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.
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.
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.
When the video finishes, our warden, Nurse Cratchett, appears at a desk. “Good morning ladies and gentleman,” she says into a microphone. She is greeted with silence. “Good morning ladies and gentleman,” she repeats. She orders our cellphones turned off or placed on “manner mode.” Manner mode?
She guides us through filling out our jury summonses, which want to know things like our social security numbers and place of employment. She treats us like learning-disabled children and releases sharp breaths between her sentences, as though already exasperated with us. My resentment turns to pity as I realize that, essentially, poor Nurse Cratchett is on permanent jury duty.
After a morning of bureaucratic sorting out, it’s more waiting. The impatient rock in their chairs. Others read the paper, textbooks, work documents. Cratchett recommends, “get to know ya nay-bizz.” Few do. A boy tries to pull a wrapped-up Muslim woman towards the prominent vending machines, but she walks away stoically; he follows at a clip, bellowing a long, plaintive whine. “He looks like some grown-ups I know, on jury duty,” Cratchett cracks.
She also reminds us to dispose of our garbage in the garbage pails.
The first time I did jury duty, several years ago, I waited almost the entire day to hear my name. This time, miraculously, I among the first to be called, which I attribute to sitting near the front, as many of the others called are my first-few-rows nay-bizz. We are sent from the main waiting room into a smaller waiting room, most of which is taken up by a long wooden table for the attorneys. A dozen of us are squeezed into the other half.
A duo of lawyers runs us down: one, a ruddy thirtysomething with a trim goatee; the other, an older woman with a ponytail and gray business suit. The trial concerns an accident from March 2000 in which a Haitian woman was hit by a car. We’re interrogated for possible conflicts of interest: Did we see the accident? Do we have any general problems with personal injury lawsuits? Do our religions make us uncomfortable judging other people? Can we assure fair-mindedness? “Anybody got a problem with people from Haiti?” one of the lawyers asks, to disbelieving laughter.
After some in-the-hallway deliberations, the lawyers return to announce I am Juror Number Three on the So and So Case. Four others are selected as well; we are sent back to Central Jury, where Nurse Cratchett swears us in. “If you don’t want to swear, you can affirm.” We raise our right hands and she runs through something about upholding the law; I’m not paying attention. When she’s finished, one or two mutter an “I do,” another nods her head. I do nothing, and Cratchett doesn’t care. She scribbles instructions for tomorrow on our paper ID cards and sends us on our way. I have been dismissed by 12:15, and I don’t have to be back until ten o’clock tomorrow morning.
The workday at 141 Livingston must start at ten because today it’s nearly impossible to get on the elevator. Throngs of jurors and who-knows who else crowd around in a narrow lobby too small for all of them, eyeing the lifts’ status board like old men in dive bars watch horse races. They shift in packs towards the next elevator due up.
I have missed three elevators by not playing this game. Finally I crowd near the next elevator due down. The doors open and people push forward, with more violence than those on a rush hour platform. A small, elderly South Asian man charges forth. “You gotta let people off first,” a woman tells him. “You thirsty.” He looks at her in confusion, then nods absently.
Upstairs, Central Jury is packed with people. Waiting. Eating sandwiches from tin foil wrappers. Playing with smart phones. Reading hardback novels. Shifting in their seats.
The video is long over and Cratchett is issuing the same instructions she did yesterday, down to the word and intonation. She has been reciting her lines for a long time. Even her jokes are the same, with the same delivery, eliciting the same begrudging groans of acknowledgement from a minority of the audience.
Jurors are called and walk out. Some return. Some swear in as jurors and go home. This was me yesterday, I think longingly.
It’s not even noon. I have finished the main section, the Arts section, the crossword. I have read a few more New Yorker articles. I’ve scribbled copious notes for this piece. I have leaned forward with my head in my hands. I have rubbed my eyes red. I have been bored, cured it, and suffered a relapse. Sigh, read, repeat. It’s not even noon.
Finally, an announcement is made that my fellow jurors and I are just waiting for a court officer to come and fetch us. It’s like being at Times Square and hearing that there’s a downtown express train approaching 57th Street. Still, no one comes for roughly another hour. Shortly before lunch, we, the sworn-in on the So and So Case, are called to the front. The judge wants us back tomorrow at 9:30 a.m.
All any of the jurors talk about on the short stroll to the elevators is how they thought the case had been settled. Oh, how they wished they’d settled! The State of NY now owes me $80 for 7 hours of reading. All things considered, this is one of the best jobs I’ve ever had.
By Day 3, you’re a juror. Jury duty is what you do. You’re a temp on an open-ended contract to the state for $40/day. You consider putting it on your resume. Duties: Read periodicals. Weighed evidence.
Inured to the metal detectors downstairs, you breeze through with confidence, expertly dumping the contents of your pockets into the gray plastic bucket. You know not to scramble for the first elevator that arrives. Move near the one expected thereafter. You’re almost the first one on.
Central Jury is nearly empty today. No one gets called to start jury duty on Friday. Most of the faces are familiar, my fellow sworn jurors. Some of us exchange smiles. Then I sit down. And wait.
They told us to be here at 9:30, but no one comes to get us until an hour later. A court officer guides us through the hall like kids on a field trip; when an elevator comes, she forces every passenger off, even the woman cradling an infant, so we can get on. We get off at the 8th floor and are led into a courtroom. I anticipate an airy room, something out of Inherit the Wind, but it’s disappointingly small and unglamorous. As we’re led to the jury room, a juror closet, we pass one of the lawyers from two days before. I feel I should smile in friendly recognition, but I suspect it would be unprofessional; instead I give him a cold blank stare. He returns it in kind.
The Juror’s Closet is cramped but sunny, at least, taken up by a large wooden table. The office chairs that surround it are more comfortable than the vinyl wheezers downstairs. There’s even a loveseat against the backwall.
Shortly, we’re led back into the courtroom. The judge reads us a list of instructions stiffly, as though it’s her first day on the job. I find it hard to listen because I’m distracted by the stenographer, a chubby man staring blankly into the distance, who resembles a giant baby mashing daddy’s keyboard. Between the formality and the characters, it’s all I can do to stifle a smile.
This is until our first witness, the woman who was hit by the car, is cross-examined. The defense lawyer consistently tries to trip up the plaintiff, a soft-spoken Haitian woman struggling with English. She is confused not by points of memory—her story is consistent—but on points of language. The attorney is attempting to turn a limited vocabulary into an indicator of mendacity. I imagine her picking on store clerks. My sympathy for the witness is strong.
The jury numbers eight—six regulars and two alternates, who deliberate only if one of us regulars dies, disappears, or requires hospitalization. Four of them are older, professional-looking African American women. My father and I, both tall and blond, are always picked for juries; several times after 9/11, I was pulled out of an airport queue for random search. Often in life, I feel like the token white guy.
After less than an hour of courtroom business, we are excused to the jury room while the grown-ups handle matters of “housekeeping”. In the closet, some of the women chatter softly; the rest read or swivel slowly in their chairs. It’s half an hour before we’re ushered back in and told we’ll be breaking for an early lunch. It’s just past 11:30; we’re due back at two. In two and a half days, the eight of us have done 45 minutes of work—if you can call listening work—for a cost to the State of N.Y. of almost $1,000.
Most of us are back from lunch around 1:30. There are two long wooden benches in the area by the elevators. We all huddle near one, as the plaintiff is sitting on the other. We have been instructed to make no polite small talk with anyone from the case: lawyer, witness or judge.
In the bathroom, a sign next to the sink from the department of health lists the six steps of washing your hands, with cartoon illustrations. Wet, soap, scrub, rinse, dry, turn off the water. “How long should I wash?” the sign asks. “As long as it takes to sing your ABCs!”
We’re led back into the closet for more waiting, which has begun to faze my colleagues. “This is ridiculous,” a young man with frizzy hair says upon snapping awake from a near-drowse. Nearly everyone in the room has their heads on the table. An occasional snore buzzes through the air. Jurors yawn dramatically. “All this waiting is more tiring than a full day of work,” a graying woman at the end of the table says. We all smile wearily at each other. The Russian woman next to me expresses her fear that the court officer will come back and dismiss us for the day. “It’s Friday. ‘OK, come back Monday, 9:30.’” I chuckle politely.
Back in the courtroom, there are no more witnesses, no more evidence. We are sent to deliberate based on the testimony of one woman. Jury duty is an intellectual exercise; the justice system controls information more severely than a fascist state. In March, a federal case was declared a mistrial when a judge discovered nine jurors had performed supplemental research on the internet. We are not to Google anything. We are not to visit the scene of the accident. We are only to consider the remarkably little we’ve been told.
In the closet, I am elected foreperson through the shoving of official papers in my direction. A quick initial vote shows we’re all leaning the same way—for the plaintiff. But roughly fifteen minutes of discussion ensue. One woman has way too many opinions about what we’ve heard to leave it at a simple show of hands, and she rattles off her main points—the witness was credible, the defense attorney was weak, the defendants should have testified—in a stunningly breathless monologue of infinite reiterations that ends only when I manage to interrupt her. The Russian woman is skeptical, but seems too tired and unsure to argue for long. Two jurors—one eager to go home, the other too mousy to have an opinion—seem willing to vote the way everyone else does. Justice is blind. Justice has other shit to do. I am more frightened of juries than ever before. We vote again: unanimously, for the plaintiff. We all sign a sheet affirming our opinions, and summon the court officer.
As foreman, I get to stand and speak for everyone, though it’s all yeses and noes rather than any grand “we the jury” proclamations. After my big scene, we’re led back to the jury room with the two alternates who tell the rest of us that they would’ve voted differently. Her story didn’t sound right, they say. Both pedestrian and motorist were at fault. What a difference a juror makes.
Back in the courtroom, we’re excused from the trial, though a compensation portion remains. We’ve completed our “civic duty,” the judge says. Standing out on the street afterwards, several jurors pass me without even a nod. We’re strangers again, as though the last few days never happened. I descend into the subway and wait. I’m used to waiting.