Jury duty has a magical way of bringing out the inner crazy in everyone. It turns the public into a nearly empty tube of toothpaste — as you squeeze the life out of it, it inevitably pops and splatters in your face. Being summoned is an exercise in extreme patience, but if you’re like me, it can also satisfy a year’s worth of morbid curiosity. To what extremes will prospective jurors go to prove their own incompetence, hence excusing them from their civic duty?
As I found out last week, some people subtly stumble upon their own craziness as its teased out through a line of questioning. This is perhaps the most common. They want to seem fair and impartial in front of a room full of their peers, but when the counsel turns the screws, they crack. Others dump their mental purses out on the table Ally-Sheedy-Breakfast-Club style. They let the judge and counsel sift through the pennies, loose Goldfish, and unwrapped tampons of their minds to find coherent thoughts and opinions. Others are even more blunt, practically shouting racist epithets as they file into the courtroom.
The Hail Mary
During the morning session of jury questioning, or voir dire as I learned it’s called from a lawyer friend, the judge read us the list of six charges that had been brought against the defendant, who you could see was covered in tattoos, despite his efforts to cover them with a turtleneck. With the reading of each new charge, a man with short, spiky gray hair sitting in front of me grew increasingly more agitated. He’d either hang his head, gesture wildly, or look around the room in a contempt-filled “Amiright?” fashion. He’d clearly already come to his own personal verdict on the matter of guilt. I peeked around to see if anyone else had noticed the unraveling. I secretly hoped that he’d be called upon for questioning.
When his named was called that afternoon, the spiky-haired man practically flew up to the front of the room, tripping slightly over someone’s backpack. During his introduction, he shouted that he was a very conservative person and was biased against tattoos. He said that if he was walking with his daughter and saw someone with tattoos coming toward them, he would cross the street. He reiterated again his conservativism, stating that he’d never broke a law in his life. The judge asked him a few further perfunctory questions, but in the time it took him to get dismissed, his seat was still warm.
Juror 17 Takes the Gold
After the first 18 prospective jurors had been called to the front of the courtroom that morning, the judge asked each person to stand, state their name, what they do, and as an icebreaker, what changed for them during the pandemic. Juror 5 said he took up golf because it was the most socially distant sport. The judge asked whether or not he still played and he responded, “No, turns out golf is boring.” That got a chuckle from the room.
The first statement on the record from Juror 17, was “I’ll remain seated.” This piqued my interest, so I took a closer look and saw that she was about 6 months pregnant. I wish I could obtain a copy of the court report, because the things that spewed out of her mouth next were too good to do justice by paraphrasing. But I’ll do my best.
Juror 17: I want the court to know that I’ll need periodic breaks to stand, stretch, drink water, lie down horizontally, and take 10 minute naps.
Judge: Do you think this will impede your ability to focus and serve on this jury?
Juror 17: [Plows over this question like a Mack truck] …I’ll also need to take my mask off, drink smoothies, and if I could sit behind that Plexiglass…
Judge: You mean on the witness stand?
If Juror 17 was trying to act crazy, she was a method actor. I’ve got to hand it to her though. She’d cast herself in the role of First Pregnant Woman on Earth, and knocked it out of the park. The judge, exasperated but not given enough cause to excuse Juror 17 outright, moved on.
Thanked and excused but not forgotten
It went on like this for much of the day. Later that afternoon, about half of the jurors had been dismissed, but to the dismay of almost everyone, Juror 17 remained. The District Attorney brought up a hot topic pertaining to the case, and things finally reached their boiling point. Jurors who’d until this point had contained themselves began bursting out with unsolicited opinions. Realizing that he’d lost control of the situation, the DA quickly interjected with an icy “I thank the prospective jurors for their predeliberation on this topic, but would like to resume strictly to a question-and-answer format.” Recovering from the verbal wrist slap, the jury panel returned to order. After a few more questions, Juror 17 interrupts the DA, “I’d like to go back to what we were talking about before.” As she begins another monologue, the judge — who at this point appears to have died inside — cuts her off entirely, “I’d like to thank and excuse Juror 17.” When the door closed behind her, the entire room let out a collective breath.
In the bathroom stall during our afternoon recess, I overheard some women talking to each other about the session as they washed their hands. They were discussing whether or not they thought the jury selection would be complete by the end of the day. Punctuating the conversation with what everyone else was thinking, one woman said simply, “Well at least 17 is gone.”
What stuck out to me almost more than anything else, was people’s lack of focus and understanding when it came to the central themes of why they were being questioned. That or bringing up completely irrelevant experiences that they believed would serve as grounds for dismissal. It was painful to listen to the judge and counsel repeat the same questions to each person. DA: “Yes I understand that the minor traffic infraction you committed when you were 15 put you under great duress. Now will you be able to set that aside and listen to the evidence of this case?”
Just go with it
These are the people walking by you on the street, riding the train, and waiting in line at CVS to purchase behavioral medication. Next time you receive the postcard of death, just remember, what you’re really holding is a front-row ticket to the cross-section of crazy. Embrace it.