Jury of the Damned: A First-Hand Account of America’s Awful Justice

06/01/2009 2:33 AM |

Wednesday
You have the right to reading material. If you haven’t brought any, some will be provided for you. Almost hidden in a corner of the Central Jury Room, Room 305 in the New York City Civil Courts Building on Livingston Street, stands a short and fat bookcase; a laminated print-out identifies it as “The Juror’s Library.” Jackie Collins and Mary Higgins Clark titles take up a bulk of the top shelf; the “Harlequin Intrigue” series, whose spines identify them as Romantic/Suspense, takes up the middle. Heavily used puzzle books, piled, block access to other tattered volumes of paperback pulp on the bottom. On top lies a stack of the slim quarterly Jury Pool News; a headline inside announces, “Educator Finds Jury Service a Valuable Learning Experience”. A crossword on the back seems to be the newsletter’s central function. It has been left puzzle-up.

On my first day of jury duty, I finish this crossword puzzle, as well as the Times’. I read the main section, the Arts section, a third of this week’s New Yorker. I watch a little Fox News, which plays, muted with captions, on the monitors hung in the room’s front corners. I study the oversized photo of heyday Coney Island on the rear wall, featuring an infinite sea of bathers like ants on sidewalk ice cream.

Jury duty is waiting. A vicious kind of waiting, like a subway platform at 3 a.m. Something is coming but you don’t know when. So all you can do is sit. Fidget. Read. Wait.

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The only citizens automatically excused from jury duty are convicted felons and minors. Claiming not to speak English flops as an excuse because, to become a citizen, you must pass language proficiency tests both written and oral. In New York State every year, 600,000 people serve as jurors. Service generally lasts one or two days. Once you’ve served, you needn’t serve again for at least four more years. If you’re unemployed, you make $40 per day. Otherwise, your employer is supposed to pay you.

In Houston, it’s $6 for the first day, $40 thereafter. In Los Angeles, jurors can serve as much as once a year for $15 a day, starting on the second day, plus $0.34 a mile, one way, for gas. Chicago jurors get $40 a day and $0.485 a mile, round trip. They are on call for a two-week term, sometimes serving on multiple trials.

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We, the potential jurors, were told to arrive shortly before nine. The room, decorated in late sterile-municipal style, has 10 rows of black vinyl chairs that wheeze when you sit, 160 seats occupied by the bleary- and nasty-eyed. The mood is one of reluctant anticipation: cell phones are powered down, newspapers are shuffled, doors are closed, handbags are rummaged through. No one speaks. A rumpled American flag droops from a pole wedged between unoccupied administrators’ desks.

Friends with jury duty experience recommend I get there early, “to see the video,” which begins shortly after nine. It explains the history of the justice system, from its arbitrary roots in superstitions to the modern jury, and opens with misty Hi8 textures that smack of the 1980’s: filthy European peasants, who look like Xena extras, act as stone-faced observers to the attempted drowning of an accused man. Ed Bradley’s stentorian voice butts in to ask, “was this fair and impartial justice? They thought so.” But us Americans know better; we reject the whims of monarchs.

The video is called “Your Turn,” and after its charmingly hokey opening it’s interminable, patiently explaining how fair trials depend on jury systems. Chatterboxes in the audience are shushed while, on screen, bratty potential jurors are interviewed. “Jury duty is a pain in the you-know-what,” an old man says. The video introduces us to the “characters” in a trial, as though we’re children from Soviet Union who grew up without Law & Order reruns. “You are not just sitting around,” Diane Sawyer assures. She will turn out to have lied. “Wouldn’t you want an impartial jury of your peers?” asks the recently retired Chief Judge of New York State, Judith Kaye. Looking around the room, I’m not sure that I would.

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