Jury duty is a pain in the ass. Even the most civic-minded citizens I know consider it a pain in the ass. Last week, Madonna got in hot water for blowing off jury duty. Almost every person's reaction to a jury duty summons is to try to squirm out of it, which makes the proverbial "jury of peers" a dubious claim. If they're my peers, why aren't they smart enough to get out of jury duty?
In recent years, the Los Angeles courts have taken measures to improve the jury process, both for jurors and for the quality of the juries. From what I've seen, these steps have been somewhat successful. The call-in system is a huge improvement from the old method, replacing a mass congregation of excess jurors with a mass of brief, suspenseful phone calls every night for a week. I remember an extremely unpleasant jury duty experience years ago, when they summoned way too many potential jurors and there weren't enough chairs for everyone in the jury room to sit down. If you got up, you lost your seat and had to stand until someone else got up, or you sat on the floor. It felt like a Red Cross shelter after a disaster.
This time around, the robotic voice informed me that I'd been chosen on my very first phone call. The next morning I took my summons to the courthouse, where the jury pool was corralled in a room with enough chairs for everyone to sit. Progress! Two hours later, a voice on the loudspeaker started mangling my name, over and over, never pronouncing it right, until I stood up and walked to the window. "I think that's me," I told the woman.
Soon I was in seat number 20 in a courtroom. This meant that I was merely a replacement in case a juror in seats 1-12 managed to escape. The judge began to speak to the jurors, and he was taking a different approach from the judges I've seen before. Perhaps as part of the new model, this judge was acting less like a strict junior high vice principal monitoring detention and more like a kindly, story-telling grandparent, acting bemused and gently refusing all jurors' pleas for dismissal. That is, until sweet old Gramps got to me.
After 19 dull Q&A sessions with potential jurors, the attorneys had let their attention drift to their laptops and piles of paper. When the judge asked me if I had any previous court experience, I gave him my widest smile. In my most cheerful tone of voice, I began recounting my legal fiasco. I had been hit by a car while crossing the street and then falsely accused of a long list of crimes. What transpired for the next eight months in court was such an absurd travesty of bullying, technicalities and incompetence that it eventually led to the loudest Judge Judy episode I've ever seen, and then a book, followed by about 40 radio interviews, reaching millions of people with my horrific tale of what the city attorneys had done to me in court. The prosecutor was so absorbed in her paper shuffling that she didn't bother listening to what I was saying with such a perky, cheerful tone. The judge kept looking over at her, wondering why she was letting this continue, and growing concerned. I happily informed the judge that unless a blinding light from above and a booming voice told me to convict, there was no way I was going to believe one word that came out of the prosecutor's mouth.
"Okay, you don't really mean that."
"The hell I don't," I replied with my friendliest grin.
The prosecutor finally stopped shuffling her papers as it sunk in. She looked up at me, confused and growing angry fast. "SIDEBAR!" the woman shouted. The judge ordered me to come to him. I left my chair and walked before the judge, still all smiles.
The judge looked down at me with a condescending frown, "Now there's no way this story of yours really happened."
"I've got a stack of legal documents about two feet high and some video to prove it." I matched the judge's stare with my unshakable smile. Hizzoner's confidence crumbled. "He needs to go," the judge instructed the attorneys.
"They all have to go," the prosecutor sharply replied, "He's tainted the entire pool."
"With what? The truth?" I asked.
"Get out," the judge growled at me. The lovable old fellow was gone, and now he looked like he could kill. The judge and lawyers continued to argue in whispers about a new jury pool. As I walked out, some jurors started to applaud until the judge sharply barked for them to stop.
How do you taint an entire jury pool? If you're me, you just tell the truth. But do it in the friendliest manner possible, to make sure too much truth spills out before they stop you.
Read the whole story in Steve's book: Kafka at the Beach: A Layman's Handbook for Those Falsely Accused of Felonies
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