I sat in a large auditorium with 500 or so other people equally happy to be there — with happiness defined as the knowledge that you’ve dodged the potential fine for blowing-off jury duty. I’d never seen a prison movie where an inmate explains his presence by the fact that he’d missed jury duty, but the fine print on the back of the summons leaned that direction.
Time passed slowly. Many people that had come on the wrong day were weeded-out by the end of the first hour. One 20-something, sporting a scraggly pony tail and dressed in scraps and rags, nearly melted down in front of the woman at the tall podium who informed him he’d come a day early. “You mean I’m going to have to come here again tomorrow?”
He nearly went down to the ground when the answer was yes. His knees still shaky, he turned away from the podium and began a Charlie Brown inspired schlumpy march to the exit.
By 10:45 our particular room, which was one of four, had shed half of its occupants to bailiffs who led them off to distant courtrooms. Those of us still in the room felt a bit cocky. Another entire pool of potential jurors was due to show up around noon and it didn’t seem likely that a 200 – 300 of us already here were suddenly going to be needed at 11:30. I, as juror 4026, was particularly over-confident as 4026 had the distinction of being the very last number.
All of these happy thoughts were soon dashed by the presence of another bailiff, who announced in a loud voice that he needed a group of 30 for a court. The range he calls out starts at 3996 and ended at … 4026. Really? They skipped over the other couple of hundred jurors with lower numbers to pick on the last 30?
Several minutes later my 29 friends and I sat in the small jury room. This room, which is meant to handle as many as 12 people comfortably, immediately made me pine for the larger auditorium we’d just left.
20 stuffy minutes later the door opened and a large man wearing what at first glance appeared to be a black muumuu on his body and a light sheen of sweat on his face announced, “Hi folks, I’m Judge Bob Candly (not his real name) — and they make me wear this black polyester dress.”
His announcement drew a light round of nervous laughter but it was apparent that he was expecting more. He ignored the lack of appreciation – for now — and then told us all to grab something to eat before the jury selection process began. He then got into a mild argument with himself as to whether or not we’d actually have the time to exit the building to go to a nearby Quiznos. The argument was left unresolved.
About an hour later my same 29 friends and I sat in the benches in the back of a large courtroom. I, being the last juror in today’s pool, was juror 30. This means that I was in the back row on the far left. I can still see the legal teams and the defendant quite well, but the Judge was a long, long ways away. He made up for the lack of proximity with the volume of his comments (both in terms quantity and amplitude).
“Ladies and gentlemen, I want to start up front by thanking all of you again for your time. Your participation in this process breathes life into the Sixth Amendment. Without you none of this would be possible. Without your selfless dedication of your valuable time we would not have the ability to offer a trial by jury — which is one of the best things about our country and its legal system.”
Judge Candly went on like this for quite a while. Things livened up a bit when he attempted to give us guidance as the various burdens of proof required in various settings (probable cause vs. beyond a reasonable doubt, etc.). “People, you aren’t going to be able to assign a number to this. It defies labeling by a specific number.”
We the potential jury nodded in general agreement, though we collectively hoped that this picked up a little.
“Let me give you an example.”
The Judge picked up a hockey puck from his desk and offered a few thoughts regarding that sport and the recent Stanley Cup Finals. He then placed the puck at the far end of his bench and indicated that this represented the end zone at one end of a football field. No, he did not provide a seque from hockey to football. As he moved the puck along to various points along the bench he called out what level of confidence this represented. Such was his fervor that by the time he reached the point where we the people believed he was going to apply the label of “probable cause,” he instead called out, “Where was I? Does anyone remember what I was saying?”
Juror 29, a retired school teacher, turned to me in disbelief. I had no wisdom here and was certainly not interested in getting any more involved in this than I already was.
Eventually someone, I believe Juror 11, called out, “You were talking about football.”
Much nervous tittering ensued, though the lead prosecutor looked like he might vomit.
The Judge responded, “Well, now that’s not helpful. Are you trying to be helpful?”
When no one responds he continues on with, “Ah, I remember now, probable cause.”
He went on for quite some time on the topic of probable cause and eventually pushed the puck along a bit further. “Now folks, the next level we reach is the big one, and the most important one of the day — reasonable doubt. I’ll get back to that concept in a second but to confirm, what you folks need to achieve is a level just beyond reasonable doubt.”
He pushed the puck just a wee bit further along and then beams at the result. “I guess you could say that we’re on the 19 yard line now.”
The Judge then gave an involuntary quiver and examined his work via the puck. “Folks, I’m going to have to apologize. This isn’t the way I normally do this and I thought I’d change it up a little to keep things fresh. I said up front that you can’t assign a number to this and I’ll be danged if that’s not exactly what I did. I apologize.”
He moved the puck back to the beginning (the right side of his bench from our perspective), took a deep breath, and declared, “Folks, let’s say that this is an oven.”
I felt Juror 29 looking at me, and I once again silently shook my head.
The oven analogy went on for quite some time and just about got back to the point at which we’d be discussing probable cause when the Judge once again stopped himself. “Folks, I’m sorry again. This just isn’t working. I’m going to have to start all over again just to make sure that we’re all on the same page. I definitely don’t want to confuse anyone.”
And, just like that, the Judge sat back down and reintroduced himself. To his credit (or his condition) he approached the second introduction as if the last 20 minutes had never happened. He embarked upon a lengthy description of his life and his family, including tidbits such as:
- He’s been on the bench for 20 years as was first elected to office in 1998. He then tried to reconcile the obvious problem with the math (it’s 2015) before he gave up and moved on.
- He used to have a bulldog with a flatulence problem. He missed the dog as it provided excellent cover for him.
- He’s the youngest of four brothers and once did nearly 30 parachute jumps from a plane — mainly to aggravate his brother who had told him that he’d had a seriously scary dream that he (future Judge) would die if he ever jumped more than 13 times.
- He asked if anyone in the crowd was a teacher. When Juror 29 softly replied that she was a retired teacher the Judge beamed and said, “I used to sleep with a teacher.” When that line of thought didn’t go as well as he’d hoped he quickly added, “She’s my wife.”
- At one point he dove into his treasure trove of pop culture as it related to his life and retold a portion of a particular Duck Dynasty episode that he was fond of (it involved tossing a shotgun shell to a suitor of a daughter, and then letting the suitor know that the next one would be coming in a lot faster after midnight).
- He had a pet skunk — stink gland removed — under his desk. He instructed the bailiff to come get the skunk and walk it amongst the jury pool. All of us shifted a bit nervously in a combination of curiosity and embarrassment as the Judge blew kisses to the skunk under his desk and spoke baby-talk to it. As the bailiff drew close the Judge slapped his desk and guffawed, “Had you going there, didn’t I?”
The personal history portion bled in to his extremely brief description of the case. He made it clear, very clear, that the prosecution had to prove all of the elements involved. He then attempted to spell out the various elements, lost his way in his attempt to number them, and then summarized the discussion by saying that the Prosecution was the party that had to keep track of the elements. We the jury have to then decide if the Prosecution has done their job, “So it doesn’t really matter if I can’t keep track of them.”
At some point I lost just about all interest and began looking about the courtroom. This was made more interesting by the two legal teams, who ignored the Judge as they stared down the potential jurors, attempting to find out as much as they could about our thought processes and values via the window to our souls that was our eyes. When my gaze was intercepted by the eyes of the Lead Prosecutor I was left with the uneasy feeling that he was again about to vomit, while the Co-Counsel for the defense had such a fierce look in her eyes I thought we must’ve dated.
I tried to ignore the lawyers, and the Judge, and focused on the defendant and her unique approach to her appearance. Her hair, which went down to the middle of her back, was jet black until it reached her shoulders, at which point it was dyed a moderately light shade of brown.
She appeared young enough to qualify for juvenile court and short enough to need blocks on the pedals of her car. She maintained a look of such ferocity throughout the process that I feared she was either suffering from a stomach ailment or about to pummel her legal team with her tiny fists. In some of the Judge’s meandering comments he’d posited that she was on trial for attempting to evade a peace officer on foot. I tried to picture how this might have gone down, and whether or not she was any faster than my 9-year-old son, who was about her size.
I was brought back into the here and now by the booming voice of the Judge, who announced, “… and with that, I’m going to turn it over to the lawyers. Remember folks, these people ARE lawyers so they’re probably going to try and confuse you on some of the points that I just laid out for you. And, once again folks, thank you again for your time, which I know is a precious commodity.”
Both legal teams looked hesitantly towards the Judge, who gestured angrily at the Lead Prosecutor.
The Lead Prosecutor walked around the bar to approach us and used a remote to turn on a TV mounted on the side wall. The TV was likely close enough for those on the legal teams to see it, but might as well be in another room for those of us in the back of the court room. The Lead Prosecutor swallowed nervously, then announced “My thanks to all of you again for your time today. I just want to let you know in advance that this is my first trial so please understand if I’ve got some jitters to work out.”
Any pity he evoked was quickly interrupted by the Judge, who cried out, “Aren’t you going to introduce yourself?”
The Lead Prosecutor shrunk a bit further and quietly said his name. I didn’t catch it as I didn’t have canine-hearing and was primarily pondering the wisdom of telling a potential jury pool that you’re wet behind the ears, and scared.
The Lead Prosecutor attempted to regain momentum by leading us through a Power Point I couldn’t see that dealt with all of the points the Judge had attempted to explain with the very real hockey puck and the fictitious oven. He quickly lost us and the Judge sealed the deal by crying out, “Really? You’re going to spend your 10 minutes talking about what I already talked about?”
I believe the Lead Prosecutor soiled himself at this point, though fortunately I was far enough away that I’ll never know for sure. He fumbled past a few more slides of equally redundant information, and decided to focus on the definition of the term “evade.” He attempt was cut-off towards the end by the Judge, who told everyone to wait whilst he found the exact definition in his copy of the penal code. The Judge was unsuccessful, and then asked all lawyers present pitch-in to find the correct portion of the code and the related definition. Both legal teams dove in. After about 5 minutes of collaborative efforts, his Honor found the definition, which was the exact same one the Lead Prosecutor had presented. The Judge closed his book and emitted a very satisfied sigh.
The Juror in front of me and one over — believe it’s Juror 19 — used this pause to turn to the rather scruffy looking Juror seated to her left (directly in front of me) and said in angry, broken English, “You sit too close. Move away.” She emphasizes this point by flicking her hand at him. Her hair was died the odd shade of orangish/purplish/red that is popular in the eastern bloc. She used the hand not tied up in the flicking motion to Juror 20 to brush her bangs from her angry eyes.
Juror 20, the target of the anger, wore the coverall of a mechanic. He took a long, deliberate look at the large amount of space already between them and shook his head. The shake was a meaningful display as his head was covered in a large array of small dreadlocks. Juror 19 met his gaze and sneered at him again. Juror 20 grudgingly moved over an inch.
Juror 19 remained unhappy about his proximity, and they continued a low-volume battle for several minutes while the Lead Prosecutor asked for examples of evasive actions and beat every potential variation of the term to death. When we’re all officially exhausted by the conversation he tried to seal the deal by asking, “So, we’re all good on what it means to evade, right?”
Juror 19, who missed the majority of the conversation in her attempt to shoo away Juror 20, raised her hand and asked, in her thick accent, “ I don’t know what this means. Evade. Can you give synonym?”
The courtroom fell silent and stayed that way until the Prosecutor, to the dismay of everyone except Juror 19, repeated his entire discussion.
A few minutes later, well past the promised 10 minutes of discussion, the Lead Prosecutor looked me directly in the eye and stated, “Juror 30, if I were to fail to prove all of the elements of this case beyond a reasonable doubt, would you still vote guilty in this case?”
“Are you asking me if in a scenario where you fail to make your case, at least in my mind, would I still vote guilty?”
The Lead Prosecutor nodded. I thought hard. Was I missing something? Was this a trick question? I decided not to overthink it.
“No. If you can’t make your case I believe I’ve been instructed to vote no. The Defendant is presumed to be not-guilty, right?”
The Judge roared, “What the hell are you doing Mr. Prosecutor? Why are you talking to any of the jurors on the back row — none of them are going to get picked! We only need six for this case. And what the hell kind of question is that?”
The Lead Prosecutor performed an odd sort of kowtowing bow as he crab-walked back to his desk. He managed to squeak out another apology for this being his first time. He will, he assured us, get better.
In response to his sad promise a smattering of applause broke out from amongst the jury panel. The Lead Prosecutor noticeably cheered up. The Judge rolled his eyes and the defense team clenched their collective fists.
The now awkward silence in the room led to another gesture from the Judge. The Lead Defense Counsel rose and walked over to us. She was well spoken, with the exception of her extremely thick southern accent, which was directly at odds with the fact that she volunteered that she’d spent the majority of her life in Michigan. This accent confusion spilled over into terminology, and she lost all of us by repeatedly asserting that we as jurors were soon going to be required to enter into an anonymous voting process. As she dove further into that rabbit hole I raised my hand and asked if we would be conducting an anonymous, or a unanimous voting process?
Lead Defense Counsel, smiling at me unhappily, replied, “Yes, when I say anonymous I mean unanimous — we speak a little differently in Michigan.”
Juror 29 again tried to catch my eye again but I resisted.
The Defendant clenched and unclenched her tiny fists.
Juror 19 once again demanded that Juror 20 move away.
All of the steam from the defense side of the equation then evaporated when the courtroom was enveloped with hard-core, gangsta rap music that someone in the room used for a ringtone. This is not Fresh Prince, happy rap. This was heavy, loud stuff. It was obviously coming from the direction of the defense team’s table, but the Co-Counsel and the Defendant directed their eyes to the ceiling and tried to bluff their way through it.
With the music still pulsing for what seemed like an eternity, the Judge put an end to it by holding out his hand, “Counsel, give it to me.”
The Co-Counsel for the Defense reluctantly stood and walked a large, vibrating purse over to the Judge. The music still played from within as the Bailiff collected it and took it away — did this phone not eventually go to voicemail? I didn’t know if the phone belonged to the Defendant or the Co-Counsel, but it wasn’t a good look either way.
Lead Defense Counsel tried to get things back on track by asking Juror 24 if he felt that decisions should instead be made by majority rule, and was again interrupted by the Judge, who asked, “Why is everyone asking questions of jurors on the back row who are never going to serve on this jury?”
We the people on the back row had this same question.
Eventually we were released to the hallway. It was now well after 3:00 p.m. We spent most of the time in the hall trying to figure out who was in harm’s way if each legal team got to strike three potential jurors. Those poor bastards on the first row….
About 10 minutes later we were ushered back in and treated to the sound of piped-in static as the Judge huddled with the respective legal teams at his bench. After another 10 minutes of sitting, which we the people spent collective pondering of the Defendant’s hairstyle, the Judge turned off the static and announced the names of the six jurors. These sacrificial lambs were led back to the small jury room and promised another, quite tardy, lunch.
Turning back to those of us still in the room, the Judge told us all, again, that he was extremely mindful of the importance of our time. After another 5 – 10 minutes of personal anecdotes regarding his childhood and his attributes in comparison to his brothers, we were released back into the wild just in time to hit rush hour traffic.