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

06/01/2009 2:33 AM |

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.

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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.

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