Saturday, June 7, 2008

On discharging one's civic responsibilities

Have you ever been called for jury duty or actually served on a jury? I have, many times.

Somehow or another, my name got tossed into the "Send a summons every six months" pot fairly early on, beginning with when I lived in Columbus, Ohio, in the 1960's, and continuing on throughout my many years here in Houston. (They failed to catch up with me during my short stint in New Orleans.)

The very first jury I ever sat on was in Columbus. The case was to be one of public nudity. The panel wasn't seated until mid-afternoon, so the case was set to begin the next morning with opening statements. My imagination was in high anticipation of the pictures we might be presented with, the lewd commentary, the 'sleazy' lawyer for the defendant, the defendant him/herself, etc. Naturally, we weren't allowed to discuss the case with anyone outside of the courtroom, so my mind had an absolute blast all by its lonesome!

OK, it's the next morning. We're seated. Everyone's called to order, and opening statements begin. The prosecution goes first. It seems that this case of public nudity involves a female dancer whose pastie* (an adhesive covering applied to cover a person's nipple) was either non-existent originally, or somehow fell off during her performance in a club.

[*Not to be confused with pasty, a delicious meat pie that is renowned in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, where I grew up.]

Immediately following the prosecutor's opening statement, the defendant's lawyer moves for a dismissal of the case, which is granted. Whaaaat!! It seems that the prosecution had not established that the club was 'public'. Sure enuf, they had not, and I was left reeling with the certain knowledge that every 'i' had to be dotted and every 't' crossed.

Not long after that, as I recall, hubby and I went to said club to view for ourselves this display of public nudity. To say that she was voluptuous would not be a misnomer. To say that she was a very good dancer would be 'right on'. And yes, pasties stayed in place the whole time!

When summoned for jury duty (for those of you who might not know), you're instructed to present yourself & sign in an hour or so before cases are due to begin in a pretty good-sized general assembly room. A film is presented, which is quite inspiring ... the history of trial by jury, civic duty, every person has a right, we all share the responsibility, we need you, etc. It's a very good film. You feel goose bumps realizing that you are an integral and vital part of this wonderful system!

Almost immediately all the lies/excuses you thought of presenting to the court start to disappear, and you are eager to play your part. And, of course, that's the purpose of the film. Monetary hardship is NEVER a reason for dismissal. So, unless you are independently wealthy, being paid by your company while you serve, or are retired and looking for something to do in your spare time, monetary hardship is very real and, in my opinion, should be a valid consideration in the court's decision as to whether or not to dismiss the summons.

More and more, I found, as the years progressed and I was really struggling to make ends meet, I became more and more frustrated with the 'system'. Nevertheless, I presented myself time and again, hoping against hope each time that I would not be chosen to 'serve'.

One time, tho, I was among those seated on the panel in a murder trial. This was here in Houston. It was not a terribly lengthy trial, nowhere near the five weeks of which another blogger recently wrote, perhaps only 10 days or so. All was going along fairly smoothly and concisely. I was impressed by both sides' presentations. I was undecided as to how I would eventually vote.

These facts were obvious, and established early on: 1) The victim was dead. 2) His killer was the defendant. The ONLY consideration we, the jury, had was the degree of guilt. Was the defendant guilty of first degree, pre-meditated murder?

As actual photographs were being passed around the jury (it was perhaps the 6th or 7th day of the trial proceedings), I had this ICE COLD feeling in the pit of my stomach. I "knew", beyond ANY shadow of a doubt, that the defendant had planned and then executed the murder.

As I came to this chilly realization, I happened to glance over towards the defendant. He was looking at me!! I have felt this amount of fear perhaps only once or twice in my life.

We reached a verdict, which was unanimous ... 1st degree. The fact subsequently surfaced that this was the defendant's third conviction. (We were denied that information prior to our decision.) He would spend the rest of his life behind bars with no possibility of parole.

A couple or three questions present themselves: 1) Why are some people summoned for jury duty so often and others not at all? (My daughter, for example, is 47 years old and has NEVER been called for jury duty!) 2) Why is the media (I can recall a case in California, but cannot recall the exact instance or year) allowed to publish the names/occupations/addresses, etc. of jurors? If I'd thought that was going to happen to me in that murder trial case, I'd probably STILL be having sleepless nights!! 3) We hear so much now of over-crowding in our prisons and jails, of early release of non-violent offenders, etc.

I certainly don't have a good solution for this problem. Perhaps that's what all these probes to Mars, the moon, etc., are all about? Some sort of mass exodus of convicted criminals? Then what? We bring them back here (at a cost of who knows how many more gazillion millions of $$) for DNA tests, further court proceedings, possible exonerations, etc.

I don't mean to be ultra-negative here. Many years ago I looked at life only through rose-colored glasses. Well, those glasses have long since become much more darkly-tinted. If YOU have an answer, I'd like to hear it.


Tammy said...

I surely have no answers!

Monty gets called to jury duty about every 6 months or so; I've only been called once in my life.

My stint was not remotely as interesting as yours have been. lol. Mine was a hunting thing....a guy killed some person's animal or something or other.....can't even remember. They settled out in the hall RIGHT BEFORE the trial was to begin.

One thing I thought was funny was I got this check in the mail WEEKS later for some strange amount like $2.75 (guessing here as I can't quite remember). Apparently a certain amount of money is paid to jury members after they have served. (????) Oh, and I got a certificate for being a jury member. LOL! ;)

Goldenrod said...

Well, here in Houston you can take a city bus to jury duty free of charge ... ta rah, ta rah!!

In re the case where you were part of the impaneled jury, I 'sat' on several of those. It's not a bit unusual. A great many cases are settled once the jury has actually been seated -- out in the hall, as you say. It's the fact that 'doomsday' is finally upon them that makes them act. Prior to that point, they think they'll be able to postpone forever.

Sounds like Monty and I got thrown into the same pot.

Goldenrod said...

Oh, I almost forgot to add, now that you've gotten paid, Tammy, that makes you a professional jurist. You can put that on your resume.

Nancy said...

I'm one of the few people I know who longs to be called for jury duty and I only ever have been once. For, me it's a novel experience and a break from routine, which is always welcome. I enjoyed your stories about the cases you served on. In my single experience, my case got dismissed early, so no story to tell at all.

Chuck said...

Thanks for the inspiration! I've been called 3 times and served twice on juries, and the stories surrounding the experiences are now the subject of my latest "just started" LifeStory chapter, a collection of reminiscences written for my kids and eventually their kids, to let those yet to come know who I was, how I became that person, and what life was like in my day. (I learned of this memoir writing through the Elderhostel program.) Anyway, I'm always looking for new stories to write, and your post stirred me to write these experiences as a juror. Thanks!