THE BLOG
07/17/2014 05:01 pm ET Updated Sep 16, 2014

My Time as a Philly Juror

When my jury summons notice appeared in the mail, all I could do was breathe a sigh of despair. You know how it is: the jury in-take crowds, the lists of instructions to be followed, the canned videos, and the line formations going to the rooms of the various judges. The last time I received a jury summons was five years ago. Back then my name was called along with other names for a case, but just as our group was about to head to the courtrooms, we were informed that the two parties involved in the case came to a settlement.

Obviously, this was not an exciting criminal case but just another lawsuit.

"You can collect your check and go home," we were told.

In prior years, it was my belief that I was never accepted as a juror because I noted on the questionnaire that I was a journalist. I assumed this was the reason because during personal questioning by the attorneys, I felt that the word journalist was a buzz word, a kind of psychic red flag. Since that time, I've been of the opinion that lawyers would rather not have a journalist as a juror.

Could it be because they think journalists are going to write about the case or critique their courtroom performance in some way?

This year's jury summons broke the mold. When I was questioned by a court official and attorneys for both the plaintiff and the defendant, they seemed excited about the 'J' word. In fact, the court official immediately began telling me that he's read a number of things I've written over the years. "I know who you are," he said, looking me square in the eye, but with a smile.

"I know who you are, Tommy Nickels!"

He was a tall man from South Philly and he very much reminded me of Frank Rizzo. He was almost as tall as Rizzo was, and he even spoke like Rizzo, enough to make me wonder if he had ever known the former Mayor.

I did, in fact, ask him that a little later on, to which he said: "Yes, I knew Frank. He had an appetite like no other. He once ate three entrees of mussels in front of me, and he devoured three long rolls of bread. "

The case I was being auditioned for called for eight jurors out of a pool of 30 people. You can imagine my surprise when my number was called.

"You'll be here till Friday," the court official told us. "That's three days."

Entering and leaving City Hall is much easier as a juror. The procedure is simple: bypass security (always a pleasure), take the elevator to the appropriate floor, then head for your assigned jury room and hang out with the other jurors until the judge calls you into the courtroom.

The general jury selection process, however, is like cattle herding. Years ago, the city provided drinks, soft pretzels and donuts for all prospective jurors. These were the lush years. At that time, nobody had to stand during the selection process because there weren't enough chairs in the main hall, but that's no longer the case. I stood for over an hour in the massive room as various groups were called into different courtrooms. I'm not sure why the place was so packed. Are there that many cases being tried in the city of Philadelphia?

Even if there are a lot of courtroom cases going on, why book more people than the room can hold?

It was a very hot day when the selection process was going on, so people didn't look to be in a very good mood. Having to pass through "take off your belt" security is humiliating enough, but when people discovered that there were no empty seats in the hall, the mood in the room seemed to thicken.

It took a court official, the one who calls names and takes attendance, to lighten the atmosphere. Ms. X worked the room like a high energy stand-up comic, although two hours later you could feel her spirit diminishing. She told jokes and offered antidotes like a cruise ship MC. She'd mimic being tough, then giggle and wink at the crowd. At one point, she announced that far too many faces in the room looked depressed. She tried her best to be a mood-altering drug.

Her job wasn't easy. Sitting there waiting for my name to be called, I realized how many strange names there are in the city of Philadelphia.

Names like Philomena Villanova, Myers Pumpernickel, Jesus John Peter Savior, and Sayczar Akaka Apple came rolling off her lips. Ordinary names seemed scarce. This must have been the odd name day. Some names were so weird she had to spell them out because she couldn't pronounce them.

When she called your name you had to answer with the word "here," a system that reminded me of my grammar school days when the nuns would take attendance. Everybody had a different way of saying "here." Some people mumbled it; others shouted it, while others seemed to go silent when they heard their name. A woman with short black hair reading a Harry Potter book responded with an upright jerk and a loud "yep!" when she heard her name. Several jurors answered with a depressed-sounding "yes" while others, it seems, could barely speak at all. Their voices were so soft most assumed that they had fallen asleep in their chairs.

Standards have gone by the wayside when it comes to how people dress for jury selection. Many were dressed as if they were headed to a summer picnic or ball game -- shorts, t-shirts, sandals, and sneakers were not uncommon. Some even wore dirty, stained shorts. One man was in a tank top, his arm tattoos exposed like sun-bleached leper sores. The women were better dressed overall. What these men in shorts didn't count on, however, was the fact that once they were pulled into a courtroom -- where the air conditioning turned the environment into an Arctic blast -- they began to freeze.

As in, really freeze.

In fact, everyone who was in extreme summer dress complained of the high air conditioning once they got into the courtroom. "Please turn the air conditioning down," they pleaded.

The attorneys, in full suits and ready to go into slick attorney mode, were comfortable. "Over our dead bodies," they must have wanted to say, but didn't.

Tank tops may be good on hot days when you have to weed a garden or take out the garbage, but when did they take the place of real shirts?

"Remember people, no open toe shoes or sandals in the courtroom," the court official told our little group of eight. "No flip flops. Flip flops are for the beach, for those zany, Wildwood days, but not court! Dress appropriately, please. Please!"

While going through security on the morning of the first day, I noticed that a guy behind me was dressed in short Bermudas and a tie dye shirt. "You're the first guy I've ever seen wear shorts to a Jury selection session," I told him.

"Well," he said, "I wear a suit every day and when they said we could dress comfortably, I thought of shorts." We laughed at this and went our separate ways but I couldn't help but wonder at the word comfortable. One person's comfortable is another's inappropriate attire.

Imagine a judge in flip flops and a tight tie dye shirt tucked into ballet tight Bermuda shorts. If anybody should be comfortable, it should be a judge.

Yes, it was really good to know that it was the "naked" ones who got their just desserts when they arrived in the sub-freezing courtrooms and begged officials to turn down the air conditioning.

On day two of the trial, our court guide told us that the jury room where we met in the morning and where we took our five- or 10-minute breaks was once a City Hall holding cell. The guide pointed to a row of pay phone shells, where the newly arrested could make their one constitutionally guaranteed phone call.

"Elmo Smith was in your holding cell," the official explained.

Elmo Smith was arrested and charged with the brutal death and rape of a 16-year-old Manayunk resident, Maryann Mitchell. Mitchell, a student at Cecelian Academy, had been out with girlfriends on the night of December 29, 1959 to see the movie South Pacific. After the movie and a stop at a hamburger joint, her friends left her at a bus stop so that she could make her way home. Her body was found the following day near Harts Lane in Whitmarsh Township.

Like the Center City jogger case at 21st and Pine Streets in Center City in November 1995, the Mitchell case was a gruesome one. Our guide told us that he had seen the files on the Mitchell case in the City Hall archives. I didn't have time to tell him that when I was working on a story about the Center City jogger case, I was shown an upsetting photograph of Kimberly Ernest's body at the base of the stairwell at 21st and Pine. The photo upset me for weeks.

The Maryann Mitchell case rocked Philadelphia like no other murder case in the '50s and '60s. Women everywhere were afraid to go outside or were constantly looking over their shoulders for "another Elmo Smith." Smith, a handyman with a long arrest record for rape and attempted abductions of young females, was the last person to die in Pennsylvania's electric chair.

Of course, there's not much in Jury Room 646 that still resembles a holding cell, although you might make a case for the small caboose style windows that form the base of a much larger window. There's also an old radiator painted brown or dark green that was undoubtedly in the room when it was a jail cell. Had Elmo Smith ever reclined against the radiator and reviewed the events of December 29th?

Had he shed a tear? Or did he grip the edges of the radiator in an act of frustration over being caught?

In ways that we cannot fathom, all rooms hold memories. The fears, agony and pain of people once confined to certain rooms can seep into the walls, forming shadow impressions that a sensitive person can pick up. There have been many rooms in my life that have caused me to say, "Something went on in here."

Around the corner from Jury Room 646 is an old staircase that looks to be falling apart. It's a narrow staircase with tattered paint and split wood; although, you can see that at one time it was a very fine staircase. In some ways it resembles a staircase that was meant to be kept secret, but here it was in full exposure, lonely, decrepit, one of City Hall's secrets.

What had happened on those steps? Who was pushed, handcuffed or threatened?

On day three we deliberated in the jury room, and that's when things got crazy.

When it came time to select a foreman, I was surprised when most of the jurors said they wanted me. But that was no sooner said when the one woman in the room said that the honor should go to the really, really quiet guy in the back who's hardly said anything "since we got here."

Life is strange, and it was too hot to argue.

I gave the odd honor to the quiet guy, but soon after regretted giving in so easily.

Thank God my time as a juror is over.