Report for jury duty

jury box

I swear

It was a plain white postcard with the California state seal on one side and a blunt message on the other: You did not report for jury duty when you were supposed to. Be there Monday. Or else. It was phrased in a more official way, but that's what it meant.

Before I moved to California I was never called for jury duty, and I didn't know a single person who had. But since I became a California resident, it seems like everybody I know is getting called all the time. What's up with that?

The notice of my impending juridical duty arrived last month, just as I was planning my trip to Hawaii. I've lost count of how many times I've received such notices since moving to California. I've lived in the state since 1986, so I suppose it is at least fifteen times or more. However, I've never actually had to serve on a jury. In fact, I've always been dismissed without ever having to go to the courthouse.

But what if it didn't work out that way this time? What if I actually had to serve on a jury and the trial ran past the date of my plane ticket? Nowadays the airlines charge a fee to change even a free ticket. I fretted over the odds. Should I risk it? Then my friend Ken said, "Oh, don't worry about it. You can get a one-time automatic postponement. When you call in the first time, just wait until you get to that choice on the phone menu."

Greatly relieved, I put aside the notice, made my plane reservations, and gave the matter no more thought. Bad mistake. When I later rummaged about for the notice so I could call in — and request my postponement — I discovered that my addled old brain had confused the date, and I was a week late!

"Oh, don't worry about it," said Ken, "people don't show up all the time and nothing ever happens."

Some people will believe anything. I did, until the postcard arrived. So, this morning I dutifully reported to the courthouse in Indio at 8am. I didn't, after all, want to end up in Guantanamo.

So there I am, at the end of a block-long line of people waiting to get through the security check — at least they didn't make us take our shoes off. I made my way to the "jury assembly area" to join an already large crowd lined up to check in. I noticed with some relief that I wasn't the only one carrying a postcard instead of a regular notice.

We all sat there for an hour and a half, just waiting. Finally, a worker gave us our "orientation" talk and made us watch a short video about jury duty: California is the greatest state in the union, but even here bad people commit crimes and wrongs must be righted.... Yadda, yadda, yadda. In the event of an evacuation over water, your seat cushion may be used as a flotation device.

Another half hour passed. I was quite content, actually, having brought a copy of Paul Krugman's new book, The Great Unraveling; Losing Our Way in the New Century. I had just started the book, and I entertained the notion that carrying a title by such a well-known and vociferous critic of George W Bush might help get me dismissed from the jury in this conservative county.

Eventually we were told that they were now ready in the courtroom and would be calling us by name to come to the front of the room to check out and follow a deputy sheriff across the street to the old courthouse. I quickly realized they were calling people in alphabetical order. Great! I might beat this yet. It was not to be. I joined the herd of about forty people to be led across the street.

More waiting. I noticed that there were several people who had yellow juror badges in contrast to all of ours that were white. Once we were inside the courtroom, it turned out that the people with yellow badges had already been selected as jurors, and the rest of us were there because they still needed to select one more alternate juror. Hmmm. Not bad odds. They need one alternate and there are at least forty of us in the pool. I wonder how many of them had postcards?

Except for us prospective alternate jurors, there was no one in the courtroom except the attorneys, defendant, and court personnel. Hmmmm. No paparazzi, no reporters. This can't be much of a case. The judge explained that the defendant was accused of killing someone, the trial was expected to last until the end of June — End of June!!!! — and they (he and the attorneys) would want to discuss several "issues" with us. We should consider our comments and answers carefully because this was such a serious case.

The first person was called from the pool (thankfully not me), and the questioning began, first by the defense attorney, then by the prosecutor. The first questions were about concepts like the presumption of innocence, murder, self-defense, reasonable doubt, and so forth. Then it got more interesting:

  • Do you know anybody who was killed, or anybody who killed someone else?
  • There are going to be pictures, some quite graphic, of the dead person. Will you be able to look at those?
  • Methamphetamines are going to be involved. Do you have any experience that would cause you to believe or not believe that the use of methamphetamines or other illicit substances can alter someone's behavior?
  • Some people cannot bring themselves to say that someone else is guilty. Will you be able to reach a verdict of guilty if the facts warrant it?

And so on. From the questioning, the outlines of the case became obvious: Mr [Hispanic surname] killed someone. He will claim it was in self-defense. The prosecutors will claim that the defendant overreacted and didn't have to kill the person. Somebody was on meth, but it could have been the accused ("If he hadn't been drugged up he wouldn't have lost control and killed him") or the victim ("He was drugged up and violent, and the only way to stop him was to kill him.").

Mercifully, both attorneys accepted the candidate as an alternate, and the rest of us were told to go home, having discharged our civic duty for at least another year. The judge: "And I suppose the rest of you are wondering why you're here." His explanation was that they had not been able to complete the panel last week because "they were dropping like flies" so he had ordered up what he thought it might take to find another alternate. 40:1? People must be far more creative at getting themselves kicked off juries than I imagined.