Jury Duty

May 2001

The last time I was summoned to the Onondaga County Courthouse for jury duty, I got as far as the “voir dire.” The defendant’s lawyer asked, “What newspaper do you read?” I said, “The New York Ti…” “Excused,” he said. Last month, I didn’t even get that far, and it’s probably just as well.

We began the day by watching a jury duty video, starring Ed Bradley and Diane Sawyer. The Commissioner of Jurors held up a Bible and we held up our right hands and swore to be impartial. This was followed by two and half hours of waiting during which I made excellent progress in Charles Dickens’ Bleak House. Then we were summoned, in juror number order, out into the hall to line up and contrast the age of the woodwork with the youth of the parents waiting outside Family Court. It was quite a spread. Marched upstairs, we filed into a courtroom and, led by the judge, swore again that we would be impartial.

Then they brought in the guilty defendant. He was surrounded by three compact police officers in black uniforms tailored by Liehs & Steigerwald. On his wrist, he wore a red plastic band with his picture and a bar code. His lawyer, a careworn man, wore a plain black suit and had a haircut that recalled Barbara Stanwyck’s coif in “Double Indemnity.”

The accused did not walk, he sauntered; he did not stand, he slouched; he did not sit, he crouched. When his attorney passed him the first stack of witness sheets, he whipped through them with a skill and familiarity that looked suspiciously like experience, skimming the pertinent points and slapping the rejects face down in a neat pile on the table. I wondered if I was the only person thinking he might have been in a similar setting before.

In a room filled with people dressed for the seriousness of the occasion, the defendant wore long-sleeved long underwear, a short-sleeved white t-shirt and baggy jeans. Cleaned, but not pressed. “He’s doomed,” I thought to myself, and not just because he shared a racial profile with only one potential juror of the 90 or so assembled for his consideration.

A number of jurors were excused after hushed conversations, and then all the remaining impartial jurors were given an hour and a half for lunch. As is traditional for jury duty, I went to the Blue Tusk for liverwurst on white with lettuce and mayo, a bag of chips and upon the recommendation of the maitre d’, a pint of Dogfish Head IPA. As I was leaving, I bumped into another trusted expert who insisted I try the 3 Floyds Alpha King Pale Ale. Fortunately for justice, I did not have time to finish it, but it was magnificent.

After another wait in the hall, we filed back into the courtroom a little after 2 o’clock and the lawyers resumed their questioning. The case involved the violation of an order of protection; did any of us have a problem with that? Well, yeah. My brother’s first piece of advice for me was, “Never hit a girl,” and I’ve always thought that was good advice. Would this new knowledge hinder my ability to be impartial?

The woman next to me leaned over and interrupted my inner rehearsals. “Do you walk in Skaneateles?” she whispered. “Yes, I do,” I whispered back, having sworn on the Bible twice that day. And then I recognized her as the greyhound rescue lady who, in the company of her swift and slender charge, I had been waving to all winter. She looked different without a wool cap.

And then the judge said, “We’ve got our jury; the rest of you are excused.” I sighed with relief, my sworn impartiality left untested. And because it was only 4 o’clock, I went directly to Middle Ages Brewing for a visit, a growler and a new hat.

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