Jury Duty is a Civic Duty that many of us dread because it directly interferes with the every day business of our ordinary lives. The tricks on just how to get out of serving on a Jury are as wild and wicked as the day is long. For the record, I’m a self-confessed, big, dumb, White Bohunk originally from Nebraska and this is my story of serving on a New York City Jury. First, let’s take a look at how I got there.
The Long Strong-Arm of the Law
The unified State Supreme Court System in New York State (the overriding body for all Criminal and Civil cases) have overhauled its Jury system and you can no longer run OR hide from the long arm of Justice as her blindfolded eyes beckon you to serve.
I recently had to serve Jury Duty and I honestly wasn’t thrilled about having to give up my time to go down to the Hall of Justice in lower Manhattan and “do my time” as a citizen of Manhattan County. I’d deferred twice over the phone for six months when you were only supposed to do that once. I tried for two deferments because I was in the middle of writing a book and I knew they’d just put in the new phone deferment service and, since we all know how crummy computers are to get working straight away, I took a chance that the computer would waive me a second time even though it shouldn’t have.
Making the Computer Miss
The computer passed and processed my second deferment. I was in a momentary heaven until I discovered there were actual humans checking up on the computer’s deferment approvals of civic dopes like yours truly. I was busted! I had to serve. There was no way out of this one this time.
The Good Old Days
There was a time when you could rather easily get off of serving Jury Duty. If you were a sole proprietorship, you didn’t have to serve because the financial burden would be too great. If you were a lawyer, a law student, an ex-District Attorney or a paralegal — you didn’t have to serve because of a perceived conflict of interest. If you had money and connections, you could make a call and not serve. Why did these easy waivers to serve end? Why have all the loopholes closed? Why does EVERYONE serve no matter who or what you are (as long as you understand English and are not a convicted felon)? The answer is simple: O. J. Simpson.
That Doesn’t Go Here
How do I know this? I was told so last August by a Black manager in the Jury Division who helped me “find a mandatory date” in which I could serve my Civic Duty. This truth was revealed to me when I had to make an appearance in person to explain my inability to serve. I explained to the manager that I was a freelance writer and my sole source of income was from writing and since I was constantly working on an unknowable and unpredictable schedule in order to provide for my family, I could not serve Jury Duty.
The manager held up a hand, shook his head and said, “That doesn’t go here any more.” I was stopped. I’d been told by my attorney a few years ago that using the “sole proprietorship” argument (with signed IRS Tax Returns to prove your employment status — which I’d brought with me) was a surefire way out of Jury Duty. I managed to ask the manager, “Since when doesn’t that go here?” The manager looked around the office to make sure no one was watching us, leaned in close and whispered so only I could hear… “Since O. J.” And I was personally struck by the weighty implications of a criminal trial gone astray 3,000 miles away. Now I had to pay my share of the O. J. Simpson toll on America by serving Jury Duty with no way out.
I tried to shake my way free with the manager by telling him that if I was forced to serve Jury Duty and forced to place my family in the breadline by giving up freelance writing work in order to serve my Civic Duty, I would take out my frustration in the courtroom. “Who would want a revengeful Juror sitting in judgement?”, I asked the manager.
He grinned at me and said quietly in a most avuncular manner, “Everyone tries that. I advise against it. Unless you don’t mind being made an example. The Judge will make you suffer if you utter those words during Voir Dire, believe me. They’ll find a four month trial and put you on it to pay you back for mouthing off in front of the other prospective Jurors. Don’t do it. Jury Duty is now as inevitable as death, taxes and making decisions; and this is a decision you don’t wanna make.” His eyes were dead behind glistening, round, golden, glasses and his gaze locked onto mine with an earnestness I could not blink away.
I numbly nodded my head in acquiescence and uttered, “I understand. Sign me up.” The manager and I then found a date in September when I would begin my tour of Jury Duty.
How O. J. Simpson Changed The World
The fallout from the O. J. Simpson trial was world-changing in that it forever changed the face of the Jury Pool. No longer would Prosecutors be left with pools of Jurors consisting mainly of postal workers and welfare recipients while most of the rest of America refused to serve.
Many blame the O. J. Simpson “victory” as a failure of the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office to build an appropriate Jury of Simpson’s peers in Brentwood. Having him tried downtown instead of in Santa Monica (where the Civil trial was held) proved its undoing, but others reason that trying him in Santa Monica would not have guaranteed a deeper mix of prospective jurors for the Prosecution since anyone with half a mind to it could have slithered out of serving! I know this may ring a Racist bell, but it’s what happened, like it or not and sometimes the truth is colored by Race.
Cochran Runs the Race
To pretend Race prejudice doesn’t exist serves only to make it stronger. And if you don’t think that Johnnie Cochran played the Race card during Jury selection, then you’re not paying attention to the Urban legends surrounding you. The mantra of any Defense Attorney worth their beans is to “Pack the Jury with Black women.” Black women, the urban legend goes, will forgive anything because they believe God is the only Judge of Mankind and justice will be done in the afterlife.
Johnnie Cochran knew this folktale (as does any Attorney since this is known and examined in every law school in the country) and got a “Not Guilty” return. One famous District Attorney asked, “Who needs a Jury consultant when you’re picking a criminal Jury in downtown Los Angeles?”
You use a Jury consultant to take the heat off the Defense who are looking mainly at skin color as the Maginot Line of Juror acceptability. A Jury consultant can run numbers and state statistics in order to help fog the true purpose of the Jury selection process. “Color will lead you to success,” said one famous Defense Attorney during a post-O. J. television interview, “get enough of one and your client walks. It’s just that simple”
Life After O. J.
After O. J. walked, Prosecutors around the nation vowed to make everyone eligible to serve on juries in an attempt to push White, middle-class America into the Jury box. The automatic Jury waivers were axed by state legislatures across the board. Prosecutors demanded that the State help deepen the Jury pools with more upper and middle class White Americans who, perhaps, reflected their more conservative viewpoint in their quest as seekers of Justice.
Success Shines White?
As terrible as it may sound, this tactic has worked! More middle and upper class White Americans are now standing in Jury Pools waiting to be picked for criminal and civil cases. Some Attorneys sarcastically call these new Jury Pools “O. J. Simpson’s Revenge” — the “Wonder Bread Americans” who have shunned Simpson are now being drowned in Jury Pools when it’s too late to stand in judgement of him.
The exemptions are gone, but the chits have improved. Mandatory time waiting to be seated on a Jury has dropped from seven to four days every four years in Manhattan County and the price paid to jurors on a Jury has grown from five dollars a day to over forty! Can you see the sea change? Less time. Less frequent. More money. Soon, New York State Jurors will earn over $70.00 a day for Jury Duty!
Making It Worth The White Man’s While
The State and its Prosecutors now believe they are Making it Worth The White Man’s While to serve on a Jury and surely the expectation is that kindness will sub-consciously be returned as a pro-Prosecution verdict in the courtroom. Now that Jury Duty is truly mandatory, the State has sweetened the pot by showering its new Jurors with money and kinder accommodations and, in New York City, at least, that effort means a lot! I’m certain New York State Prosecutors love the fact that while you’re likely there against your Civic will, you (in some small, accountable, way) appreciate the appreciation the State is showing you.
When I showed up for my first day of Jury Duty, I had resigned myself to boredom and the impoverishment of ideas as I became a cog in the wheels of Justice. I knew this process could be a boring and brutal experience.
I knew the tricks to staying off a Jury. These were told to me by a former Attorney of mine:
1. Pretend to speak no English.
2. Say you hate the Cops no matter what.
Either one of those two excuses would release you from serving on a Jury. Number One would get you a pass home every time you use it because you can’t serve on a Jury unless you speak English. Number Two would not get you an immediate release — you’d be tossed back into the general Jury pool and you wouldn’t get released until you’d served a full term in the pool without getting seated on a Jury — usually five to seven days.
I’m happy to report that the Jury Pool looked quite diverse on the day I was called to serve — lots of folks from all social strata — rich, poor, racially mixed, handicapped, young and old, insane, and mildly crazy. 90% of the people there looked truly miserable, which I bet made the Prosecution very happy — for these are the people who, in the past, would have found a loophole out of having to serve. It was okay being there, I reasoned, since everyone else like me was there, too.
Get In and Out Fast!
Another method of getting Jury Duty over quickly is to try to get ON a case that would not last long as fast as you could. So if you got a Civil trial that was presumed to last two days, you’d be in and out of the Jury system in three days. How do you try to get ON a Jury? You color yourself grey. You have no hard or solid opinions on anything. You’re open-minded. You’re intellectual and good-hearted. You can be fair. You love the cops, but you also believe everyone is innocent until proven guilty.
Some may call this the “Politically Correct” view of answering questions, but that’s the face society wants and the Justice System lusts after, so why fight it? The quickest way to NOT get selected for a Jury is to have a hardcore, unchangeable prejudice against anyone or anything and to toss a fuss about it as the Judge is asks you questions about being able to change or modify your point of view.
Morning to Mourning
Ed Bradley of 60 Minutes fame narrated a videotape on the history of the Jury System for all 300 Jurors stuck in the waiting room. I couldn’t see the TV from my vantage point and I didn’t feel like losing my uncomfortable seat to see the screen, so I listened. The videotape was interesting and sounded well-produced. At least it was something to do.
As the morning pressed on, 30 people at a time were called from the Jury Pool to go be interviewed by the Judge and attorneys to see if they were acceptable to serve as Jurors. This happened four times before my name was called and sitting there, alone, and mourning the total loss of the freedom of choice in my life — I could not WAIT to be called out of this pool to see if I had the stuff necessary to serve as a Juror. Was this the State’s master plan? Would boring us to death waiting to make us more eager to serve?
The White Court Officer running the Jury Pool said if anyone was a convicted felon, they didn’t have to serve and they would be released immediately. There were a few uneasy laughs and the Court Officer added… “You don’t have to come forward now if you’re a convicted felon, just mosey on back to the office later on and pretend you’re looking for a newspaper and we’ll check you out on the crime computer and let you go if you’re there.” There were a few indistinguishable, yet audible, sighs of relief.
Finally, my name was called and about 60 of us left the Jury Pool. We were herded down the hall into a breathtaking courtroom with painted white walls and maple woodwork. The ceiling looked to be 30 feet high and the Judge sat behind a tall bench that towered over us all. It was a hot afternoon and I was dressed in shorts and a mostly unbuttoned, untucked, shirt. I considered dressing better, but I thought, “this is who I am, take me or leave me as I am.”
As I walked down the aisle with my Bausch & Lomb amber Driving Glasses dangling from my shirt pocket, I noticed the Defense Lawyer had completely turned his seat around and was facing us (instead of the Judge) as all 60 of us filed in. The Assistant District Attorney had her back to us and never turned around. The Defendant kept his back to us as well. The Judge smiled at us.
Eyeball to Eyeball
I was one of the first to file down the aisle and the pudgy, Whitebread, Defense Attorney looked each one of us up and down. He looked at our shoes. He watched how we walked. He tried to make eye contact with each of us. He was sizing us up before we sat down and I had to admire the guy because he was trying to strike up a rapport with us before he asked one question. He was going on his gut feeling for knowing people and it was uncanny watching him quickly eyeball a person, dismiss them with a twitch of an eyelid, eyeball another person, take a note, and squeeze an eyeball on another.
Finally the Defense Attorney, round, jolly and a bit disheveled, eyeballed me and our eyes locked. I swear he fell in love with me. I can’t say why, I don’t know how, I just know — call it a Juror’s gut instinct. He couldn’t take his eyes off me. I didn’t break eye contact. I wanted to see how long he’d hold eyes. I blinked first. I didn’t smile. I didn’t frown. I was cool. He kept watching me as I took my seat in the gallery. Maybe he thought he knew me from the past. Maybe he saw something interesting in my eyes that he hadn’t seen before. Who knows? All I knew is that this guy wanted me on his Jury!
I confess that if I ever committed a crime, I’d want this guy defending me because he knew how to size up people and get them on his side very quickly. You couldn’t help liking him because he knew that I knew what he was doing and he knew that I knew that I admired his gall and talent for doing it so quietly and brazenly in front of the Judge and the Prosecution without saying a word! That was my gut instinct on who this guy was and sizing up people is a lifelong talent that few folks can master — in New York City it’s a mandatory price of living — but very few people can do it quietly and reliably.
We sat in hard and uncomfortable pews as the lily-White Judge spoke to us. I liked her a lot. She was very friendly, Non-New Yawkish, and she reminded me of my mother’s best friend back in Nebraska: Firm, Strong, Kind, Smart. There were rumors in the Jury Pool that some Judges were real Jury-haters and that they could be vicious and unfriendly to those picked to serve by snapping at them, keeping them late and calling them in when there was a good chance of sitting around all day in the Jury room. I counted myself lucky that this Judge, at least, seemed to like and enjoy having us in her courtroom. The Judge asked if any of us knew the Attorneys or the Defendant personally. If we did, we had to go back to the Jury Pool. No one knew anyone.
Your Civic Duty
The Judge then went on to explain why we were there. She told us that Juries are the most vital part of a fair system of Justice and that, like voting, serving on a Jury is part of being a civilized nation. I liked that. She then went on to as us rhetorically if WE stood accused of a crime, would we want someone like us serving in judgement of us? And that sealed it for me! I almost cried. I got the message. Justice isn’t just for the Divine or the Rich or for those who cannot afford the best attorneys — Justice belongs to us all — Justice is a process — and in order for the Justice System to work, we all must participate equally so each of us can be judged fairly and without prejudice.
The Judge asked if any of us DID NOT understand English? Two women in the back row raised their hands. The Judge asked them, “You don’t understand English?” And both women said “No.” And the Judge dismissed them back into the Jury Pool. I wondered how they knew what question the Judge was asking if they didn’t understand English!
All the while the Judge was speaking, the Defense Attorney kept his eye on us and continued taking notes as to who was watching, who was falling asleep, who looked away when he looked at them. The Assistant District Attorney ignored us.
The severely-White Assistant District Attorney stood alone. She was dressed in a wrinkled satin suit and wore a giant leg brace and an extremely stern expression. She had a hard time walking. She didn’t look any of us in the eye. She appeared not to want to be there. Her leg seemed to be bothering her so much that I wondered why she didn’t address it immediately as she began to interview us. Her leg became a distraction as we concentrated on the brace instead of what she was saying. She didn’t even try to build a relationship with us. She hurt her case by refusing to explain the obvious and that was a chilling and unwelcome feeling.
“Voir Dire” is a fancy legal Latin term for “speaking the truth” and it is the process that Judges and Attorneys use to decide if you’re suitable to serve on a Jury. You’re under oath during Voir Dire, so you are compelled to tell the truth as they ask you questions about your experiences and beliefs.
Voir Dire is where you can personally try to remove yourself from Jury Duty (and be sent back to the general Jury Pool) if you so choose. Just be an impertinent, prejudiced, jerk and you’ll be excused. I can’t imagine anyone wanting to do this, though lots of folks do. During the first round of Voir Dire, a red-haired guy said he hated the police and that every policeman was a liar and a fraud and he could not set aside that prejudice. The Judge excused him.
The Judge explained to us that the case was criminal and that it had to do with undercover cops and a drug deal. She told us that the only witnesses would be police officers.
The Defendant, the Judge told us, was Presumed Innocent and that meant we had to believe the Defendant was not guilty before the trial began. We were each asked if we could do this (I found it prejudicial that the well-dressed, plum-Black man on trial was called “the Defendant” — that’s a negative word that suggests a weak position — I think “the Presumed” is a better, more positive term, to label the person on trial, but who am I to argue semantics?). We all agreed that we could presume the Defendant innocent.
The Defense Attorney then took the “stage” and shouted at us and cajoled us for so easily saying that we could presume the Defendant innocent when the entire power of the State of New York was embodied in the Assistant District Attorney! He asked some of us in a rapid-fire, bang-bang fashion if we believed the Police were always right? If we said “no” he asked, rather loudly, why not?! “Do you presume the Police are right when they pull you over for a traffic violation?”
There was no right answer because if you said “yes” then he chastised you for not having a mind of your own. If you said “no” then he punished you for not respecting the Thin Blue Line. He was searching for any sort of hard emotion he could fish out of you and exploit for the benefit of his client and he did a masterful job. I suppose the best answer to his question would’ve been, “I don’t know, I’d have to think about it.” That gives him nothing to attack and it shows you aren’t quick to judge.
Dull, Duller, Dullest!
It was the Prosecutor’s turn next to ask questions of the Jury and she didn’t dig much. She asked rather bland, opinionless questions. She was going through the motions. Maybe she knew she didn’t have much of a case and had a firebrand Defense Attorney who was going to eat her for lunch, but none-the-less, it would’ve been keen to see her pretend to care, for it wouldn’t have felt as if we were wasting her time by being there.
Finally, it was my turn to be asked questions. They’d been through two rounds of questioning already and had 11 Jurors seated. The first Juror selected was the Jury Foreman: A powerful Black woman. Her son was a Police Officer — an interesting mix of Jury selection stereotype and unselfish, familial, public service. They needed one more Juror, Juror Number Twelve, for the trial and two alternates.
I must say the Juror seats in the Jury box were very comfortable. Was this another State ploy to make you want to serve on a Jury? The Jury Pool seats were hard and uncomfortable. The Jury Box seats were a gentle and soft buttery leather.
Are You, Or Have You Ever Been…
By the third round of Voir Dire, the questions were very simple and non-theatrical. I was asked if I could be fair and impartial and I answered, “yes.” I was asked if I could presume the Defendant innocent and I said, “yes.” I told them where I lived (Alphabet City), my educational background (M.F.A. from Columbia University), Married or Single (Married) and Occupation (writer). The “writer” answer drew a raised eyebrow from the Judge and the Defense Attorney and the Judge asked me if I’d written anything about the Justice System that might influence my experience in serving on this Jury. Oh, my! I had to think back through the plethora of articles I’d published here in Go Inside Magazine over the years…
Words As Swords
I told the Judge I’d written an article titled Cultural Differences vs. Social Deviancy that dealt with the abandonment of a baby on the sidewalk of a New York City BBQ Ribs diner while the parents ate inside.
I then told the Judge I’d also written an article called Race for Naturalization that dealt with the unsettling situation of legal immigrants fighting for U. S. Citizenship so they can remain on Public Welfare.
I offered up a last article entitled Ugly Ass Shoes that Fit Like a Glove — my take on the O. J. Simpson Criminal Trial — and the Black Court Reporter asked me what I meant by “Ugly Ass” and as I began to explain, the Judge ordered the Court Reporter not to talk to me. The Court Reporter then gave me a nasty look. I shrugged and told the Judge that’s all I could remember at this time.
I then invited her, and everyone else in the courtroom, to visit http://goinside.com to see what I left out. The Judge smiled. The Assistant District Attorney took notes. The Defense Attorney nodded.
After questioning, the Judge called the Assistant District Attorney and the Defense Attorney to the bench. They held a quick discussion in front of us at the Judge’s bench and announced that I would be Juror #12! As the two alternates were announced, the Judge instructed the seated Jury to retire to the Jury Deliberation Room and await further instruction.
I was extremely surprised they selected me for the final slot! I certainly think I provided a Pro-Prosecution stance in my questions and answers, but perhaps my shorts and Columbia education and Bohemian living quarters swayed the Defense to go along with selecting me? Maybe there were no more peremptory left on either side? Maybe the Prosecution hated me and the Defense Attorney truly did love me! All I know is that I was totally honest and I felt honored to be chosen to serve and I planned to do my best.
The Jury Deliberation Room
As we were herded back into the Jury Deliberation Room, I noticed the door leading from the courtroom to the holding cell, the Judges’ chambers and the Jury Deliberation Room was six inches thick and made of steel. That was a cold reminder that the business done in this building is serious and the consequences can be deadly. The Jury Deliberation Room had a long table, several windows, lots of mis-matched chairs and separate bathrooms for Men and Women.
We were there only moments when a White Court Officer came in, handed us each special yellow “paper passes” good for a week that would allow us, as sitting Jurors, to enter the Courthouse without having to go through the metal detectors and frisking stations. That would be a welcome relief! It isn’t much fun having a stranger poke a metal stick into your computer case every day.
The Court Officer dismissed us and ordered us to report at 9:00 am the next morning for court. As we were hustled out the door, I didn’t have time to discover the racial and gender makeup of our Jury. That would have to wait for tomorrow.
There was a track fire on the IRT subway line the morning we were to report for Jury Duty and I was the last one in the room to arrive. Thanks to my “quickie yellow Juror paper pass” I ran in the Courthouse door and grabbed an elevator without having to go through the security checkpoints. I was met by a Court Officer at the elevator who escorted me back to the Jury Room and he quickly took back all our yellow paper passes and ordered us to file into the courtroom.
The Judge informed us that a member of the Defense Attorney’s family had died and the trial would be postponed for a couple of weeks. The Judge said she was letting us go… letting us go… back to the Jury Pool! We all gasped in horror! The Judge turned red-faced and apologetic and earnestly explained to us that this was her only choice since the trial hadn’t actually *started* yet! If we’d been sworn in and the Defense Attorney had to leave one second later… she could have sent us home immediately.
The Judge ordered us to return to the Jury Pool and there was a scamper for the door so folks could re-submit their names in the hopes of getting on another Jury quickly. Forget the racial and gender makeup of this Jury… get me back in that Pool ASAP! I dashed out the door, too.
Re-Entering the Pool
The Jury Duty Math was getting trickier now. We were now in our second day, and most of those still in the general pool had already been selected for trials. Chances were good that we might not even get called for another trial today since we’d been placed on a Jury yesterday… so it could be Day Three before we might stand a chance of getting on a trial… and that’s cutting it close if you’re looking for a quick tour of Civic Duty. A person more cunning than I might advise it’s best to play the “I Speak No English” or “I Hate the Cops” games on days three and four and then getting sent home on day five without ever getting on a Jury instead of getting seated on a two week trial (or longer!) on day four.
As we anxiously awaited our fate, the White Juror Boss (whatever… he was a funny, sweet guy) called the 14 of us (12 Jurors and 2 Alternates) into the hallway and told us to “Bring all your stuff with you.” He then asked us to follow him down the hall. As we made the slow walk, someone asked me if they were taking us out to shoot us? I laughed and smiled and said, “Anything would be better than going back into Jury Pool!” Another person asked if they were going to make us come back in two weeks? I said, “No. You’ll see. Look where they’re leading us.”
As we arrived at the elevator, the Juror Boss explained to us that, in his opinion, we had served our Civic Duty. We were chosen to serve on a Jury and it wasn’t our fault the trial was postponed. He then, after we returned our white and blue “Juror” ID badges, handed us back our “Jury Receipts” stamped with two days of service!
He explained we would get checks for around $50 for our service in a few months and that we wouldn’t be called to serve Jury Duty again for three or four or more years! There were cheers! He hushed us and told us to leave quickly and quietly so the others in the Jury Pool wouldn’t wonder why we were being let go while they had to stay.
Can’t Please Everyone
We all began pushing the down button on the elevator when it happened. A small, young, White man with a thick, Russian accent refused to leave. He was an alternate Juror and he told the Juror Boss that he *must* serve on a Jury! It wasn’t fair that he be sent home. He demanded his Civil Right to go back into the general Jury Pool! The Juror Boss shrugged and said, “No can do. You’re already stamped. Please leave.”
As the young man continued to argue his case, the Juror Boss looked at me and said, “Some people, you just can’t please.” I told the Juror Boss he pleased me and a few others chimed in their approval and thanks. Then, as the first elevator opened, all twelve of us packed ourselves in tight in case the young man was successful and we were all brought back. The elevator doors closed and squeezed away the image of the young Russian flailing his angry arms at the Juror Boss.
Did Your Duty?
On the ride down in the elevator, the powerful Black Jury Foreman asked me if I felt I served my Civic Duty even though there wasn’t a trial? I said, “I sure do. I feel good about being here. I learned that we serve a vital role in the grinding Justice machine. We make sure the wrong person doesn’t get ground up.” “Me, too,” she said. The other Jurors in the car offered their verbal affirmations as well.
The moment before the elevator door opened and we all would make a mad dash for the trains without saying good-bye, the twelve of us shared a smile, warm in the knowledge that, for a brief moment in time, in a rickety old Otis elevator on the Southern tip of Manhattan, we had come to a unanimous decision together.