Thursday, January 20, 2011

Serving My “Civic” Duty with a Hermeneutic Of Suspicion

A disclaimer: I know that there are many who believe that it is a good and right thing to be called to jury duty. I do not deny that. I do not wish to contradict that. The following is merely my observations and thoughts after spending two days within the judicial courts system.


Jury duty is touted as our civic duty – the responsibility to serve on a jury where another is being tried by that jury of his/her “peers”. Civic duty is, of course, our responsibilities as a citizen of our state and country. A peer is one with whom we share equal standing as in rank, class or age. That in itself is rather funny since the U.S. has always claimed to be a classless society. Let’s forget the fact that I am denied quite a few rights because of my perceived “life style”. Let’s just look at the idea of civic responsibility to serve on a jury.

Ccalled to appear on January 18 to serve on a “petit jury” at the Civil Courts Building in downtown Saint Louis, I diligently showed up at a few moments before the required 8:00 a.m. There was plenty of time to go through security, find the Jury Assembly Room, check in with the court clerk and squish into a seat in a very crowded room between two people who clearly left that space between them purposely.

I read the little handbook explaining all the things that would happen and how these events would unfold. I read about my civic duty and how fortunate I was to be called. I was being called into action to serve with my peers to keep justice in the forefront. We were there to keep the lawyers and judges just. On the walls around the room there were posters to substantiate the message of the booklet. Heady stuff.

All of this might ring a bit more true were it not for the fact that had I failed to show up for court or if I walked out at any given moment, I would be held in contempt of court punishable by fine and/or imprisonment. Suddenly I would have need of a jury to uphold justice for me.

A woman came on the loud speaker telling us, just in case we had not read the booklet, about the day(s). She thanked us for being there, told us again of our duty as citizens and tried to make us feel that all of the time spent would be rewarded by the idea that we were full citizens in a country that trusted our ability to form opinions. Oh, and don’t forget the $12 per day check we would receive!

She went on to let us know that if we had an “extreme” hardship that kept us from being able to serve, please come to the front desk to talk to the person there. And please, understand that loss of wages at a job that does not pay while one is on jury duty does not count as “extreme” hardship. It is our civic duty to suffer hardship for our state and country. Forget rent that needs to be paid; never mind about the electric bill. Tell the landlord and Ameren UE (electric company) that jury duty is far more important.

I, thankfully, have a justice minded board of directors along with a great boss who made certain that I lost no wages because of my civic duty begin served. Through the course of the day, I spoke with many who were not that fortunate and would suffer the consequences later in the week.

She also told us that there was a mezzanine on the floor above with vending machines and tables. A surprisingly few people took up the offer to leave the crowded room. I bolted up the stairs and found a nice table near the window.
There was something very surreal about sitting around all day waiting for my number to be called. There were hundreds of us there. At the sound of the intercom, all talking would cease. Or if one or two remained on the phone or created noise that interfered with the faceless voice, those listening expectantly threw glares at the offenders.

People sat with eyes closed or staring at a fixed point, heads cocked, ears tuned, listening intently for the one number that mattered. The speaker ceased calling the dozen or so numbers and a sense of normalcy returned to the room. Conversations were picked up where these had been dropped.

I sat a table with three other women. We knew that if we were not called on the first day, we would have to return the next morning. It took five rounds of numbers before my personal number was called. I was so used to it by that time; my comrades were the ones who caught it.

The weirdness if the situation returned as I told them goodbye. I felt a combined relief at a change in the game and a dread of what would come next.
Those of us called in the that round found our way to the front desk on the first floor where we were told to sit in the next to last row of a group of pews already filled to near capacity. Role was checked to make certain that those called were actually there. Six more jurors were needed to round out the required number.

We were once again thanked for attending to our civic duty and with paperwork done, we were told to follow the officer where he led us.

Following the officer down the stairs in single-file form, we passed signs warning us to remain quiet, no talking, no food, no drinks allowed. As I was near the end of the line, each time the line stopped for a few minutes, the cause was unknown. The sense of strangeness only increased because we were in a hallway and unable to see. Finally to a point of sight, it became clear that we were being herded onto an elevator. Eight people at a time. Another officer waited on the elevator. The other one counted us off: “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, wait right here” as he pointed for the next number 1 to stay outside of the elevator.

We rode up in silence to the 5th floor. The officer in the elevator told us the division number and our judge’s name. She told us we would get off the elevator and await further instructions.

Throughout this procedure, I could not help but think of those before us who had been herded quietly into the unknown, in a single-file line with little chance to alter the course of events. Had I been one to panic at such scary thoughts, this would have been the time to do so. Thankfully, I held my calm.

We all wandered off the elevator and I, for one, was rather glad to see the unknown faces I had seen downstairs. There was no one at that moment waiting to tell us what to do or where to go so we aimlessly sat, leaned against the wall or paced uncertainly. It is rather amazing how quickly we can fall into a pattern of blind obedience.

After what seemed like a long time but was really only about ten minutes, an officer opened the door of the jury room and called in those assigned to the division number and judge. Within a few moments, role was once again called (in case one or two lost their way or bolted) and we were told where to sit. We were also alerted that this seat would be ours until jury selection was made. Looking up, I noticed that some of the light fixtures were in the style of the Scales of Justice.

Another five or ten minutes passed and a buzzer sounded. The officer called out, “All rise!” And we did.

The judge came in and we were told to be seated. He then began to explain the proceedings for the day. Again, he gave the now recognized spiel about our civic duty and how justice is only served when we are tried by a jury of our peers. The lawyers put forth evidence, the judge judges but the jury follows the letter of the law to decide beyond a reasonable doubt if the defendant is indeed guilty. And please do not forget that the burden of proof lies with the State to prove that the defendant is guilty because, as we all know, the one arrested, handcuffed and taken into custody until bail is set is innocent until proven guilty by a jury of his or her peers a year or so later (one year in this particular case). He told us the charges against the defendant (possession of a controlled substance) and reminded us that the only way we could give a verdict of guilty was in the event that the State offers evidence that convinces us “beyond a reasonable doubt” that the defendant is indeed guilty.

Then the fun began. Timeline review: checked in at 8 a.m., called to the jury assembly room around 2 p.m.( after 1 ½ hour lunch), sitting in the courtroom with the prosecuting attorney readying herself to begin questions at 3:15 p.m. The prosecuting attorney began polling the jury pool.

Law shows on television are obviously very popular. The reality of the courtroom can only be described as tedious, at least the reality of the courtroom as I saw it.
Obviously, the State’s evidence was tied up primarily in the testimony of two police officers and one analyst who ran the tests on the controlled substance because most of the questions were targeted at finding whether or not we, as individuals, could and would make a decision of belief based upon that testimony alone.

By four o’clock, my butt was numb and my brain was even more so. I felt trapped within a tedium that seemed interminable. Those who lifted their hands to answer questions were almost comical…at first. There was one I called “Jeremiah Johnson” who at each question would proclaim in a loud, booming voice, “Judge NOT, lest ye yeselves be judged!” Then there was the young woman behind me who was a waitress in a bar who answered, “well, you know, it’s like…well, I know both sides…they come into the bar and you know, I see, well, I see them acting like, you know…I am sorry, I don’t mean to be rude but you know, it’s just that, well, I see both sides and I, uh, just don’t know if I can be, well, you know, fair, because, you know, it’s just that, well, I see both sides…you know?”

Then there were the unending side bars. Does anyone realize the control that a Court Reporter has on a court? Nothing moves, no word is heard until she is in place and gives the nod to resume.

The judge finally called for a recess at 4:45 p.m. We were to show up the next morning at 9 a.m. and we were to be on time because to not be so would waste the time of the court and all present.

I can go on, but I would become as repetitious as the court itself. The basic point is this: I did not want to be there. I do not believe it is my civic duty to perform a duty at the threat of being incarcerated or fined if I do not perform that duty. I do not believe that drug possession should be a punishable offense nor do I believe that drug addictions will be cured or lessened by prosecuting those addicts.

Nonetheless, I do believe that I would have been as fair and impartial as possible regardless of the fact that I know of numerous instances of police harassment and unfair verdicts in court situations; in spite of the fact that I believe that racial profiling occurs often and the law is skewed in favor of those who have and against those who have not. Despite that, I would have tried to set these thoughts aside to listen to the evidence. After all, the burden of proof is always on the State to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, right?

What got me cut from the pool of jurors? When I finally had to hold up my hand to answer a question because to not do so would have had me sitting in willful silence, the lawyer answered my statement with, “So, are you saying that you could not be 100% impartial to the testimony of the police officers?” I answered, “Are you asking me if I would believe them simply because they are police officers?” She stated, “I am asking if you can be impartial because they are police officers.” I answered, “I can say to you that I will put forth a 100% effort to be fair and open to the evidence.” She again asked, “Does this mean that you cannot be 100% sure that you will be unbiased?” I answered, “I will always use a hermeneutic of suspicion in listening to any evidence put forth by the defense or the State.” She answered, “Thank you.”

I was cut in the next go round.