Monday, March 02, 2009

Jury's Prudent

I have jury duty.
To clarify, I have grand jury duty.

A few weeks ago I received my summons for jury duty. This is the third time in my life I will have appeared at a court house for jury duty. Unfortunately, this will be the first time I will actually have to sit.

The first time was after I left the east coast and headed to St. Louis. I was called back even though I was in college. I explained to the judge that I was in school in St. Louis and no longer lived on the east coast. Done. I was excused.

The second time was while I was in college. I was called to jury duty in St. Louis. This was a little more difficult to get out of. It was a petit jury so we could be dismissed, which was the idea. I was working a show and didn't want to lose the time to my civic duty. So I called my mother and asked what to do.

"It's simple," she explained. "Be extreme in your answers. Don't lie, but make it clear that whatever they ask is something you're passionate about. You don't like drunk drivers, be vehement."
My girlfriend at the time tried to add her two cents as well. "Show them how smart you are. No one wants a smart juror. They want a juror that can easily be swayed."

I went to the courthouse and sat. Thankfully, I brought my homework with me, but my fellow jurors were annoyed with me as I took up a good chunk of floor to do my light plot drafting. Soon I was called in and asked my opinion on defrauding people.

"Have you ever taken a person's money?" I was asked.
"No, sir," I replied. "That would be horribly wrong. Any person who does that was obviously never loved by their mother." That was my version of extreme. What I liked was that the defense attorney's head cocked over like a puppy's. He almost couldn't believe that the man sitting before him would say those words.

I was almost immediately dismissed.

Now this third time is different. The state of Minnesota is quite unique. They convene a grand jury every Thursday and ask its members to sit for four months. The jury consists of 23 people, one foreperson, two associate forepeople, and eight alternates. They need at least sixteen people to vote, so the twenty three is just in case someone cannot make it due to dire circumstances. And unlike other states, you cannot get dismissed from doing your duty...not without a doctor's note that covers the whole period. Taking a business trip? Go ahead, see you in a week. I was unaware of this when I got called. Again, a petit jury is where they have a jury of twelve people who decide if the defendant is guilty or not guilty. That was NOT what I was being called to. No, the Hennepin County Grand Jury is to decide if there is enough evidence to send a case to trial. There is no excusing. It's also all homicides. "Prepare for blood," we were told.

When the summons came, I immediately thought of my mother: extremes. Get out of it.
I filled out the questionnaire that came with it. I had never had to fill out a survey for jury duty before. It asked questions about my educational background, my job, and my spouse. It was strange.
As the date drew closer, I even tried to be positive. It's a day off, I told myself, you can take grading and get ahead. Might meet some interesting people too. Not even close.
I arrived early and took my seat outside the courtroom. The clerk came and took our names like an attendance sheet (Yes, I looked at it like a teacher). Once we were all checked in, we were given binders with instructions and took a seat in the courtroom.
After a quick introduction, the clerk said there would be one piece of business. "We need to get a foreperson, so I will read three names at random and take those people to meet with the judge." She read the names. I was second. Off to the upper floors to meet the judge.

Here's the catch, however. The names weren't random. When I checked in, I was able to read the list the clerk had. It was not in alphabetical order. At the top were three names (mine was second) that had stars next to them. These three names were the ones she read. As I went upstairs with the two other people, we began introducing ourselves to each other and discussing our backgrounds. Turned out all three of us had Masters degrees or higher, did jobs that required working with groups of people, and had put all of that on the questionnaire. There was nothing random about this. The judge interviewed all three of us and asked if we could handle a group, had any reservations, etc. In the end, I became an associate foreperson. This was due to my asking a question during the interview. This meant I had to be the foreperson if something happened to the woman chosen for the task. No way out now.

After being sworn in, we went to the grand jury room where we met the prosecutor and had the whole thing explained out. No longer would we be addressed by our names. No we would be numbers. We were also told to not read the newspaper or watch the news (Sorry, Keith) as this could sway our opinions.

What struck me, however, was not that we had these rules. I understand that. No, what got me was a few things that the clerk said to us.

1. 'The building," she explained, "does not have Wi-Fi. We still use dial-up."
Someone asked, "Do you mean you just plug in?"
"No," she replied, "I mean dial-up. It's slow. That's why justice takes so long around here."

2. Juror pay is ten dollars for the day. Not per hour, per day. Ten dollars won't even cover the cost of parking down in Minneapolis all day, but that's neither here nor there. Still, it makes sense, then, why so many people want to get out of jury duty. In this economy, who can afford to lose 1/5 if their paycheck? You want to do your civic duty, but that's a great deal of money to give up.

3. The building, it was explained to us, shuts down on Wednesdays as a cost saving measure. This means that the office won't be open for questions, problems, or explanations. Ok, so there's no justice on Wednesdays. So that's going to make it easier for everyone and makes sense? Really? Ok then.

This will be an interesting experience. I will talk about what I can (outside of the cases), but Thursday will be the first day and the first problem: Parent/Teacher conferences are this Thursday, and I am expected to be at jury duty. So..sorry parents. I can't talk to you about your failing child, because I'm going to be looking at whether a guy shot his baby in the face by accident or maliciously (not a real case...not contempt of court here).

Of course what do I know? I'm just the schmuck who may send you off to a trial. I could be wrong.