Monday, May 26, 2008

Jury Duty: How I Learned to Lay Down the Law

Last week didn’t go as I had planned. I thought I would spend it packing up my apartment and doing my daily Facebook “research,” but I ended up serving as a juror on a homicide case in the New York State Supreme Court. An interesting twist of fate.

I’d never been summoned before, and I arrived at the courthouse feeling incredibly important, visions of Law & Order dancing through my mind. We all know that jury duty has a bad wrap, but despite the prevailing wisdom—“You never actually get picked” and “If you do, it’s probably for some taxicab accident”—I was curious to see what it was all about.

Two days later, my body and mind numb from waiting in a giant, communal holding pen, one hour away from being released from service, a case rolled in—and my name was called along with about 80 others. Over the next few hours, the judge meticulously vetted this group—and I was chosen to be one of twelve jurors. How this happened I’m not sure.

I suppose I do bear a striking resemblance to Lady Justice… the blindfold, the toga, the scales, etc. And I do like to think I exude an undeniable aura of righteousness and fair-mindedness. But in the end, I was probably chosen because, being unemployed, I didn’t feel right about blatantly weaseling out of it. Others did, offering a variety of bafflingly creative excuses: “I have A.D.D.,” “I’m a bleeding-heart Liberal,” “I don’t trust lawyers,” “I live on the Upper West Side.” Ok, whatever. Scram.

And so there I was, and as it turned out, this was not just some taxicab accident. This was manslaughter. This was a giant knife plunged into some guy’s ribs. This was the real deal. At the risk of sounding completely overdramatic, the next week would be one of the most interesting, difficult, and heart-wrenching of my life thus far.

  • First of all, I learned a lot—from how to dust for fingerprints, to DNA analysis, to autopsy protocol. I also learned that mamabicho is Spanish for c--ksucker.
  • Second, it’s dramatic. Lawyers really do “badger” witnesses. They really do get angry and yell “Objection!” In fact, they do it all the time! And the judge gets angry too! Although this judge didn’t do nearly enough gavel-banging in my opinion.
  • Third, it can be kind of funny. One particularly sassy witness grabbed the judge’s arm to demonstrate a point, and the prosecutor noted: “For the record, the witness is grabbing the judge’s arm to show…” The judge looked a little surprised, but he rolled with it.
  • Finally, it’s a fascinating process. Don’t get me wrong; I’m no patriot. I’m basically an anarchist. I certainly don’t feel encumbered by a need to “serve” my country. Nonetheless, to experience the judicial system firsthand was unexpectedly powerful.

At the end of the trial, we spent a full day locked in a room, deliberating. By the time we reached a verdict, I felt completely drained…not to mention claustrophobic. Never before had I been put to such a tangible test—ethically, intellectually, emotionally, existentially. The experience was rife with the stuff that comprises the human experience: morality, compassion, confusion, indecision, comprehension, disbelief, judgment…

I won’t go so far as to say justice; there’s no such thing. But even my stone-cold cynic’s heart was moved by the fact that I’d been entrusted with such responsibility over another person’s future.

It was intense, to say the least. I left the courthouse feeling like I wasn’t in my body anymore. I wandered around, observing people and thinking about the intersection of lives in a city as dense as New York. An hour of crying and 3 glasses of port later, I leveled out and stopped being so melodramatic.

But in all seriousness, being a juror is some of the most interesting and important work I’ve ever done. So next time that summons arrives in your mailbox, think twice about dodging it. It can be an experience of great consequence. And, yes, you get to miss work, too.

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