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

06/01/2009 2:33 AM |

Thursday
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.


Friday

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.

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