Tuesday, August 22, 2006

“We the Jury…”

Today was my day in court, at least on the jury side of it, attempting to do my civic duty; well, more precisely, attempting to get out of having to do my civic duty. Gnat and Matty had to go to daycare early, which was disappointing for them, I’m sure, and Kara, for a change, had to suffer through the heart-wrenching of “abandoning” them to the vultures.

The summons kindly requested that I arrive at the Riverside Superior Courthouse early; it was a building they’ve dubbed, The Hall of Justice, a phrase I kept repeating in my head all day, only I’d assume this superhero announcer voice you hear at the end of old cliffhanger movies of the 30s. The Hall of Justice! Will he get out alive? Will our evil villain triumph over our brave hero? Stay tuned until next week and find out. Meanwhile, visit The Hall of Justice!

It ended up being a day of “hurry up and wait.” Get here at 7:30 and wait. Check in with the jury room and wait. We’ll pick potential jurors at 9:00, but they didn’t until 9:40…and when they did, no, no, no, you can’t report to the courtroom yet; you must wait. And, before you know it, lunch is here, and since this is a governmentally run facility, lunch lasted from 11:30 until 1:30. And then, why, if you haven’t waited enough, kindly sit down, get comfortable (well, as much as possible in taxpayer-funded furniture) and wait some more.

I arrived at The Hall of Justice around 7:15, found ample parking in one of the juror parking lots—which I later found out I wasn’t supposed to park there as it was reserved for assigned jurors, you know, the 12 Angry Men kind—I walked to The Hall of Justice and found a long line of people akin to Space Mountain. And being the good citizen that I am, I didn’t ask questions, but instead, just lined up at the end and waited.

Behind me were a few mouthy rednecks poking fun at the system, making light of how long the line is, how quickly they go through it and how efficiently they eradicate the criminals once they are culled from the herd. Surely they were jurors too. One was telling the other three how much of a great deal he could get on a set of steel bumpers for a late-model Jeep—almost a steal, he said—and the others were happily ogling the DA assistants as they sauntered their way in with their business suits and brief cases—maybe it was their brief suits and business cases. “I wish I came to court more often,” one particularly large one said with a sneer.

Soon after eight o’clock, they must have found the keys to the front door, so they started to let everyone in, but before the line began to move, a woman came out and yelled at everyone to form two lines. She was raising her voice to be heard by the large crowd, no doubt, but she would have served well at a concentration camp, because she could herd large numbers of unwilling people into two well-organized and completely parallel lines. She hollered that all of the potential jurors get in this line and all of the “people that have a court appointment” form up in this other line. She nicely skirted the issue of calling them criminals or defendants, but that’s what all of us in our safe and law-abiding jury line must have thought as we faced each other in what would have been one of the greatest Red Rover, Red Rover games ever played in the history of the world right there in the plaza of The Hall of Justice. She was insistent that some of us were in the wrong line, as apparently the shame of the guilty causes them to hid amongst us jurors…safety among the saints. She yelled: “I know that some of your are in the wrong line. If you’re going to see the judge you need to be in this line here.” This little woman with the big pipes waved her hands at the line of “those with an appointment to see the judge.”

Nobody moved lines. This is the real Hall of Justice.

One thing I did notice is that after the lines were formed and the guilty were shepherded from the flock of the honorable, it got awfully quiet in that other line. Serious. Dire. The truth of their situation, the consequences of their actions, perhaps hang heavy over their heads, the yoke of wickedness. They were on display for all of us to see, and the judging had begun. Most of which, I heard muttered from somewhere behind me, most of which won’t be coming out once they go through those doors. There’s not much to joke about after that.

So, I reached the front of the line to take my turn at the metal detector, and after emptying my pockets of all of my worldly possessions, I made it through without a beep, got upstairs and waited…along with 400 other people who were equally unsuccessful in talking their way out of this monumental waste of time.

Or is it? After a few hours of sitting there, mulling over the burden of my responsibility as a citizen of this country, the more I became interested in actually getting on a case. To say that it would be fun would make light of a person’s future and fate… but I did think it would be fun, exciting maybe.

But then time takes over, batters me around a little bit, and I’m left with a weary feeling of just wishing to get it over with. Pick me already so I can pound my fists on the desk in the deliberation room and shout “He is guilty! You idiots, why can’t you see that the Professor did it? Plum was caught in the library with the candlestick. It is clear as day!”

We waited and we waited and we waited some more. The pace of my watch betrayed the relativity of my speed. Two minutes clicked forward…and then one clicked back again. People trickled in, loafers, irresponsible ne'er-do-wells that think the world revolves around them. Tank tops, shorts, sandals…doesn’t anyone read anymore?

The jury coordinator got on the microphone to get the proceedings underway. He listed the cases before him that needed to be filled by us, the potential jurors, and by the number of people needed for the judicial meat grinder, it appeared inevitable that all of us would see the inside of a courtroom by the end of the day. But “when?” was the question poised on the lips of every soul in the room. During his various speeches, he must have repeated himself a dozen times—each time for some new lackey that slouched into the room, and during the fourth or fifth incantation of his speech, well rehearsed, well canned, I was able to insert the words that he randomly and inexplicably decided to leave out. He seemed like an unusual breed of person for courthouse work: genial, genuine, helpful and accommodating. I worked in a courthouse for three years, and of all of the people that I worked with, those four character traits were not found in any of them. The public… at least the underside of the public will do that to a person. You become callous, cold, indifferent to the various plights presented each day. Everyone’s a liar. Everyone’s trying to pull one over on you. Everyone’s a criminal before they say a single word.

He told some jokes, played off of some of the stupid questions people ask. “If I don’t get selected, do I have to go back to work?” Questions like that make me sigh in disappointment that society and intelligence has so departed company.

In this huge room filled with 400 people, I picked the wrong seat to sit in: deep inside the row, next to the wall, trapped, cramped and confined by a full house of potential jurors. One man, testing the tensile strength of his cotton t-shirt blocked all visibility in front of me, and the guy who slumped down in the seat to my left was decidedly an armrest hog. I was cornered, boxed in, with no place to rest my arms.

The coordinator began calling names for Courtroom “xx” (I’ll keep the details private…as I think I should) to form a list of 93 people, a list I was on. My original feelings of consternation about actually being picked were replaced with hope. Ninety-three people is a big pool to pick 12 from, so my odds of getting picked were actually quite low, a 13 percent chance of getting on a jury. On top of which, we were the first group picked, and from my experience with the courthouse I worked for, I knew that the selection process can only last a couple of hours at most. I’d be home on the couch with a “day off” by 11am, noon at the latest.

After calling us, he was advised by someone on the phone that we were needed at that exact moment, but that we should stick around (while everyone else got a break—after all, we had been slaving away for nearly an hour, so a break in the governmental realms was quite overdue).

The hour came and went, followed by another, both equally enactive, boring and dull. I retreated into a book to while away the time, but the goings and coming of my fellow jurors, including the loud conversation about the Viet Nam war (by two aged vets) was raging behind me. Concentration on my book was difficult indeed, plus, I was occupying one ear to listen for my courtroom to be called.

It never did.

The time for lunch arrived and the coordinator cleared out the room until 1:30pm, when we were all required to return. There were a group of lucky people whose names never appeared on any call list. I noticed, through the crowd, that one of Kara’s coworkers was selected for jury duty as well. Small world, I’m thinking, but immediately delete the trite cliché from my list, as this is a coincidence but hardly a small world. How many times have you been in a large group of people—movie theater, grocery store, marathon race—and not know a soul? Probably ten to one, but nobody walks around mumbling to themselves, “Wow, big world.” It just doesn’t happen.

Anyway, her name was lucky enough to be placed on the “leftovers” list and she was freed soon after noon. I didn’t see her go because I had left the building on a wondrous journey in search for food. In fact, I was hungry, oddly enough; Justice seems to impart my appetition for food.

I think I walked probably a mile through the historic streets of Riverside. I discovered the original courthouse, built in 1930, fully topped off with cherubs dutifully watching over the wicked and righteous alike, with its colonnades and the impracticality of judicial architecture during the depression. Market Street. Main Street. Some streets with numbers, some with citrus themes, Orange, Lime, Lemon, etc. The governmental section of the city is rich with history, a host of buildings I didn’t recognize but knew they were old and at one time important, regarded, cherrished. I passed the plaster, squat façade of a building that can be nothing else but a product of the WPA during the ABC government of the Roosevelt era… a post office, of course, and it was a comfortable site for a traveling stranger among the architecture.

I just wish I would have brought my camera.

Alas, my journey was to search for food. I walked passed a coffee shop that sold sandwiches, one of those eclectic places reminiscent of my days behind the counter of a coffee shop in Glendora, the 222, so I put that on the maybe list. Small shop sandwiches are a gamble, plus it was closest to the courthouse. Surely there is more just around the corner, a perfect place in which to dine. I passed another sandwich shop that also doubled as a bail bondsman, and there was a Mexican food place that could notarize my documents while I ate. I feel that you should stick to one thing and do it well, and if I see a bail bondsman slinging hash, that worries me. One place proudly announced “We now serve Mexican food,” which leads me to wonder what they were serving before when they decided it wasn’t working out: Venetian? Antarctican? Pak-Iraq? Okay, I’ll pass. There was a series of bars, small diners, a pizza place, but nothing said come and have lunch as much as the coffee place did.

And that’s what I did. Seven dollars later, I was munching on a ham and cheese that was equipped with a mountain of lettuce and a wonderful wedge of avocado. It was perfect, and I got to sit in the window and watch the suits walk by, happy that I am clearly free from the official white-collar workforce.

My watch must have stopped. After walking most of the catacombesque streets of downtown Riverside, eating a ham and swiss and reading most of an old issue of Popular Science—which I remembered why I used to subscribe to it—it was only just passed noon.

What to do now? I guess I could go back to the juror room and wait. I’ve been slugging this book around town, I might as well open it and give it a read. When I returned to the jury room, most of those left were old men, drifting in and out of sleep like at the rec room of the old folk’s home, just waiting for their grandkids to call.

I bought another Coke and settled in for a long afternoon.

It wasn’t until 2pm, six hours after I had first sat down, that we were rushed upstairs to our courtroom, where all 92 of us (one person vanished without warning) would come up with the best excuse as to why we shouldn’t be there. I gave it my best shot, that I was a stay-at-home dad—which is partially true—and that it would be a hardship to find suitable lodgings for them during the trial. I don’t think they would have bought it that I have some relatives in from out of town that I will be entertaining for the next two days.

Once inside the courtroom, one of the women that was ogled by the West Virginia mafia in the morning line ended up being the State representative, while on the other side was a public defender and the poor sap who was hoping to rely on the kindness of strangers. They didn’t tell us what the case was about before we tried to plead our way out the back door before the trial began, but by the looks of the guy—deep craters pocked his face, enormous smile lines suggested deviously evil grins throughout his malfeasant life, and his hair was slicked back in a thick carpet of shag that left the top of his head like the fastback of a Mustang, categorically a hairpiece. He looked worried. When we first filed in, he eyed each of us, up and down, and whispered to his public-appointed barrister.

We had all judged him the moment we laid our eyes on him. He was guilty. Maybe it was the hair, his out-of-fashion hounds tooth sport coat, the way his arms were folding defiantly in front of his chest while he eyed us. Whatever it was, I had already made up my mind, guilty, we all had, I’m sure.

I wonder what he did to have the county go out of its way to drag all of us down here, spend all day and untold amounts of money from lost wages, childcare expenses and transportation issues, to decide his fate. It must have been serious, as he didn’t work those smile lines throughout the whole process.

So, it was nearly 3:45pm by the time I left the building, and what did I gain? Despite a newly found contempt for random people and the very moronic things they do in public (there were some very specific and obvious examples that can always be found around a public building regarding the law), a palpable understanding of the strata of society I live among and a respect for what court workers must go through on a daily basis, what did I get out of the experience?

I get to come back in October… as my excuse was not leaden with enough sorrow and despair to relieve me from service forever, just merely two months.

Actually, I hope I get on a jury next time.

I still say it’ll be fun.

No comments:


web site tracking
Sierra Trading Post