Last week I was among hundreds who gathered in downtown Los Angeles, having been summoned for jury duty. It was my first time in awhile -- I've been out of town a lot -- and, with a political background, was intrigued to be part of the judicial process.
It's also interesting to be in a group representing so-called peers, which is the whole point of a jury, yet, looking around and listening to conversations, for the most part they were people with whom I had little in common.
But maybe that's a good thing.
Anyway, like the military and typical of government, there was lots of hurry up and wait. You better be there at 7:45 in the morning -- no easy thing for me -- but when you arrive there's a morass of humanity standing in the hallway, with seating for ten percent, waiting an extra twenty minutes before staff members came out, barking instructions like drill sergeants at boot camp.
Finally, after a break, 65 of us were sent to Department 118, where I was afforded the "honor" of giving the roster to the bailiff. Fifteen minutes later, the clerk appeared, let's call her a Nell Carter look-alike, and she assigned us numbers. God forbid anyone should know our names.
I was Number 24, and after entering the courtroom it was clear I wouldn't be among the first group subjected to voir dire, the procedure whereby the judge and opposing counsel interrogate prospective jurors.
So, I had a bird's eye view to the attempted excuses and mini-biographies of twenty folks of varying socio-economic backgrounds, not to mention some for whom English was not their primary language. We were told this was a murder trial, and the defendants, two young, innocent-looking Hispanic men, garbed in dress shirt and ties, sat with their attorneys on one side and a lone prosecuting deputy district attorney on the other.
Judge Anne H. Egerton, who resembled a young Piper Laurie, asked the jurors in the box to give information about where they lived, with whom they lived, their occupation and whether they'd served on a jury. Depending on the answers, she zeroed in. If they were married or had roommates she asked what they did. She also made it clear defendants were innocent until the prosecution convinced them they were guilty beyond a reasonable doubt -- and that was explained, too.
Then, the lawyers had their turn. The attorney for one of the young men, let's call him Steve Carell, tried to endear himself to each one of them with a friendly demeanor that was awkward at best. His co-counsel, who admitted to being hard of hearing and many times had to have a response repeated, even by those without a significant foreign accent, looked more like the music teacher in the old series, Fame.
The DA, somewhat reminiscent of a shorter and younger Jimmy Smits kept wondering among the jurors whether they'd had experience with violent crime or gangs, as the defendants might be identified as gang members. To this, there was an amazing display of contempt, not only for gang members and violence, but in some instances towards Hispanics, especially by those from other ethnic backgrounds. It was repeated by the judge that it wasn't illegal to be in a gang and that the key question was whether they could find the men innocent, even if the prosecution had, in their opinion, not proven its case. Incredibly, a number of them expressed their incapacity to do so.
Was this true or were they itching to be discharged during the peremptory challenges? These are opportunities for both sides to excuse a juror for whatever reason they choose.
That's the background and, watching it all, I thought there was no way they'd pick me, because I tend to be analytical. No one wants a smart ass on the jury, do they? True to form, after all the jurors were questioned, the judge and counsel went into her chambers and emerged ten or fifteen minutes later. Nine who'd been more vocal were dismissed, freeing up seats for the next group, which included myself.
I announced I lived alone in West Hollywood, never married, was a writer and never served on a jury. She asked what kind of writer and I said I wrote lots of television shows and also contributed to the Huffington Post. She asked if I'd written crime shows and I admitted I had, but, to deflect that, said I'd also written for Family Ties and Dynasty.
The first co-counsel, Steve Carell, mentioned my Huffington Post activity and wondered whether I was adversarial with Juror Number 2, who'd been dismissed. I asked who Juror number 2 was and was told, "He's the president's son." Really? Then it dawned on me the somewhat familiar looking guy, who'd talked about his father being shot, but who I thought was just someone in show business I'd met, was in fact Michael Reagan. Imagine that. But should Carell have revealed his identity inasmuch as, sorry Michael, no one I spoke to recognized you at all.
Jimmy Smits asked if I had any problems with police and I admitted I'd met incompetent cops, but smilingly added I'd met lawyers and judges also unfit, looking at each of the court players for effect, but then quickly added actors and producers, assuring Jimmy I'd weigh everyone's testimony objectively. When he later made a comment about jurors not being a participant in the sentencing, I raised my hand to ask whether it was a death penalty case, because, if so, it could affect my verdict. He seemed nonplussed, reminding us it wasn't our job, but then perhaps thought better of it in order to rid that thought from our minds and announced they were not seeking death.
He also asked if I'd have problems with the aiding and abetting part of the law, wherein someone part of the crime, even sitting in a car, is still guilty of murder even if he doesn't pull the trigger. I admitted it might be problematic, depending upon the participation, all the while recognizing this admission could be my undoing. In the process, I recalled what Steve Carell had said hypothetically. He'd asked us what would we think if he and the Fame Music Teacher, as co-counsels and presumed friends, were in the cafeteria and, while he was paying the cashier, his colleague started a fight and injured someone in line. Would Carell be culpable as well?
I recalled that to Jimmy Smits and said the analogy was ridiculous, because the two had not planned the offense together, but again regretted it as I realized I'd now antagonized defense counsel.
After the nine of us were finished and it was time to consider the peremptories in judge's chambers, Judge Egerton looked at the clock and, at only 4:15, called for a recess until the next morning. Prior to this glitch, the judge impressed me with her painstaking, clear legal explanations and her understanding of juror problems. But from an efficiency standpoint and since we'd been told the court day ended at five p.m. in case we were ever dismissed from a jury and sent to the assembly room for possible reassignment, why did she end the day so early?
We were less than half the previous group, for whom the peremptory deliberations had taken at most fifteen minutes to decide who was going to stay, and it seemed inconsiderate to make many of us come back only to be immediately dismissed.
Okay, this was getting personal, as I was convinced I'd be tossed, but so it was, and I returned the next day, mercifully starting at 10:45. I entered the jury box, ready for the ax, and was shocked when after nine peremptories I was still alive.
We watched the next nine get questioned, many of whom displayed bigotries, either towards gangs or Hispanics or clearly couldn't speak English. Though I'd thought of jury duty as an inconvenience, looking ahead I now thought this might be a Henry Fonda moment for me, recalling the film, Twelve Angry Men. For those who don't know the movie, Fonda is in a jury charged with determining a murder verdict. At the beginning, the vote is eleven to one for conviction. Little by little, Fonda's dogged questioning of the evidence turns everyone to his side.
Oh, God, I hope I haven't spoiled the ending for you, but it was released in 1957!
When the judge, Steve Carell, Fame Music Teacher and Jimmy Smits returned a few minutes later, I was not dismissed in the first round. Next, the co-counsel dismissed someone and it was now Jimmy Smits' turn. He looked down and then said, "We thank you for your service, Juror 24."
Yikes. That was me. Foiled at my chance to effect justice.
I shrugged to my fellow jurors and, after the judge told me to turn in my badge, asked, "Am I proscribed from writing about this?" to which she replied "No." Then she smirked, "But don't mention my name. I'll deny everything."
At that point the room was in good cheer and most were smiling as I said, "Bye" and waved to everyone as I headed out the door, turned in my badge, got my certificate of service and, realizing it was just a bit after 2 p.m., headed for the gym. Michael Reagan and I were dumped. Was I in good company? Naah. They probably just didn't want smart asses of any political stripe on the jury.
So much for a jury of peers!
Michael Russnow's website is ramproductionsinternational.com