02/07/2008 03:57 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Jury Doody

Last night, a computerized fembot uttered seven of the sweetest-sounding words I've heard in a long time: "You are no longer needed for jury duty."

I smiled, pressed "One" to say goodbye, and promptly hand-shredded the packet of information sheets that had been fattening up my date book for the past two weeks.

When the envelope originally arrived a month ago, I groaned aloud as I read the first sentences: "You have been selected for jury duty in the Chicago district courts. Serving on a jury is one of the highest honors a U.S. citizen..." Blah, blah, bleh. It overlapped with a business trip to New York so I requested a postponement. And I was granted one. But before I even had a chance to return my seat to its full and upright position five days later on my way home from NYC, a follow-up envelope arrived. Jury duty, starting immediately, for two weeks. Unless I had a doctor's note promising grand mal seizures, I was stuck.

On Tuesday, I arrived with all the provisions my friends had urged me to bring. Laptop? Check. Book? Check. No-Doze Maximum Strength? Gulp. Along with about 500 other Chicago-area residents, I sat in a holding room, swigging Dunkin Donuts coffee (free with trial service!) and filling out my Social Security number on a little card which would ensure I received my $40 per diem. This "fun money" would, sadly, constitute my entire paycheck for the next half-month -- as a freelance writer, I have no employer to guarantee two weeks' worth of paid jury duty. Had I, maybe the whole experience would have seemed a bit more like an adventure; a chance to make a difference while simultaneously comparing my own District Court to the ones I see Olivia Benson testifying in on Law & Order SVU.

Once my name was called, about 70 of us were herded towards two not-large elevators and told to cram in. A woman buried beneath multiple winter coats warmed the back of my neck with her breath while someone else's pager went off and two men complained in a language I did not recognize. Up on the 32nd floor, we were taken to a courtroom already inhabited by two large teams of lawyers.

Voire dire. (Cue Law & Order music - Duhn-duhn!)

We were sworn to tell the truth. We stood up when the judge entered. We were handed sheets of paper with questions on them such as "How long have you lived in Chicago and where have you lived for the previous 15 years?", "What are your hobbies?" "Have you ever committed a crime?" (Soon I would learn that the best answers to some inquiries, if you really did not want to serve, were "I've lived here forever and keep extraordinarily current on all litigious matters written up in my daily paper," "Watching CNBC and stockbrokering" and "Yes, I was accused of stealing from a bank and filtering the funds to an offshore account...why do you ask?"

It took about two hours to get through the first nine people. In truth, it was quite fascinating and in a way voyeuristic to listen as these men and women -- my peers -- came clean about everything. Potential Juror A was an immigrant housewife who liked to cook and had never been a victim of a crime. Potential Juror B was a food service manager who belonged to his church, a poker club and didn't watch much TV. Potential Juror C was a single mother who recently lost her son's medical malpractice case and, when asked directly by the judge if she would be able to make a clear-headed and unbiased ruling in the matter at hand, replied, very assuredly, "No, I would not."

Like my college anthropology professor instructed me 12 years earlier, I found myself ingratiating my way into these people's lives. What were their struggles? Who did they rely on? What kind of home were they raised in? We were all so different in ethnic background, religion, age and educational history...yet certain themes united us. We'd all had at least one speeding ticket. About one out of four of us had been robbed, mugged or burgled. Almost everyone knew a lawyer.

Without realizing it, I was soon silently slipping Red Hots between my lips as I watched peoples' stories unfold, like a moviegoer furiously noshing on popcorn during a suspenseful scene. The man next to me raised an eyebrow and I put the candy away, silently admonished for turning the legal process into a Tuesday matinee.

After lunch, we returned for more interviews. I was number 50 or so and as the judge sorted his way through the riffraff, I prepared for my turn. My stomach churned as I debated just how detailed I wanted to get about an assault I'd been involved in (actually, I wanted to be incredibly comprehensive, as I never had my own day in court.) Alas, my time would not come now -- after 40 people or so, the lawyers felt they had what they needed and we were released for the day, with instructions to call in after 5:30pm that night to see if we were needed the next day.

Every evening for two weeks I called, simultaneously dreading another day of lost work while secretly looking forward to the possibility of taking part in Voire Dire once more. They never needed me. And I still haven't gotten my $40.