potential jurors were called, some cursory, general questions were posed to the “box” and the “gallery” and again, one by one, hands shot into the air. This time, a line formed at the entrance to the courtroom and private discussions were held with all four attorneys in the hall. Some folks returned to the gallery but many, we never saw again.
- Do you or does anyone in your immediate family work in the medical field?
- Have you or anyone in your immediate family ever had a heart attack?
- Have you or anyone in your immediate family ever been to Vassar Hospital?
One super-obnoxious man who felt the need to make his feelings known to us all, all-day-long, couldn’t help but make a remark after the third question was asked:
We live here. We’ve all been to Vassar!
And indeed, it is a local hospital, pretty much everyone had. So we all joined the line that began to snake around the gallery and each of us had our private huddle in the hallway. When it was my turn, the attorneys wanted to when and why I’d been to Vassar.
“I have two sports-playing, teenagers.” I said, “Aside from giving birth there, let’s just say we’ve frequented the ER more than once over the years, as recently as this past November when my son broke his collar bone in two places playing soccer and last month, when my daughter sprained her wrist at the bowling alley.”
The Plaintiffs lawyer then asked:
“Would you be inclined to favor Vassar in any way as a result of your visits there?”
“No, I said. Not necessarily.”
They all smiled and sent me back to the gallery.
This is how it went for the majority of the day. Words like policies, procedures, protocol and expert testimony were used in the questioning. Sometimes statements would be made and a brief discussion between a lawyer and the jurors in the box would ensue.
As the hours passed, the grunts and grumblings grew louder. It was frustrating and disheartening to me, not to mention distracting. I kept thinking, if I ever needed a jury, I wouldn’t want people who didn’t care or didn’t want to be there, making a judgment on my behalf. I was really trying to pay attention to the questions the attorneys were asking or discussing. I was trying to understand how this process was working or if it was working. Despite the “bad timing” — for all of us, I’m sure — I’m the cornball, who believes we’re all privileged at birth by the freedoms we have in this country and that serving on a jury is important and an honor, in addition to being our civil duty. I was taking the process very seriously (and thankfully, I wasn’t the only one.)
This is the crux of our judicial system. Isn’t it?
I wanted to believe that it was.
Despite the huffing and puffing about how long this was taking, the attorneys plowed through the day taking their turns asking questions, making statements, having brief discussions. I began to formulate a sense of who they were in my own mind.
The only woman attorney was one of two lawyers for the Plaintiffs. The pair came from a firm in Maryland. The woman was about 5’4, in her late 50s and had straight, brown, shoulder-length hair parted at the side. She wore black heels and a belted dress that fanned out at the bottom like an umbrella. It was chilly in the courtroom. She wore a sweater. She also wore a “permanent” smile on her face. It reminded me of the “Cheshire Cat”, not in a bad way, just as a matter of fact. She graduated with J.D. Honors Citation from George Washington University Law School, 1985 after getting her Bachelors of Arts at the University of Maryland. Maybe it was that she appeared competent or that she was the only woman attorney or both, but there was something very interesting about her, to me.
Like the Cheshire Cat ever smiling, she silently observed everything and EVERYONE. She did not ask any questions of the potential jurors though, that was left to her partner. The older man was seemingly pleasant. He had a slight build and was not much taller than she was. He had a small, oval face and his receding hairline was met with long thinning strands of silver that swept across the middle of his head. A 1971 graduate of the University of Maryland School of law, this man was well seasoned, well learned and well dressed. His smile exuded confidence and he was clearly comfortable in his own skin. There was an “old school” wisdom or charm about him and when he walked around the courtroom, there was a spring to his step, literally. When I looked at him Jiminy Cricket came to mind.
The two lawyers for the two defendants gave off a kind of “good cop – bad cop” vibe to me from the way they interacted with each other. The “good cop”, was a local attorney who represented the two doctors. He was a man in his mid-to-late 40s, of medium build, brown hair, a dad of three. He seemed like a “nice” guy. Friendly. His “thing” I noticed, was to ask , “fair question or fair statement?” when “interviewing jurors in the box. It was as if he was establishing a level playing field or seeking your approval. He was smart. Likeable and I liked him. He was a graduate of Cornell University and went on to Washington University School of Law where he graduated in 1996 as a member of the Order of Barristers.
The “bad cop” was not really a “bad cop” at all. It’s just the way the two attorneys seemed to feed off of each other, after each other that highlighted the differences in their personalities. By all accounts, the “hospital’s” lawyer was sharp, smooth. The word, “slick” comes to mind, but again, not in a bad way. More like, in a “polished” or experienced way. A handsome man in his late 50s, his crystal blue eyes sparkled right into the gallery. He was a former DA and veteran trial lawyer. He graduated from Brooklyn Law School after completing a rigorous pre-med undergrad program giving him a unique understanding of medical cases. He came from a firm about an hour south of us. He didn’t smile nearly as much as the other lawyers and when he did I noticed a slight gap between his top two middle teeth. He approached the podium in front of the jury box with thoughtfulness. You could almost “see” his mind working. He would say something and then intentionally hesitate before speaking again, planting a seed. He gave you “food for thought.” He’d build his questions slowly and then strike quickly, deliberately, like a viper. Try as I did to change the thought, I just couldn’t and from day one, I called him “The Viper.” There was no question he was there to defend and he’s a man you would want to be defending you. His message was very clear: WAIT until you hear ALL of the evidence, until the Defense has a chance to present their case before making a judgment.
I could do that.
The selection process was at times a little confusing. Even though the attorneys had the questionnaires of the eight people in the jury box, when they asked questions, they would often also, face the gallery. Hands would shoot up into the air, a line would form by the door and private meetings would take place in the hall. More potential jurors were “let go”. After the lunch break, the pool had dwindled to about 35. By day’s end, there were 12 of us left in the gallery with 8 still in the box. I’d just about convinced myself that perhaps I had dodged the bullet when the attorneys nestled together near the counsels’ tables. I thought well, that was it and the 8 in the box were the ones. But after their brief, quiet discussion amongst themselves, at 4:45pm that Friday afternoon, all 20 of us were asked to return on Monday morning at 9:00am.
Admittedly, I was shocked.
Still, the whole process intrigued me. Somehow by this point, all the grunters and groaners were gone. All day long, I was interested, fascinated even, at the method of elimination and how it played out but at no point during that day, not for one second, did it ever cross my mind that what was about to unfold would become all-consuming and at times emotionally and mentally overwhelming, not to mention, a life changing event.
Note: While this is more than a blog post, it’s not quite a book however, it is a story that I feel the need to tell and although it’s not so much about the details of the trial, it is about the incredible process of our judicial system, from jury selection to verdict. So if you’re interested, stay tuned….
I was at work when my cell phone rang and I could see from my contact list that it was “Parole Officer – Diane” calling. Diane had been assigned to our case last Spring and had interviewed me for several hours. She was the only person that I encountered within the judicial system, in the five months that passed from arrest to sentencing, who actually took the time to listen, really listen to what happened to my family and understand how much it effected us. During the sentencing in June, she stood in between me and the assistant district attorney prosecuting our case. To my right was the defense attorney, next to him, his client; the offender. We were standing before the judge’s bench when Diane reached up and touched my arm because my right hand had begun to tremble uncontrollably when I started to speak.
It’s not like I’ve never spoken in public before, I have, many times but this was different, very different. It was personal. I was talking about my children. The gentle reminder of Diane’s presence calmed me, enabling me to continue to read aloud the 3-page, typed statement I’d prepared. The court calls it a Victim’s Impact Statement. For me, it was a bearing of my soul, exposing my innermost feelings and fears, in public. Difficult. Painful. But as any parent can relate, when it comes to your children and in particular, their safety, your own comfort is inconsequential. You do what you have to, for them. You do ANYTHING. Diane gave me strength that day to do what I needed to do, so when I answered her call and she asked if I would speak on a Victim’s Impact Panel, I said, “Yes”.
This would be the second time a panel of this kind was held in our county and the second time I would speak on it.
This past Thursday, the panel gathered in a small room off to the side of the community room at our city’s police station. We met with a victims advocate who is also a psychiatrist. She gave us breathing techniques and other ideas on what to do if we got anxious while speaking. We introduced ourselves to each other and briefly mentioned the type of crime that had effected our lives. The woman next to me was one of three of us from the first panel. It was oddly comforting to see her again. Hers is a powerful story. She and her husband were attacked by her daughter’s ex-boyfriend. He had machetes hidden in his jacket when he entered their home and cut them both, badly. Her husband lost a thumb. He was a carpenter. He turned to alcohol. They’re separated now.
Shortly after the introductions, we took our seats at the front of the community room and watched the parolees shuffle in, one by one, sitting three at a table. There were ten, maybe fifteen tables. Questionnaires had been placed in front of each seat and they were instructed to fill them out at the end in order to receive “credit” for being there. Five officers were strategically placed throughout the room.
Like the last time, Diane introduced me first and rather abruptly, the room went from chatty and busy to silent while all eyes settled on me. I took a deep breath and began to recount what happened to my family and how it has effected our lives. After a while, even though I could still hear myself talking, a part of me seemed to detach from the speaker and I also became the looker, the watcher, the observer; scrutinizing the bodies that sat before me. I found myself noting what they were wearing, how they sat; their demeanor. There were men and women of various ages, although the majority of them were young. They were dressed in every fashion, whether it was proper attire, or not. Although, they were told to remove their hats before we started. They were black, white, Spanish, Asian and other. It was a mixed crowd and unless you knew what brought this diverse group of people together, you couldn’t guess what they had in common. I didn’t have to. Other than the fact that they were all here by court order, mandated to sit for the next 2 hours and listen to our stories, I knew that each one of these people was a convicted felon, having committed such crimes as aggravated assault, battery, arson, fraud, attempted murder, burglary, illegal drug use or sales.
Like the last time, I found the audience to be quiet and respectful. And again, I was honestly taken by how attentive everyone was. Really. You can’t fake eye contact and most of the people there seemed genuinely interested in what we had to say. For many of these offenders, it was the first time they came “face to face” with real consequences of their actions.
After revisiting the life-changing event that brought us to this room, we were escorted back into the smaller room to “debrief” and discuss our experience with the psychiatrist and other law enforcement agents that were there. About ten minutes later, Diane came in holding the questionnaires that the parolees were required to fill out and handed them to us to look at. It was interesting to learn what crimes these people actually committed and fascinating to learn what, if anything about our stories had an impact on them. I was curious to see what they would say to their victims if they had the opportunity, “I’m sorry”, was the most popular response.
Just like last time, it was the effect the crime had on my children that made the biggest impression on the offenders that were impacted by my story. Perhaps it was the fact that I was too distraught to put up a Christmas tree for my kids or that my 9-year old daughter was having nightmares and wetting her bed. Maybe it was hearing that my son (who had just turned 11) was a primary suspect and upon learning that, I instinctively refused to sign the complaint statement that would allow the detectives to pursue their investigation, leaving us effectively, on our own. Or, it could have been me telling them, that for most of November, December and January, my boy would sit outside our house, in the cold, for over an hour after school, waiting for me to come home from work, rather than go inside by himself because he was too afraid, that struck a chord with some.
One man who commented on my story said he felt “helpless” while listening to me talk about what happened.
So did I — at the time.
And just like last time, I remained unemotional and composed, throughout– until I got into my car to go home.
I realize, you can’t let an event in your life define who you are. It’s not what happens to you but what you do when something happens that becomes part of your character. It’s recognizing what you would do differently and what you did well. It’s about trusting your instincts and finding the strength to do what you know in your heart is right, even when the person closest to you is trying to dissuade you.
Ultimately, it’s what you learn from the event that helps shape who you are.
I’m not quite finished dealing with the aftermath of this event. It’s opened up a Pandora’s Box in my life. It’s put me onto a path I never expected to be on. But I’m Okay with where I am today and even though it’s not a very comfortable place to be, I believe I’m where I’m supposed to be. I think that’s true for the rest of my family, too.
When I ask myself if it was a good thing for me to speak and tell my story, again and when I wonder if it made a difference or mattered to anyone, I can honestly say, “Yes, it did”, to me anyway. It helped me put things in perspective and reminded me that I am living life on life’s terms, not mine and of how far I’ve come from feeling helpless and not being able to put up a Christmas tree.