Friday, March 28, 2008

Baring Your Soul On the Court's Time

I spent an entire day of my spring break exercising a right granted to each and every U.S. citizen, that is, I served a jury summons.

A jury summons is a notice for you, as an American citizen, to go to the courts and wait to be called upon to serve as a juror in a civil or criminal trial. I discovered that it wasn't just a civil duty I was carrying out, but an exercise in cathartic release.

My day began at 8 am with a walk through security. I went to the jury assembly room where the women who would spin out our collective fates at the administrative desk, handed me a biography slip. I grabbed a seat among a crowd of bored, irritable, indifferent, anxious, and semi-alert people who greeted me with cursory glances. I looked around and saw people trying to pass the time: texting, talking to their chair neighbors, grabbing the nearest magazine. I pulled out a book and read. And read. And read. The ceiling-mounted TV screens surrounded me with their incessant low murmurs: of war, of the Democratic race for the presidency, of movies you couldn't pay me to watch. Like Miss Congeniality, which the Fates deemed entertaining.

Thankfully, that didn't last long because then I was listening to a video explaining the jury selection process and its history in Arizona. Arizona allows jurors to take notes and present questions over the course of a trial. The state asks each person to serve their jury duty under a "one day or one trial" rule, that is, a potential juror spends the day being scrutinized and either rejected or accepted for a trial. If you are rejected, you may be asked to undergo the selection process at another trial.

Joining a pool of potential jurors was a strange, double-edged affair. I spent a lot of time waiting around, hoping that I was either chosen or ignored as a potential juror. If I was called, then I wouldn't have to sit around all day in a room full of bored people. But if I was called, then there was the chance that I would've been spending a number of days participating in a criminal or civil case, away from the rest my spring vacation.

Not that the actual selection process itself proved to be mundane, however. The judge and lawyers raised questions that tapped into the more violent aspect of people's pasts. By the end of the day I knew more about the tragedies of my fellow potential jurors than of my closest friends.

There was one man who was on the phone with a female friend when someone assaulted her from behind. He offered to give his testimony, but the detectives handling the case never took his statement. There was one older woman with whom I spoke whose son was a graduate of Oberlin College. He graduated as an environmental studies major, but like many Obies, his interests ranged beyond that. He loved Oberlin and what he was learning there. He was going to graduate school to become an engineer, but before he graduated, someone murdered him. Every year since his death, this woman sent money to Oberlin on his behalf. Given the number of years that have passed, I asked her why she had not created a scholarship in his name. She said that she lived modestly and didn't have enough savings to start anything to honor him. I didn't know what to say.

I encountered similar stories during the selection process and all without learning anyone's name. For the sake of privacy, security, and impartialness, everyone had a number and only that number was given along with your answers to the court's probing questions. The prosecutor asked the CSI question, that is, she wanted to know if anyone had problems with a criminal case that lacked physical evidence. A few people had issues with it, but they did not seem adamant about it. The defense attorney seemed fixated on one woman's hooded sweatshirt, which he deduced to be from an Texan Christian university. No one could discern why he had to identify the origins of her sweatshirt, but many thought that he was going to choose her as part of the jury. She was not chosen.

And I shared the same fate. I'm not sure why they did not choose me. I didn't share any particularly strong views about domestic violence or skepticism about the integrity of the police. (This was a domestic violence case involving three people, a man and woman pressing charges against another man.) Perhaps my relative youth played a role; the selected jurors ranged in ages from 30s to 60s. Whatever the reasons, I left the courthouse feeling strangely lighter, as if I had finished my confessions with the judge and my sins taken off my shoulders, which is a unusual analogy for me to discover.

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