08 October 2008

American Civics 101

This is the Tuesday post, brought to you a day late...or a week and a day, since I didn't post one last Tuesday.  You'll see why.

The envelope was your basic #10 business envelope, with a plasticized window for my address to show through.  No indication that this was about to throw a monkey wrench (aside: WTF is a monkey wrench, anyway?) into my life.  The return address said "County X Clerk of Courts."  My heart rate sped up a bit...had I forgotten a city parking ticket, and this was now a warrant for my arrest?  Because they do that if you accumulate enough of them and you don't pay the fines.  I don't remember any recent parking tickets.....

When I ripped it open, however, discarding the rest of the mail into a messy pile on the floor of my car, it said Petit Jury Summons.  Huh, I thought.  I wondered when they'd get around to me.  I've heard people complain my whole life about jury duty, and always claimed that I would serve with nary a complaint when it eventually became my turn.  Jury duty lists are given to the Clerk of Courts from the rolls of registered voters.  A co-worker teased me, "That's what you get for voting!"  'Scuse me for exercising some of my (few remaining) civil rights, I snarked back.  I have been registered to vote since turning 18, and have voted in every election, EVERY ELECTION, since then.  It is a sacred right, as far as I am concerned.  If you don't vote, then don't whine to me about the state of democracy, or your taxes, or anything else that relates to living in this country.

Ooops, tangent.  Sorry.

There was a small white postcard in the envelope, and it promised dire consequences if it was not returned within 5 days.  Since I only check my mailbox about once a week, I was very worried that I'd already missed said deadline.  The mailbox is NOT attached to my house, rather a community group of mailboxes and I'm lazy.  Its too far away.  Accordingly, I filled out the requisite info (name, address, phone numbers) stuck a stamp on it, mailed it, and promptly mostly forgot about it, because it was something like 6 weeks away.

I wrote the date down on the whiteboard calendar in my office, but somehow the notation that I was supposed to serve jury duty never made it into the crackberry's calendar.  While talking to my assistant about big upcoming work things on a Wednesday, I turned to face the whiteboard and realized that no, I couldn't do what I wanted to that Friday, because I had to be at the courthouse.  (heeee, look @ me, I have an assistant!  OK, truth is that I share her with the rest of the office, but still. I so love being able to say MY ASSISTANT!)

This could not really come at a worse possible time for me.  New (relatively, I've been there about 4 months) job, and the biggest thing I'm responsible for is looming large on the horizon.  I love our legal system, and I want to participate in the judicial system in a manner that does not require me to be handcuffed.  But the timing suuuuucks.

When I got to the courthouse that Friday, the jury waiting room was nearly full.  I snagged a seat, pulled out my knitting, and knitted contentedly.  Unlike many other public waiting rooms, this one is nice.  Semi-comfortable chairs.  Soothing decor.  Kinda reminds me a of a doctor's office.  A very very busy and large doctor's office.

After a while, a gentleman with a county ID badge explained the events of the day as they would unfold.  We would go to the judge's courtroom, where he would instruct us about our responsibilities.  Should take about an hour.  'Lawyers,' I thought with amusement.  'Can't do anything without giving themselves a chance to be long-winded.'  After that, there was a questionnaire we were required to fill out, and then we would be free to go.  The questionnaire was not meant to pry into our personal lives, but it was important that we answered every question and answered every question honestly.

The county courthouse was built during a time that America was very impressed with herself, and felt that public buildings should be monuments, beautiful to look at.  It is a glorious structure, marble, granite, and gleaming hardwood everywhere.  I know from the days when I worked for ye olde evile bank as a runner of papers to and from the courthouse that those marble stairs inside the courthouse are slippery.  The judge's courtroom was on a lower floor than the jury waiting room.  I walked carefully down the stairs, taking my time.  The marble balustrades aren't much help if you need support, because they're slippery too.

The courtroom had more grandiose carved wood, and row after row of spectator benches, that reminded me of pews in the churches of my childhood.  Just the kneelers were missing.  It seems so cliche' to say that the courtroom was packed, but it was.  Every single seat was taken, and they even dragged in red leather chairs from somone's office for the standees.  As I looked around, I realized that one of the prosecutors was a good friend from my high school days.  I'd forgotten that he was a DA.  I like to joke about everyone in this town being connected by only 2 degrees of separation, instead of the six that people usually claim.  Its a small place.  There's a good chance that I know a handful of the people in the jury pool as well.

So much of what 'we' as a society know about the legal system is drawn from Law & Order, LA Law, Ally McBeal, insert popular legal show name here.  So it is vastly entertaining that what unfolded next was drawn directly from every court scene you've ever seen in every movie & TV show you've ever watched.  The bailiff was an adorable guy in a really nice suit, sharp red button-down shirt, contrasting tie.  He introduced himself, explained that the judge would be along shortly, and asked us to be patient.  Loudly.  A few seconds later, he shouted, "XYZ County Court of Common Pleas, the honorable Judge Blah Blah presiding.  ALL RISE!!"  Like obedient schoolkids, we did, and because I'm so short, I missed the judge's entrance.  But I heard the bang of the gavel, and the judge's announcement that court was now in session.  "Please be seated." The judge then proceeded to introduce every. single. player. in the courtroom.  The DAs.  The defense attorneys.  The defendant.  The court reporter.  The bailiff.  His secretary from down the hall. (No, really, he did.  That's not me being smart.)  

He spent considerable time explaining to us where 'the media' would be during the trial.  "Media?" I wondered to myself.  "Why?  Wasn't I summoned for civil cases?"  Nope.  Turns out that this was a Very Serious Crime, and we should expect that the media would be involved every step of the way.  

He read the charges against the defendant, 26 (!!!!) of them.  He explained the legal-ese, although I knew most of the terms.  I'm a geek like that.  He then read off the list of reasons that you could be excused from the pool of jurors for this case.  If you knew the defendant.  If you knew any of the people the defendant was accused of committing crimes against.  If you had a recent death in your family.  If you were a cloistered member of a religious organization, or Amish.  If you were addicted to alcohol or drugs.  That one got a chuckle from the crowd; the judge said he rarely had anyone raise their hand for that exclusion.  Wonder why?  Each person that raised their hand for a particular reason was asked to state their name, and then remain when the rest of us went back upstairs to fill in our questionnaires.

Then he spent more than an hour explaining what our duties would entail.  Those pews are hard, and dammed uncomfortable, too.  I started fidgeting, but so was everyone else in my row.  I also had to move my head constantly to be able to see the judge, I was far in the back of the room.  He gave us the line about the questions we had to answer not intending to pry into our lives again.  I think that was the 3rd time someone said that to us.

When he excused us to go back upstairs, I discovered that he'd kept us for 2 hours.

The questionnaire was an exercise in hilarity, because so many of the questions were directly related to my personal life.  

DH was a volunteer firefighter for many years, as were his brother and father.  I promise, this is related, and important to the narrative.  When I met DH, he'd just broken up with a girlfriend who had complained about the time he spent with the fire department.  Noted; don't bitch about the fire department.  Seriously, though, I was very proud of his service to our microscopic community.  That makes it sound like rescuing kittens in trees were the extent of his duties, but truth is that he did actually fight fires.  Many were the times when we were first married that I'd wake to the sound of the tones on the scanner going out, and he'd roll out of bed in the middle of the night.  I'd listen, rarely able to go back to sleep until he returned, unless I could discern that the call was BS.  You could tell when it was a big deal, because the dispatchers would be screaming bloody blue murder, and the first firefighters on the scene would be more serious, more focused, and much, much louder when it was for real.  Only once in all of those years was I worried for his safety, and if memory serves, that was before we were married.  I trusted the crew he ran with, and more importantly, HE trusted them.  With his life.  I respected the hell out of those guys.

So pages 4-15 had questions about firefighters.  What was my opinion of them?  Well, geniuses, I married one, so guess they're OK. It was that same question, asked several different ways through all of those pages.  Did I know any firefighters?  Did I like them?  Had anyone I known ever been injured in a fire?  What did I think of the first responders when that person was injured?

Not trying to pry into my personal life, eh?  Really.

Then there were questions about arson, and here's snag #1 to me serving on this jury.  DH studied to take the state's arson investigator test, and while he was doing that, I read some of the textbooks.  Yeah, yeah.  I'm a voracious reader of nearly everything.  Otherwise known as a dork.

There were questions about my regular reading material, my major in college, my minors, my interests outside of my occupation.  Why did I participate in whatever hobbies or sports those were?  Not trying to pry into my personal life.  Uh-huh.

Finally, the rest of the questions were about the death penalty.  Now, my opinion about the death penalty is probably not what you'd expect from a flaming liberal.  I'm all for it.  In fact, I think it should be expanded to include several crimes other than murder.  Which ones?  Serial rapists for one.  Repeat offender pedophiles for another.  Why?  Well, I don't think that violence against women is taken seriously enough in our society.  Largely, I don't think that you can 'rehabilitate' someone who has raped six women.  How long should we keep trying?  Until he commits his tenth rape?  His 20th?  The pedophiles should be pretty self-explanatory.  If there is a hell, then I hope that a special place is reserved there for the people who repeatedly sexually assault children.

It also irks me a whole lot that after somone is sentenced to death, we spend umpteen millions on warehousing these people whilst the appeals process drags on and on and on.  My tax dollars, that could be far better spent on programs that cut crime rates, are instead spent on the folks sitting on death row for 25 years.  And how, exactly, is that justice for the victim?  Their family?  Your sister/cousin/uncle is dead, and the person convicted of the crime sits on death row for 15 more years longer than the vic got to live until the appeals process is exhausted?  Are you kidding me?

Right, tangent again.  Sorry.

I left the courthouse and headed back to work, managing to get at least half a day's work in.  They kept me hanging over the weekend and most of the day on Monday, finally calling me late Monday afternoon to tell me that I had an 8.30 AM appointment for individual voire dire, which is the legal term for the opportunity that both prosecution and defense have to question each juror, making sure that the chosen 12 will be fair and impartial.

More waiting.  More knitting in waiting rooms.

When they called me into the courtroom, the judge introduced himself to me again, and he said, "I note on your questionnaire that you identify yourself as an atheist.  Will you swear an oath?"  I smiled; this particular aspect of atheism has always amused me; atheists don't want to swear that they'll tell the truth, "so help me God" because God isn't real.  I have no problem promising to tell the truth, and so I told him that yes, I would swear an oath.  

Duly sworn in, I sat in the jury box, facing the judge.  He sits higher than the rest of the courtroom, but I was nearly eye level with him, because the jury box is elevated too.  The prosecution was to my right, perpendicular to the judge's chair, and the defense was behind them.  I faced the judge the whole time, not looking around, because I didn't trust myself to look at the prosecutor I know without sharing a smile or smirk with him.  There ARE times and places where being my smartass self are just not appropriate.

My friendship with the prosecutor was the first thing the judge brought up; I had stated on my questionnaire that due to our friendship, I wasn't sure that I could be a fair and impartial juror.  I'm more likely to believe him, trust his statements, than I am for anyone else in that courtroom.  The judge lectured me for a moment about how he puts aside his friendship with various lawyers when they're in his courtroom.  I didn't see the point in fighting/disagreeing with him, although I do disagree.  

So then we moved on to my job, and the big event on the horizon.  He asked me a few questions about it, and what would happen if I wasn't at work while it was going on.  He asked how long I've been doing this for a living.  I told him that since it is the first time around for me with this event, I didn't know how they'd cope without me, but I didn't think it would be easy for them.  He asked several times about the dates, when was this going on?  Did I stutter, or was he just not paying attention?  I don't know.  I again restrained myself from being a smartass.  It is hard!  (thanks, Dad, for instilling that particular part of my personality!!)

He called the lawyers up to the bench, and they huddled and whispered for a few minutes.  My prosecutor friend kept nodding his head, although I don't know what they talked about.  Deaf, remember?

When the lawyers walked away, the judge told me that they'd decided to excuse me for cause, that missing my work event would clearly be a hardship.  (woot! doing the conga inside my head!) He told me, though, that he would really like to question me further, because my answers on the questionnaire about the death penalty fascinated him, but the court didn't have time for that today.  He seemed regretful about that.  I am too, I would have loved to hear what he wanted to ask about.

Released from the purgatory of waiting rooms and anxiously sitting on pins & needles, worrying about how the hell I was going to tell work that I'd be away for several weeks while this thing plays out, I walked back to my office.  

Thus endeth my brush with the legal system for now.  I hope I do get the chance, someday, to serve on a jury, to be a part of the amazing process that is the judicial branch of government.  Just not this week!!

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