January 26, 2001
It's a gloomy day, overcast and gray. The sound of rain steadily pelting the earth looms ominously outside my window. The voice of Rick Dees breaks my slumber. Bad signs are everywhere. What horrible fate awaits me today if I decide to leave the comfort of my bed?
Today is the day I report to the Van Nuys Courthouse to perform my civic duty as a potential juror. Jury duty. It's a punchline. It's a goof. It's not something you do, it's something you get out of. Make up an excuse, claim financial hardship, whatever it takes. And most of us do get out of it. I don't know anyone that has served on a jury. It leads me to believe that the only people who serve on juries are simply too dumb to get out of it. These are the peers trying to navigate the ins-and-outs of a complicated legal system. Justice for all? I wonder.
I do make it out of bed and over to the courthouse. About 300 potential jurors and I are corralled into Room 101, the jury assembly room. The gloom of the weather seems to have made it through the security checkpoint and settled among us. Sad faces. Tired faces. And I have to say, I feel their pain. I don't want to be here. I feel like I'm taking the bus. I'm thrown together with all of these people who have no alternative.
The Juror Coordinator wakes everyone with a greeting and welcome. He starts an orientation video and we see the wise face of the Head Judge, the Super Judge, I forget his title exactly, but he's the main guy here in Van Nuys, California, and he has made a tape for us. Super Judge welcomes us and thanks us for engaging in the service of our city and our government, "We have a justice system that we are very proud of," he tells us, but it requires individual citizens to make sacrifices to make it work."
And that's the great dilemma. What am I doing here? Am I trapped in this oppressive, time-consuming, useless situation with the less desirable members of society where I am too afraid of the guilt to fake my way out of it? Or am I a noble soul serving his country as a part of a greatest legal system ever created? Do the hands of justice need my assistance? Who am I to turn away from that call?
They take a general roll call and then read a list of about 50 names. I am among them. We are taken to the West building, 6th floor, where we wait in the hallway for a bit. We are instructed that our names will no longer be used and that we will be addressed by the last 4 digits on our badges. Our instructor then goes through the list of names to make sure our numbers match their list. Smooth sailing.
Eventually we enter the courtroom. I pass through the doors to see the judge sitting front and center, looking pretty much how you would expect him to look. The lawyers in the case, three of them total, are standing at their respective tables watching us come in. The selection process has already begun. Their eyes scan the faces. Can they put together a group of twelve out of this bunch who will believe their case? Are those twelve among us?
Twelve people. Could you imagine? How could you possibly convince twelve different, randomly selected people to all believe the same thing? My friends and I can't agree what restaurant to go to. Picking out a video can take half a day, and yet walking into this room are probably twelve that will believe what you have to say. Your first job, however, is to find them.
We are all seated and the judge drops his bomb: This trial is expected to last twelve court days. Two and a half weeks, basically. That's a lot. There's duty and then there's duty. I turn over the requirement in my mind. I can't be unavailable for pilot-season auditions. That's crazy talk. My instinct is to get out of here immediately. But... the jury duty "work schedule" would be 9:30am until 4:30pm every day. Auditions can be scheduled for late in the day, right? And testing is usually after 4pm anyway. Maybe I can do it.
The judge announces he will be going around the room listening to excuses why we can't take on a 12-day case. And there are many. Of the 50 people, at least 30 are excused. I make the executive decision to remain available. Is it because of my civic duty and love of country? Or am I simply too embarrassed to defend my unemployment and need to audition? Would they even go for it? I decide not to find out. I'm in.
And that's it for Day One. There are so few of us remaining that they
need to go through the "12-day-case" excuses for a few more
large groups and then put together a collection of small groups into
one new large group. That will take place right back here Monday
morning at 11am.
"Don't be late." Those were the final words from the judge on Friday. "It's very important that everyone be on time. Maybe even get here a little early." I approach the courthouse at 10:55am. To some that would be considered barely on time. To me, I have time to spare. Luckily I do, because the security checkpoint has what I guess is a typical morning back-up. By the time I get up to the 6th floor, it is about one minute to 11. Like I said, time to spare.
"Don't be late." Those words ring through my head for the next hour as I alternate between the only two activities presented to me: standing in the hallway and sitting in the hallway. Apparently the judge has made a miscalculation and those who must suffer are the potential jurors. At $15 a day, I guess they can afford to keep us hanging around. A little after noon, the doors to the courtroom finally open and a sea of people exit. Apparently they were doing one final big-group-into-small-group session this morning. It would have been nice to have reported only hours earlier instead of days earlier. Even so, the next phase is about to begin. We enter.
Now that time constraints have been addressed, it is time to determine who has personal and/or professional conflicts with this case. This is where the real meat-and-potatoes of jury selection comes into play. Or it would, except this is where a literal meat-and-potatoes might go. We break for lunch.
The morning is over and I have done nothing. I could have arrived two-and-a-half hours after we were instructed and I still would not have been missed nor would I have missed a thing. "Don't be late." Mm-hmmm.
Upon our return, the judge presents us with the facts of the case:
The defendant was in a hotel room at a motel in Van Nuys. He hired a stripper to come to his room. She and her bouncer arrived. Then the facts of the case are in dispute. Possibility A: The defendant demanded sex, the stripper refused and then stormed out. Possibility B: The stripper and bouncer stole money from the defendant and took off. After that, the facts are less disputed. A car chase ensued with the defendant chasing the fleeing stripper and bouncer. Shots were fired into the bouncer's car. No one was harmed.
The defendant is being brought up on six counts. The first two are the big ones: Two counts of premeditated attempted murder. Yikes. There is also one count of firing a gun into a moving vehicle and one count of firing a gun from a moving vehicle. (I can't remember the other two.) Pretty serious stuff.
After a few more instructions and a little more information, they call out 12 numbers. We are still being identified by our numbers. Those twelve people take seats in the jury box on the side of the courtroom. I am not one of them. I sit quietly and watch the lawyers go to work.
The prosecuting attorney is a woman, Hispanic, about 35, slight frame. She seems like a nice person but a little ill-at-ease. Her questions are somewhat stagnant and by the book. She does not have much of a knack for rolling with each juror's answers. It's as if she were instructed to ask certain questions and she is afraid to deviate from the script. The lawyer for the defendant is tall with a mustache, slightly balding, medium build, about 40. His style is the opposite. He likes cracking little jokes with the jurors, sympathizing with them, getting on their side. He reminds me of someone at a commercial audition trying to be everybody's friend. My usual feeling about that type of actor at an audition is that I wish he would shut the hell up. I'm getting a little of that with this guy, too.
The afternoon wears on. Jurors are dismissed for various reasons. "My husband is a convicted felon." "My husband is a police officer and knows some of the witnesses." In these cases, the judge immediately dismisses the person. There is no questioning by the lawyers. Their conflicts are sufficient grounds.
On occasion, someone will have a "private" matter to discuss. The juror makes that fact known and then he, the judge, the two lawyers, and the stenographer all get up and go into the hallway behind the courtroom. They have a little confab regarding the matter and then all five return to their seats. In most cases the prospective juror continues right out the door.
The questioning and dismissing continue right up until 4pm. Although
about 20 people are called, I am not one of them. The jury is not
set, however, and so we all must come back tomorrow to continue the
process. Let me guess. "Don't be late."
We continue the questioning throughout the morning. Tidbits sprinkle out about where the case may lead. The defense attorney suggests that evidence showing that his client fired the gun will be disputed by eye-witnesses. "Who would you believe in that case? How would you rectify the conflicting testimony?" he asks many of the jurors. He also hints at a self-defense strategy. "How much force is reasonable if someone steals from you? ...if they threaten your life and livelihood? Is firing a gun going to far?"
The prosecution eventually gets into a routine. She takes whatever conflicts the juror had with the law, be it tickets or arrests or crime, and makes sure that the juror has no issue with law enforcement in general. "Do you have anything against the police or the D.A.'s office?" she asks nearly everybody. And early on she was asking, "Are the defense and prosecution starting on an even playing field?" which she at some point switched to "...starting on equal footing?" which by mid-afternoon today has become something like "...starting on an equal field?" We all know what she means by now, but I fear the metaphor is not as tight as it she thinks.
A few other comments struck me as interesting. We all had to say our occupations and marital status. When I heard, "Computer programmer. Single," I don't think I was surprised. One surprise came from a 55/60-year-old woman with dyed red hair and a pleasant, simple demeanor. For her occupation, she told us that she represents adult entertainers on the internet, trying to improve their PR, I think. As she put it, "I'm the Martha Stewart of pornography." That just goes to show, there's a job for everyone. It was the same woman who had a client arrested for "felony lesbianism." Wow. I didn't know it was even a crime, let alone a felony. Her client must be very good at it.
I did hear a little slip from the defense attorney, too. He's not beyond reproach. He would often ask questions about past jury experience, trying to find out if a jury was hung or not, how the deliberating went down, if there was one holdout and the strength of conviction of the juror. And at one point he asked this question about a hung jury: "The jury was split 6 to 6? Did that seem pretty even?"
The "thanking and excusing" of jurors is a long process. I count at least 7 dismissals from each side. And each time someone is excused or dismissed, another number is called. I have been slipping under the radar for quite some time. We reach lunch and I am still in my seat. Is it possible I will be released without having to even face the questions?
I return from lunch and it seems to be winding down. Twice now the defense has indicated it is happy with the jury as constituted. In each case, however, the prosecution has had a challenge. We press on. More numbers, more people answering the now nearly-standard questions. One more dismissal and one more number... 8144. That's me.
Escape is no longer an option. I must press on. I have thought about most of my answers and they go pretty smoothly. City, occupation, marital status, jury experience. I have had my car broken into, nothing major. I have been to court to contest a moving violation, I don't harbor ill-will against police officers. My uncle has had some trouble with the law. I feel he is being treated unfairly, but, I tell them, that is probably because I love him.
The defense attorney asks me his standard question about physical evidence vs. eye-witness testimony. I tell him I will consider the motivating factors that would lead to one of them being inaccurate or falsified. He then delves into my acting background. "Do you know when someone is being truthful?" he asks. "I think I usually do," I say, but don't we all think that and aren't we all wrong at some point in our lives? And then he asks something along the lines of, "And in your experience, have you been able to tell when a person is presenting something as truth, but they don't believe what is behind the words and find themselves misrepresenting the beliefs and motives behind their commitment to being truthful when they present their distruthfulness?" or some such convoluted, ridiculous question that I assume is really just him planting a seed for later when I hear certain testimony. I reply, "You mean, do I think there are bad actors? Yeah."
The prosecution offers me this challenge: "Will you hold it against someone because she is a stripper? Will you be less likely to believe her?" I say that it will not be a problem. The prosecution wants one more level of certainty: "Are you sure you won't have a problem with her being a stripper." I respond with, "I'm excited to meet her, but I don't have a problem, no." So I got in two jokey-jokes, which I'm sure they don't encourage in the courtroom, but dammit, somebody has to entertain me, so it might as well be me.
The Ducey questioning comes to a close and we go through a couple more dismissals. The defense stands and says that he accepts the jury as constituted. The prosecution stands and says that she accepts the jury as constituted. I am still sitting in the jury box. That's it. I am going to be a part of this process. I am no longer prospective juror 8144. I am now officially Juror #3.
The process is not over, however. We still need to select three alternate jurors. The same question and answer format must take place for them, as well. Three new numbers are called and three new faces takes seats in the jury box. Some questions and answers later, and the end of the day is approaching. The judge tells us that we will finish selecting alternates tomorrow and the case will begin. So tomorrow it is. Tomorrow I begin my civic duty to the United States of America and its marvelous justice system. Tomorrow I begin deliberating the fate of a man's life. Tomorrow I begin a process that could take a man and put him in jail for a very long time, a man who appears to settle his disputes by firing a gun into moving vehicles, a man who is relatively young and could be involved with others who use guns and violence to confront their assaulters and right their wrongs. That's the guy I might be putting away.
Wait a minute...
Also consider, prisoners watch TV, right? I mean, they do on Oz, so they must in real life. So let's consider this: We, as a jury, find the defendant guilty of some very serious crimes and he ends up in jail for a long time. That is not going to make him very happy. Then, as the other 11 jurors' faces disappear into a cloud in his memory, one particular face appears before him week in and week out, basically mocking his incarceration by dancing around in a silly television show while he pumps iron and makes license plates. Will he want revenge? Will he coordinate some sort of statement from behind bars. If he does, in fact, hang out with a number of people who enjoy firing guns into cars, what's to stop them from firing one into my car to get a little payback? I will be findable. It's the modern age, for God's sake. My personal information is only a few internet clicks away if you know where to look. (And ducey.com is a pretty good place to start.)
Suddenly this doesn't seem like such a good idea. Is my civic duty
worth jeopardizing my well-being? I spend most of Tuesday night
mulling over this dilemma. In my darkest hour, I reach out to a man I
grew up with. He's a kind man and a wise man. He is raising two small
children in a lovely home in upstate New York and the real selling
point: he used to be a prosecutor in the D.A.'s office (before
selling out to make money). His advice is not to drop out of the
case, but to simply let my concerns be known and then let the
professionals decide what to do. Interesting approach. As I drift off
to sleep, visions of drive-bys dancing in my head, I consider my options.
"Can I speak in private?"
A handful of people have gone to speak in private before me. During the questioning phase, if someone had a conflict that they did not want to air to 50 Valley residents, he or she would go into the hallway behind the judge's bench, accompanied by the judge, the two lawyers and the stenographer. Now it was my turn.
"I'm sorry this is coming up so late, but I am very excited about taking part in this process and I didn't think about it until last night," I begin. I then tell them my issues and concerns.
"Will this prevent you from making an unbiased decision?" the judge asks.
"If you tell me that I have no need to worry, then I can put it out of my mind and not let it affect my decision-making at all."
Then they need some privacy. I step into the actual jury room and wait for their decision. My mind races with the two possibilities. I want to be part of the process just to see how it works and to contribute to this wonderful jury system. I am curious to see how this case pans out. I am curious about the lawyers and their strategies and abilities. There are many reasons I want to do it. But if released, I will be relieved. There are enough freeway shootings in L.A. that I don't want to increase my odds of being involved in one if I don't have to.
The judge opens the door and brings me back into the hallway. "We are going to have to excuse you. Collect your belongings and leave the courtroom."
And it's over. I am no longer Juror #3. Disappointment and relief wash over me at the same time. I grab my bag and I walk out the door. Did I do the right thing? I guess at the end of the day I did the right thing by voicing my concerns. Had the judge and lawyers determined them to be unfounded, I would have gladly done my part. They decided otherwise.
Jury duty. I got out of it. But I will miss the experience of doing it.
I guess there's always next year.
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