Saturday, July 07, 2007

Reporting for Duty

by Brian Mullen

It was just an ordinary day. I drove home from work, parked the car in the garage and strolled to the mailbox to collect the day's collection of junk mail and bills. But today, the postal service delivered a surprise.

Mr. Mullen, you are hereby summoned to the Allegheny County Courthouse for jury duty.

I was so excited that I called my wife at work. "Great news," I told her. "I've been summoned for jury duty."

"You're probably the only person in the history of mankind to ever utter those words." And she was probably right. But for a novice crime writer, this was a dream come true. My company was going to pay me (which they have to) to spend a day at the courthouse - learning, nay, researching the inner workings of our country's legal system. Oh, the experience I was about to obtain would be priceless.

At long last the day arrived. My wife works downtown so we carpooled. She dropped me off at the courthouse and I bounded through the doors like a child through the gates of Disneyland!

I joined the crowd working their way through the security check points. Many others in line held their jury summons - the perfect icebreaker. "They got you, too, huh?" I asked showing my own summons.

"Man, I don't want to be here," they each said in their own way. Music to my ears. Surely the judges and the lawyers would see that no one else wanted to be there. They'd see the enthusiasm in my eyes and know I was the juror of their dreams.

We were corraled into a courtroom and told to take a juror sticker/badge and a complimentary pen. I looked around the room at my competition. Unshaven slackers in sweatpants and t-shirts. Reluctant workerbees on cell phones and blackberries trying desperately to be productive. Housewives with stacks and stacks of tabloid magazines laboriously scrutinizing enlarged photographs to determine if Jennifer Aniston is wearing a ring on her mostly obscured hand and if she is, oh my God, what does it mean?

"Good morning. I'm Judge Lester Nauhaus and on behalf of the Allegheny Court system, I want to thank you all for being here today. I know none of you want to be here."

"I do," I wanted to shout. "Pick me!" The judge went on to explain the process and provide a lot of interesting facts. "Every other Monday," he said, "we get between 40 and 60 cases. The percentage of those cases that actually go to trial by jury is in the single digits. 50% of those cases involve chemical addictions. Virtually all trials end within 5 days." He went on to tell us a little about the building and where we could find food and drink and restrooms. They gave us our parking vouchers and discount lunch coupons. "Are there any questions?" When no one responded the judge continued. "No one wants to ask about my grandchildren?" Polite laughter. "How about what we wear under the robe? T-shirts with formal collars sewn onto them and socks with sewn on pant-leg bottoms. Thank you again for your service." Then we were left to sit and wait. And wait. And wait some more.

Finally after a few hours some people filed into the room. They were going to select potential jurors for a case and they started calling out names. I was number 13. After 30+ people were called, they told us some basics about the case and asked us if anyone felt they could not be impartial based on these details. People started raising their hands. "Ha! The odds just keep getting better and better," I thought. Then they started calling us up one at a time. The lawyers would ask their quiet little questions and I watched closely - studying their moves and glances, anticipating their questions and preparing the best answers I could think of. "Innocent until proven guilty, that's my motto," I'd say. "In High School, I was voted 'Most likely to be an impartial juror.'"

Finally they called me up and I sat at the table trying my best to look non-judgmental. "Good morning," one of the lawyers said.

"I'm afraid I can't draw that same conclusion until I've heard all the evidence." I didn't really say that, but I wanted to.

The rest of the questions they asked me were of little consequence and I answered them truthfully. I thought I was a shoo-in.

I wasn't picked. In fact most of the group of 30 weren't and they picked another group of 30 and started over. By 4:00 it seemed pretty clear that no other cases were going to need juries selected and we were dismissed with the assurance that we had fulfilled our duties and should not be summoned again for at least a year. Then we got our vouchers for our day's wages - $12.20.

Was I disappointed? Sure. I'd have loved to have the experience of participating in a trial. But I take comfort in the fact that I was able to participate in some fashion. My experience did inspire some ideas for stories. And I even got a blog entry out of it! Democracy rules!


Lilo said...

I've been dying to get called for JD. And, although everyone single person I know has- I've never even received the coveted "you're summoned to appear for jury duty" notice.

As much as it annoys me to not be called- I find sitting in the back of the court room taking notes and pretending that I am on the jury just as fun. Even though court employees have started giving me funny looks when I drop in.

Anyhow, hope you get called again... and hope you make it to that jury box!

Kathy Sweeney said...

I got called last winter and took it as a sign that I was meant to read something fun all day. Had no desire to be picked, but I finished a novel wtih no phones ringing or kids making requests.

Excellent recap - right down to the judge's attempts at Stand Up!

Anonymous said...

I've been called twice, picked once. The case I served on was civil -- two companies suing one another -- rather than criminal. It involved a chemical spill allegedly caused by damage to the internal piping in a refrigerator train car, so we were given interesting pieces of pipe and the grit used to clean them (the alleged culprit) to play with -- I mean, pass around and examine. I purposely chose to take a passive role through most of the deliberations and was fascinated to see that one juror wanted to reach a "fair" decision -- giving the plaintiff half of what it had asked for -- irrespective of the evidence. A real eye-opener. In the end, we did the right thing and made a logical decision based upon the facts. It only took two days.

Annette said...

I've been summoned three times. I did sit on a jury the first time. It was a civil case involving an insurance company and one of their "clients." They were refusing to pay out for a minor accident. The client said she had paid her premiums. In cash. No receipts. No proof. The insurance company said they never received the payments. With no solid proof of payment, we had to find in favor of the insurance company although every single one of us really wanted to see them lose. It was an interesting experience and very educational. For instance, always keep documentation of paying your bills.

The second time I was summoned, I was rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery the week before and got excused on medical grounds.

The third time, just last year, my number never got called to go in. Bummer.

Anonymous said...

One time I was called and was picked as an alternate, which meant I listened to the entire trial and then didn't get to hear what the other jurors thought of it. Bummer.

Another time I got to be on the jury for a civil trial. The part I found most interesting was not being able to take notes. It felt so strange, paying attention to every word but not able to write anything down. I've been told they've changed that practice since then.

Anonymous said...

I was only called once for jury duty. It was the criminal court, so I was psyched. Unfortunately, I didn't get picked, but I was lucky enough to take part in the practice jury selection for one of the most notable spree killers in Pittsburgh at the time.

Sorry you didn't get picked. Maybe next time.

Anonymous said...

I figure as soon as you say you write murder mysteries, you're automatically kicked off any case.

My agent has "jury duty" several times a year.

And what's up with the no-note-taking? I'd be a terrible juror if I couldn't write down the important stuff!

Anonymous said...

r.e. no note taking, I think the concept is that you don't listen and over-rely on your notes, which may have been wrong because you didn't listen?

For me, I remember things better if I write them down.

Joyce Tremel said...

Great blog, Brian!

I got out of jury duty twice because I was 8 months pregnant. I guess they didn't want a juror going into labor in the middle of a trial.

Three years ago, I was called for jury duty for federal court. You are "on call" for two weeks. You have to call in every night to see if you have to go in the next day. I had to go in three days. During the interviews, I never got picked. As soon as they found out I worked for a police dept. I was excused. One case was an ice cream store that was suing a police officer. I don't remember the details now, but I think the case was thrown out.

Anonymous said...


Your wit is priceless.