Citylife: Jury Duty, part 2

September 7, 2010

Justice in a democratic society begins here, in voir dire, or jury selection.

You and everyone else crowds into the courtroom, filling even the jury box. The judge explains the case, the two counts: basically, DUI, and driving drunk with a suspended license.

The judge is tanned, slick, super-friendly. But he flusters a little when one of the prospectives says he should be excused because he knows him. The judge, frozen smile, asks how and apologizes for not remembering the man. "A fundraiser," says the man, and he's gone. The woman next to you snickers.

On the bench, the judge repeats the civic lesson as if he had been the narrator of the film you screened back in the jury room. Across from the judge, the state's attorneys are appropriately rumpled. The defendant's lawyer is like a kid, chewing on something, bobbing in his chair, twirling his pencil, shaking his leg; he barely interacts with his client, as if he -- in his oily suit -- really couldn't be bothered with the poor sucker.

And the poor sucker looks thunderstruck. He's got old country written all over him, a flat and meaty face, mouth slightly agape, a moustache that looks like a brown smear. He's wearing short-sleeves, brown pants. A woman in a generic suit leans in to him, whispering in Polish, repeating every word said in the courtroom. The defendant barely breathes.

Then the judge starts his questioning of individual potential jurors. Name, employment, educational background. Has anyone been a victim of a crime? Has anyone been convicted of a crime? Has anyone or anyone in their family had a DUI? Can any of this affect your verdict?

Even though he's not talking to you, you actually consider every question. And as he begins his queries, you perk up. You've been surprised and quietly pleased with the diversity of your jury duty pool: young and old and middle-aged, black and white, Latino and maybe Middle Eastern. It's not perfect, it's not all-inclusive -- you know there are no captains of industry here, no medical doctors, no elected officials -- but it's varied.

The first prospective is a millworker of undefined ethnicity from a southern burb and he sails through. The second is a young white man with a weary and skeptical expression.

The judge asks, "Did you finish high school, college?"

And the fellow, a tattoo artist, is chagrined. "I have a GED," he says.

As the questioning proceeds, you discover he served several years for a home invasion.

Then there's a teacher and a payroll assistant, both white. The judge simply confirms the teacher's college education, asks about the payroll assistant's, who it turns out only took a few college classes.

But the inquiry is slightly different when the judge gets to a young black man with dreds. He asks if he has a high school degree and the black man says yes. Then the judge asks directly where he works. And the man gives the name of a hotel chain.

The judge asks, "And what do you there?"

And it turns out the young man is in charge of their tech services. "Oh," says the judge, not even trying to hide his surprise, and then confirms the man's college education.

It's so subtle, but it makes you squirm. You look around, wondering if anyone else noticed: The defendant is still as a tree, his interpreter as insistent as a squirrel. The defense lawyer is fiddling with the crease on his pants. The states attorneys are lost in their laptops. Most of the other would-be jurors are buried in books, magazines, or hypnotized by vague shadows on the ceiling and walls. A black woman catches your eye, purses her lips, but you can't tell if it's complicity or annoyance about any of a million other things.

Later, the judge grills a young woman with a Spanish surname. She's a freelance TV producer.

"Cable?" the judge asks, so amused that you can almost see an invisible arm reaching across the courtroom to pat her on the head.

No, she says, and offers the name of a top-rated broadcasted show.

And again the judge says, "Oh," and again he has to ask the question he skipped about a college education.

It takes three long sessions to get the legal minyan of twelve jurors. They tag ten the first time, two the next and the final two in the last round. But you disengage and inter yourself in Chasing Fire, the book you brought to break up the hours, well before the second session. In its pages, justice seems honorable, not a drudge.

The ripples you perceive are that, just ripples, but the ennui that engulfs you when you think about following their course makes you glassy-eyed, makes the voices in the courtroom distant echoes. By the time you're dismissed, you're exhausted The gnawing sentimentality about fairness and America is bittersweet in your mouth.