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

06/01/2009 2:33 AM |

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.

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