Why Jury Duty Was One of the Best Experiences of My Life
From the film 12 Angry Men
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Last month I was an L.A. Superior Court juror. It was a simple felony robbery trial, with a 20-year-old man accused of jumping a young woman at a bus stop and snatching her necklace. Because the prosecution's case was full of holes (namely, no one could make a reliable eyewitness identification of the suspect, much less place him at the scene), we found the defendant not guilty in about 15 minutes of deliberation. The case was so egregiously flawed, I frequently found myself wondering how many tax dollars had been wasted on prosecuting it. Meanwhile, the six days I missed at the office meant that a mile-high pile of work awaited my return.
Yet jury duty was one of the best experiences of my life.
This was the first time I'd ever received a jury summons. My impression of the American judicial system had come via whatever I'd absorbed through Law & Order reruns, the O.J. Simpson murder trial, the O.J. Simpson civil trial, the O.J. Simpson robbery trial and, of course, all the Twitter outrage over Casey Anthony. Courtroom drama has generated some of the best water-cooler debates in office history.
So I'd never understood why friends and coworkers complained when they were called for jury duty. What's so agonizing about spending a couple of thrilling days watching two sides looking to outmaneuver one another, with the highest stakes on the line?
I was one of the few potential jurors at the Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Center who actually wanted to be selected.
That part was a lot easier than I'd expected. All I had to do was answer a few harmless questions while assuring the court that I could approach the case with an open mind. Luckily, a $120,000 journalism degree planted the seeds of objectivity a long time ago. But that put me in a distinct minority, with a healthy number of my peers going out of their way to play the passive-aggressive card ("I'd like to think I could ignore that time my aunt's purse was stolen, but I just don't know...") or embellish their distress over past crimes ("I'LL NEVER BE ABLE TO TRUST A NIGERIAN PRINCE WITH MY CREDIT CARD NUMBER EVER AGAIN!").
Being Juror No. 4 wasn't all that different from what I'd seen on TV and in the movies. There wasn't a single moment in that jurors box that felt like it was a waste of time.
But it quickly became apparent that it's all the wasted time outside the courtroom that gives jury duty such a bad rap. Between the late starts, early dismissals, frequent delays and insufferably long recesses, we probably spent no more than three hours listening to testimony and arguments on any given day. What could have been wrapped up in 2 1/2 days took twice as long. I spent countless hours pacing the hallway, flipping through magazines and tapping away on my phone. At one point during a particularly long delay, my fellow jurors lost their minds arguing over whether the door frame to a nearby utility closet was slightly crooked.
Of course, there's a reason for all those delays, and it has to do with the fact that jury duty is little more than a conscious version of The Truman Show. As a juror, everything you see and hear inside the courtroom is deliberately planned and presented. Does the defendant have a job? Did he ever make a statement to the police? Is he free on bail or still in custody? And why didn't we hear anything from the second eyewitness, who'd supposedly been at the scene? I never got the answer to any of those questions — which clearly was by design. Curiosity is an absolute vice for a sitting juror.
Then once you're outside the courtroom, The Truman Show becomes Fight Club. And we all know the first rule of fight club: You do not. Talk. About. Fight Club. Here you are looking to kill time with 11 other strangers, and you're strictly forbidden to talk about the case — the one thing that you know you all have in common.
To make things even more uncomfortable, in L.A. County, you're forced to wait outside in a hallway with witnesses and family members yet avoid any contact with them. Did I want to ask the defendant's girlfriend if she realized that her man was clearly hollerin' at another girl in the text-message transcripts provided in Defense Exhibit D? Yes. Did I ever actually ask her? No. Did it kill me not to ask? Yes. But certainly no more than it must have killed her not to ask me which way I was leaning.
In the end, though, all those moments of curiosity and boredom meant nothing when it came time to deliberate. Because I was such a nerd about this whole jury thing, I was more than happy to volunteer as foreman — but I didn't have to use my position of power to whip votes. Everyone saw the same case.
Coming back to the jury box with our decision in hand, an overwhelming sense of tension filled the courtroom. The prosecutor stared directly at us, while the defense attorney focused her eyes and chin on the floor (the defendant gazed straight ahead, just as he had the entire trial). As the bailiff walked the forms to the clerk, my fists clenched, my legs bounced and my heart squeezed out a liter of adrenaline with every beat. All this, and I already knew the verdict!
My God, I thought, what if I signed the wrong verdict form?!
I folded my hands tightly together and fixed my eyes squarely on the defendant. I'd promised myself before the trial started that I'd look him in the eye, no matter the verdict. When the clerk read the words "not guilty," the entire room exhaled at once.
It was the biggest rush I've ever felt. I played my part in the system. I served justice. I was Juror No. 4.
Even at $15 a day, it was the coolest job I could ever imagine.
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