Posted by: distributorcap | November 16, 2008

Order in the Court

Yesterday I got my 50,000th request for jury duty. There are plenty of things that do not run smoothly or efficiently in New York City, but one thing that does run like clockwork is jury duty — I get that summons on schedule (I think it is three years) without fail.

Many people find jury duty annoying, intrusive, boring, a pain in the ass and a waste of time. Often times it is. In both Manhattan and Essex County, New Jersey (the two places I have served) they do not make it easy or comfortable for jurors. The courts are cramped, old, stuffy, dirty and generally unpleasant to sit in for hours. Manhattan used to make you sit in a big crowded room on hard benches with one television. The only good thing about the Manhattan and New York State Courts is the location – near Foley Square, right in the heart of Chinatown. You can get a good meal in the ‘hood (cause I do like eating in Chinatown).

I have been empaneled on three cases, all criminal. The middle time was in 2000. The case involved a drug dealer caught selling in front of the Museum of Modern Art – to tourists. I never heard any testimony as the case was dismissed about 20 minutes after being empaneled. They never tell you why.

The last time was in 2003 for an assault case. I don’t remember all the specific details, but a woman was attacked on the escalator at the 34th Street subway station. Her injuries were not life threatening, but she was banged up pretty bad, as the assailant threw her down the escalator while he attempted to steal her purse. It was in the middle of the day. Her attacker was a young kid, probably around 19 or 20. He was caught almost immediately by a transit cop who ran after him onto 6th Avenue in pursuit. The case was open and shut – or at least I thought it was.

First don’t think for one minute any trial (especially in NY) is anything like Law & Order – it isn’t. The courtroom is not a nice set with pretty pictures of Thomas Jefferson or Abraham Lincoln on the wall (there was one of our idiotic governor at the time – George Pataki). The prosecutor was certainly no Sam Waterston, wasn’t even Angie Harmon, and would fall behind Elle Woods as well. She was obviously given this case because she was new and young and needed to get some experience. I would bet it was her first solo outing. If I were her boss, it would have been her last. Her amateur performance and incredibly poor (actually laughable) questions nearly lost the case. Several times many of the jurors, including myself had to bite their tongue to hold back the snickering. It didn’t help that the victim didn’t speak English – so a lot was lost in translation.

There was only a couple of witnesses, so one day was spent in testimony – the next day would be deliberation. When we went back to deliberate, (in this incredibly cramped room with no ventilation) a couple of people actually wanted let the guy go because of the incompetence of the prosecutor. There was some pretty heated arguments – mostly about the most moot and minute points. For awhile I thought we would actually have a mistrial. But by 3 o’clock or so, the 2 remaining holdouts probably realized they would have to come back for a third day to deliberate. All of a sudden he was guilty.

Thank you for your service, you are dismissed.

The first case I was on was the real Perry Mason episode. It was a murder that took place in Newark, NJ in the early 1980’s. The case lasted 6 weeks – 6 weeks out of work. I was not sequestered, but told not to read newspapers or watch television since there was a good chance the case would be in the media. Many days when the jurors walked out of the Courthouse in downtown Newark, there were reporters from the Star Ledger or some of the local radio and television stations.

This was a very involved cased with no clear cut motive, or time line of events. A lot of the evidence was circumstantial. The case involved a patient that was killed in a hospital for some revenge motive (I am leaving out a lot of the details since I really cannot remember them all and would rather not use ‘memory’ to fill in the blanks – plus I am still not supposed to talk about it). The defense lawyer was from the Al Pacino And Justice For All school of legal acting – emotional, loud, obnoxious, funny and passionate. He really worked for his client and questioned every single witness hard and long. The prosecutor was the polar opposite – straight out of central casting for Owen Marshall, Counselor-at-Law. He was buttoned up, conservative, monotone – exactly what you imagined a prosecutor would look liked.

This case should have been an episode of Law & Order (which went on the air in 1990). After the opening statements, the floodgate of witnesses for the prosecution began. We had every doctor, nurse, and orderly anywhere near the hospital that day come to testify. The hospital pharmacist, the blood and X-ray technicians, patients that were in nearby rooms and visitors – they were all called. Literally everyone but Marlene Dietrich (the surprise witness in Witness for the Prosecution) got their 15 minutes of fame on the stand. I was an expert on blood type matching, pleur-evacs, patient charts, hospital sign-in procedures, drug reactions, autopsies and several medications by the time this was all over. The problem wasn’t the parade of witnesses, but the challenges brought by the defense to either a witness or the line of questioning. Often times a witness would be called, and before you could say Della Street – we were asked to leave the room so they could argue some legal point.

Once in the room we were not allowed to talk about the game. There were no radios, no televisions and no newspapers. This was way before Ted Stevens threw some tubes together to form the internet. There were also no iPods, no cell phones and Sony Walkmen were just starting to gain a foothold.

After a few days a pattern was setting in to this production. It was apparent this trial would be a bit longer than the 2 weeks that was estimated. The jurors began bringing in entertainment – knitting, crossword puzzles, books, a scrabble set and a deck of cards. On elderly woman began baking cookies for us every day. For six weeks the March of Wooden Jurors went on and on and on. Sit down, stand up, pardon this inconvenience – the judge was a broken record. Before long there was a regular bridge game going on. Two women played Michigan gin rummy every day for weeks. People were accusing others of making up words in Scrabble. My time passages of choice were the New York Times crossword puzzle (torn out of course to get by the guards) and Pinochle. We had to teach one other to play since three-handed Pinochle isn’t the best game. It took awhile to teach the new players that the 10’s were higher than the Kings and Queens. Every now and then the guard would poke his head in and say “no gambling.” I think we played for the old lady’s cookies.

The whole trial was pretty dramatic. Witnesses cried, people lost their temper, one doctor refused to answer questions and was held in contempt. The children of the victim yelled in court and were removed. It really was a spectacle. When the prosecution rested after 5 weeks (I think they ran out of doctors from Rutgers Medical school to be experts), the defense took 30 seconds — called no one and rested. Time to deliberate.

This was not an open and shut case. There were no eyewitnesses, even the cause of death was somewhat “suspect.” We were now locked in that jury room — where lunch was ordered in. (The courthouse area of Newark has NO where to eat – our choice was McDonald’s or Roy Rogers). Jurors were confused about all the medical jargon. A lot of testimony had to be read back (we were not allowed to take notes or ask questions during the trial), but it could NOT be explained as they were only allowed to read back what was in the record. As contentious as the trial was, the deliberations were actually quite civil. After 6 weeks you could say a bit of bonding went on. I was the youngest juror, probably the only one under 25. No one had expected this to go on for 6 weeks, but by this point, no one wanted a hasty decision, they actually took this seriously, after all someone could be sentenced to life imprisonment. Being a criminal case – the verdict had to be unanimous. There were secret votes, people changed their votes and a lot of discussion. In the end it was 12-0, guilty. I remember I thought the defendant was guilty from start of the deliberation and never changed my vote.

We thanked for our service, asked to not discuss the case with the press or any people who were involved with the trial and dismissed. My mother did save all the clippings from the papers. I never saw any of those people on the jury again, I couldn’t even tell you a name. But I do have to thank them for teaching me to play bridge and making me a pretty good Pinochle player. I was glad to do my civil duty, but just not 6 weeks worth.

PS – My employer did pay my full salary despite not showing up for 6 weeks. I just had to fork over the $6 per day in juror pay from the state of New Jersey.

PPS – please note I made sure the breasts of the woman holding the scales of justice were covered in case John Ashcroft is reading.

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Responses

  1. Now that I’m retired I wouldn’t mind a little jury duty. I don’t think I’d get the chance, though, due to my work experience in a forensic psychiatric facility.Once the court or lawyers knew I worked with criminals attempting to fake mental illness to dodge prison, they may not see me as the impartial juror they want.Maybe I’d be selected for a civil case, though.However, I don’t miss looking at criminal defendants and hearing their stories.

  2. I’ve had jury duty a number of times also – in Essex County, New Jersey, so I know exactly what you’re talking about in your descriptions of the place. (There is a cafeteria, which is where we used to go get our lunch; I think once we went out to Burger King).I served on several cases in the 80s and early 90s. That was back in the old days when you were there for 2 weeks, no matter what, in case you were needed. I got on two cases in one stint the first time. It was a really good experience. Neither case was a murder case; one was for possession of a weapon after having previously been convicted of a felony. The other was a failed robbery of a bar. The group had used an antique Japanese WWII gun to hold up the bar, they took off after robbing the bar, and the cops immediately gave chase and caught them all.I too was impressed how seriously everyone took the cases I was on. It gave me a lot of faith in our system. And yes, you do kind of bond with the jury you’re on when you’re on a real case together. We ate lunch together and chatted during all our breaks.The more recent two times I was on jury duty, Essex County had changed its policy – it’s 3 days and you’re out; maybe sooner if they don’t need you for any pending cases. Last time I almost got empaneled for a medical malpractice case which I would have loved being on, being a medical junkie. But I must have looked too happy; the defense kicked me off.I always bring a good book or two with me and catch up on my reading. I probably should feel guilty that I don’t do any work for my job when I go – but I look forward to that reading! 😉

  3. I’ve never been called to appear for jury duty. I’d like to at some point just for the experience.

  4. I sat on one jury- a child custody case where the sexist, religious fanatic, remarried father wanted his daughters back because his pretty ex had started dating again.I jockeyed to become jury foreman and talked everyone into siding with the mother in record time.After that, jury summons always seemed to happen during times when work would have suffered or a vacation was scheduled or something they wouldn’t have accepted as just cause for my skipping jury duty.So instead I just started being myself during voir dire.Once I said I couldn’t be impartial because the plaintiff’s attorney had on cowboy boots with his suit. I said I thought his choice of footware was offensive to the court, and that it ruined his credibility.Another time I said I hated rednecks and the plaintiff looked like a total redneck to me.Then one more time I said one of the lawyers was pleading his case during voir dire and I felt he was overselling his case and it made me resent him.Bye Bye, jury duty.:)

  5. I only sat on one jury, a traffic case of all things! The guys speeding 20 over the limit decided to see how far he could take the case, what a waste of time.Getting questioned for another jury I saw what was to become my method of getting out of duty in action. This guy sitting next to me said watch this, and when asked if he could be impartial, immediately responded “Oh yes, I would make an excellent jury member!” His secret was enthusiasm, neither the prosecution of defense likes that…

  6. I have been called numerous times but served very little.You inspire me to write about the one case I was on. How could I top your post though????

  7. I’m jealous. I’ve never been chosen to serve on a jury. I only got called once and then the civil case I was in a pool for was being represented by the lawyer who represented someone who had a pending battery charge against me. Yeah, he kicked me out of the pool rather quickly. Next time you get called, I’ll sit for you:)

  8. I had jury duty this summer. I got called to be on a jury but I didn’t make it. They paid me anyway and I bought some beer with the money.

  9. I have never had to serve and consider myself lucky.Thank you for looking out for Justice’s modesty.

  10. I’ve been called twice but never had to ever do anything as it was either dismissed or they filled their quota before they got to me. My mom did jury duty once. The only thing she didn’t like about it was it being a criminal case. But it got her out of the house and talking to other adults which she liked. That should tell you this was some time ago when she was “just” a housewife.

  11. i find it amazing that so many of you have not actually been on a panel —- and i have been on it three times….it actually is a good experience (not for 6 weeks – 2 days would be plenty), but there are definitely some kinds of cases i would not want to be on….

  12. I’ve actually had to defend myself in a couple of stupid lawsuits. I’m no Perry Mason but I did win them all.

  13. Hi Cap;That is an interesting post. I have been called to jury a number of times but never served.I have to give your employer credit for paying you. For many this would have been a financial hardship serving on six week trial.Not at all like what you see on TV is it?

  14. dcAp,only 6 weeks? piker! i was on a federal jury for 14 months back in the late 80’s. rico case with 96 predicate acts, each which had to be decided. if i recall correctly, 10 murders, extortion, drug charges, and a host of others. we were the first federal jury to be allowed to take notes. i filled 11 legal pads, front and back. i wish i still had them, but all the notes were collected and destroyed. we had 18 jurors to start. one died in the course of the trial. i guess courts are the same all over. we were told the trial would be 4-6 months long. we kept busy playing hearts, spades, pinochle, scrabble, trivial pursuit, and just sitting around laughing like crazy. when you are going stir crazy in a windowless room, not allowed to discuss the one thing you all have in common, you tend to go a little nuts. there’s nothing like jury room humor. we all kept in touch for a few years. we even had reunions. however, i have lost touch with the rest. i can still name them though.about a year after that case, i was called for circuit court. that was a one day dui, and i was the foreperson. i did that one blindfolded with one hand tied behind my back. after the verdict was delivered (not guilty, because the cop was new and really screwed up. we all figured the kid was guilty, but couldn’t convict him), the bailiff told me that the judge and the prosecutor requested that i remain in the courtroom. i immediately broke out in a sweat, wondering what i had done and how much time i would have to serve because of it. as it turned out, the judge and the prosecutor wanted to dish about the federal trial.

  15. Great stories.I’ve been called once or twice but have never had to serve.It’s just as well. Having to decide the fate of someone makes my brain itch a little.

  16. I got seated on a jury once, about a year after I became a cop. It was a wrongful death suit filed against a hospital by the family of a 13 year old who died after his 3rd or 4th heart surgery. We heard testimony for 2 weeks, then came in one day and sat in the jury room for a few hours, then they called us out and said the case had been settled.

  17. Never was called for Jury Duty. I guess I live in a very law adiding county with no crime. Ya, right!

  18. I would love to serve on a jury, but each time I’m called I get excused because most of the attorneys here were my teachers at the local college. I loved those teachers and I cannot honestly say that I could be objective about anything they would say.

  19. I have been struck twice for jury duty and never make it to the final pool. I suppose they don’t want people with strong opinions. Like you mentioned, they never tell you why cases get dismissed—and I’d always like to know whether it’s the defense or the prosecution who strikes me.

  20. I have never served either, sadly. It’s interesting that you post this as a couple of my co-workers just went through the process in Kings (Brooklyn) and Queens County. I get the sense that there is a lot of variation between how the different counties administer it.

  21. Thanks for the inside look at deliberations. As a ex-defense attorney, I never fail to find the process fascinating. It has been my belief that if you taken 12 average intelligent persons and make them a jury, their combined IQ is lower than that of any individual. Thanks for confirming that juries often decide cases on what was not introduced, and not part of the record (ie, the poor performance of a prosecutor). I’ve never had the pleasure, the one time I was called, the clerk and judge made sure I was called in the first 12, so I could be speedily rejected and I was released from the pool at noon. Only missed a half day sitting in that gloomy pool room. Hope you continue to enjoy being called DC…here’s to the 50,001 summons!

  22. I've been summoned a few times, mostly it is waiting around, and then being sent home. But I did serve on one case a lady purchased a vehicle giving false information (amount of $ made, jobs etc.) Within a few days they realized the info was bogus & called the customer to say she had to return the vehicle. They brought the vehicle back & demanded their deposits be returned immediately, even though the cashier's office was closed for the day. They bean a rampage doing damage to other cars & actually clipped a car salesman & then took off from the dealership. The lawsuit was the purchaser who gave false info suing the dealership for not honoring the contract!That is one scum bag lawyer. It was a clear cut case….but it dragged on for several days. I do have an interesting story that was in the headlines. One day in court several jurors who had been summoned did not show up. The judge ordered Sheriff's police to go get jurors off the street. The slacker jurors who did not show up, were issued warrants to appear, the judge admonished them for shunning their civic duty, and gave them the opportunity to sign up for future juror duty, or pay a fine. The reasons ranged from I never got the summons in the mail, to "I forgot".Can you imagine just walking down the street & being plucked for jury duty out of the blue?

  23. fran;When I was young my father and his partner were picked up constantly for jury duty and witness to autopsies as they owned a garage in a small town so the police knew who they could pounce on.One autopsy was so bad my dad’s partner was white when he returned and threw up.The authorities don’t do that anymore that I know of.

  24. This sounds very much like my own experiences as a juror. No murder cases, but assault, the city suing a man who owned a sand and gravel operation that became surrounded by a subdivision. We ruled in favor of the sand and gravel guy as everyone knew the business had been there ten years prior to the subdivision. Besides the city’s attys were such assholes we couldn’t bear them.I have learned, through these experiences with the courts, that a good atty is a must when going to court as a defendant.Loved this piece–it was a very good read.

  25. I don’t have any good jury stories, just 2 questions:1) Is Michigan gin rummy different than regular gin?2) What’s wrong with 3-handed Pinochle? You get to bid for the 3 cards in the kitty!

  26. I’ve never had to serve on a jury either. I’ve been called several times in Suffolk County all of which required a really long drive to Riverhead. I have to admit to a bit of disappointment to not being empaneled. I really would have liked the extra time off from work.

  27. Fascinating story. I was called only once when I was quite young and then because I wasn’t bilingual (the trial was to be held in French), was let go along with about 90% of the other English only crowd. I would have at least been able to say thank you en francais for the cookies.


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