Duty calls

OK, duty didn’t actually call; it sent notice in the mail telling me to appear for trial jury service at the Butte County Superior Court on July 22 or else face a $1,000 fine and five days in the pokey. So I appeared—not from fear of punishment, but rather out of a sense of obligation as a citizen of this country. Besides, I’d never been summoned for jury duty before, and 12 Angry Men is one of my favorite movies.

Here’s how it works:* You gather in the jury room of the courthouse north of Oroville at 8:30 a.m. with about 150 others. You notice a line of people snaking back upon itself within the confines of the room, and you take your place at the end. The line is headed toward a little window counter cut into the wall. A coffee pot on a folding table appears to your left, and as the line slowly slithers past, you step out, pull a Styrofoam cup from the stack on the table and, hurrying so you don’t lose your place, spill some of the coffee on your light-tan pants. “Oh great,” you tell yourself, “now I’ll never be picked to serve with this coffee stain on my pants.”

After you’ve checked in, you see three or four people you recognize and you say, “You too? No way.” Then you stand around for a while and make small talk until a court officer arrives and explains the procedure. Eventually he calls your group number and herds you and 58 others into a courtroom, where you take a squeaky seat. The accused, the defense attorney, the prosecutor, the court clerk, the court reporter and the bailiff are already there. The judge enters. In this case it’s Superior Court Judge Steve Benson, who after a brief explanation citing the importance of jury duty—"Thomas Jefferson thought it more important than voting"—asks those with undue hardships to stand one at a time and relay their sad stories and why they should be excused from jury duty. The hardships range from “I’ve got a terminally ill mother in San Jose” to “I’m a pool contractor with five employees who don’t know what to do unless I’m there to direct them.” A guy named Doug explains he probably won’t be able to sit on a jury for the estimated three- to four-day trial because he has his own court date coming up in a week.

In the end, 23 undue-hardship cases are recognized and excused. Doug is not. Of that remaining pool of potential jurists, 18, including Doug and you, are picked for more extensive questioning by the judge: What’s your name and occupation, who do you live with, how long have you been in the community, and can you be fair and unbiased? At this point, Doug, who is Caucasian, tells the judge, “I’m a racist.” Judge Benson looks surprised and says, “I appreciate your honesty, but the accused in this case looks like a white guy.” Doug shrugs his shoulders and says he just wants to come clean. Then the prosecutor and the defense attorney get to exercise their preemptory challenges, meaning they can excuse someone for any or no reason. Doug gets booted by the defense attorney. You get booted by the prosecuting attorney. You are told to return after lunch. So is Doug. You go through the process again, and this time Doug’s hardship story gets him excused right off the bat. You, on the other hand, get picked and questioned again—this time by a different defense attorney and a different prosecutor. You start thinking maybe you have a chance with this prosecutor—he’s older and seems less suspicious than the prosecuting attorney from the morning session. He asks if you recently wrote in your weekly newspaper column something about Attorney General John Ashcroft. “Not that I remember,” you say, a bit confused. He smiles, nods his head and moves on to the next prospective juror. You rack your brain, and suddenly you remember that you did write something about Ashcroft. You wrote how you’d heard his swaggering style had reached down and affected local prosecuting attorneys. You want to raise your hand and get the judge’s attention and say, “Yes, yes, I did write something about Ashcroft.” But it’s too late. The exercise in picking a jury has moved on and passed you by like a speeding freight train. Three minutes later, the prosecuting attorney calls your name, and you are excused from the courtroom.

*Disclaimer: Your experience with jury duty may vary greatly from this account—you may have a different job, better social skills and a higher intelligence quotient. In other words, unlike me, you’ll probably be picked to sit on the jury.