Adventures in Jury Duty

3/15/12

Jury Duty. If you’re like me, you see those words and you inwardly groan, start thinking about ways you can get out of it. Well, this week I reported to the Bronx court for the third time since I’ve lived in this borough. I thought I knew what I was in for, but I was hardly prepared for what ensued…

The first time I was called for jury duty, I sat around for three days but my name was never called. I was let go early on the third day, told thank you very much, and that I would be contacted again in no less than four years.

The second time I was called, I knew I did not want to sit. I figured there were any one of a number of ways I could get out of it by saying something objectionable. I was inspired by a story a good friend had told us about how he had gotten out of serving on criminal court. An African-American man, he happened to have a very identifiably Muslim name. When asked whether he felt he would be able to be objective on the case for which he was being considered, he replied, “I have an inherent distrust of the police.”

Needless to say, he was not picked for that case or any other.

I figured I could do as well as he had. So when my name was called in consideration for a case, I dutifully went with the group of prospective jurors and prepared to be interviewed by the attorneys. They began by outlining the basic facts of the case. A New York City bus driver was injured on the job when the bus he was driving went over a large steel road plate that had been improperly placed by Con Edison (the local utility company). He suffered injuries as a result, and he was looking to be compensated.

When the attorneys asked if anyone had a conflict of interest or other reason why they felt they could not serve impartially on this jury, my hand shot up. They took me into a separate room to hear the details. I said, “The guy’s a bus driver, doing his job, and he gets injured. It’s Con Ed for goodness sake, they should just pay the guy’s damn medical bills… I’m already pissed off…” to which the attorney for the plaintiff chuckled and said, “I have no problem with that.” The attorney for the defense of course, responded, “I don’t think so.” We all agreed that I would be moving on.
Although I was returned to the jury pool, I was not picked for another trial. For the second time, I was released from duty without having actually served.

I started my latest bout with jury duty yesterday. They have a wonderful orientation video now, narrated by Ed Bradley and Diane Sawyer. It’s filled with some terrific history of the justice system (did you know one of the ways they used to try someone was to throw him in the lake, and if he floated he was guilty and if he sank he was innocent – woo hoo!)… but most of all a kind of pitch to our sense of civic pride and responsibility. How can you refuse Ed Bradley? I was inspired.

When I was brought in as part of a group of about two dozen prospective jurors on a civil case, I was prepared to formulate my strategy for disqualification. As the first eight people were questioned by first the attorney for the plaintiff and then the attorney for the defendant, I listened, fascinated by the content of the unfolding discussion. These would-be representatives of justice were being asked to talk about their personal sense of responsibility and safety, as well as how you can tell whether someone is in pain or not. It seems this case was about a car accident. The plaintiff had been rear-ended by the defendant. This was not in dispute. What was being tried was whether or not the plaintiff had indeed suffered injuries worthy of damages, and if so, to what level of compensation.

Well, I figured… there’s no way they’re going to pick me for this jury, because I just lost a husband of over twenty years who suffered from chronic pain. No way I can be objective about that. I’m good to go.

And then today, when it was my turn up in the box, a funny thing happened. I began to get into it. I started to enjoy sharing about teaching my son about responsibility and personal accountability and hearing similar stories from my fellow Bronxites. I appreciated the young woman who worked at a clothing store but also helped care for her little sister with cerebral palsy. I appreciated hearing about the woman who had to mete out justice each day to her class of pre-schoolers.

I appreciated hearing the single mom sitting next to me talk about her son, a few years older than mine, also very smart and funny and athletic, and how there was only so safe she could keep him when he was playing football and fractured his ankle. Here I was, with members of my community. Would I be comfortable making a decision about someone who lived here among us? Could I be fair and thoughtful, and examine all of the evidence and make a decision based on the facts? Of course I could! I would be proud to participate in this flawed but excellent system of justice.

I leaned over to my fellow mom and said, “Wouldn’t it be funny if we both got picked?” She laughed… “We’ll just have to go with the flow.” Just yesterday we had both been talking about how neither of us could afford to take the estimated trial time of a week off from work. And yet here we both were, qualifying ourselves with distinction…

When the lawyer for the plaintiff asked about our history with people who had suffered car accidents, I realized I had a couple of related pieces of experience that would be worth describing. I mentioned about my husband with whom I had shared over two decades of care giving related to his chronic illness, and dealing with the subjective nature of pain. How many times had nurses or doctors said to him or his fellow sickle cell defiers, “You don’t look like you’re in pain,” or “I just gave you medicine three hours ago, you shouldn’t be in pain again.” How many hundreds of encounters like that had we weathered together over the years?

So when the attorney for the defendant mentioned me by name, wondering aloud if I would be able to remove myself from the emotions related to my personal experience with my husband’s pain in order to view the facts of the case fairly, I had to wonder. Could I do it? I had already begun to embrace the feeling of being part of this group of good citizens. I know that I am an intelligent, fair-minded person. I know how to interpret medical information. I am a good judge of character. I am a good listener, and I can pay attention to details, follow instructions well…

But then something strange happened. Suddenly feeling exposed and vulnerable in front of my peers, I felt a bit fuzzy in the head. The clarity and confidence I had embraced moments earlier was dissipating. Instead, I sensed some long harbored sadness slowly rising in my throat. I thought of my sister, still recovering from injuries suffered in a bike accident, possibly left with permanent, chronic pain issues as a result. I thought of the intense challenge and burden a life of chronic pain can be to the person who experiences it, as well as to their loved ones. I felt the memory of my husband’s relentlessly stoic management of his own pain, like physical waves, moving through my own body. I recognized the return of these memories and feelings as the first steps in coming emotionally undone.

So when they took a final poll down the line of us, asking whether or not we each felt that we could render a fair decision based on the case they would present to us, I looked at the lawyers and said, I think I need to talk to you guys. They called a five minute break and the three of us met privately.

I told them that I just didn’t know if I could trust myself. I had thought I was OK, but now these emotions were coming up, and I was starting to get kind of overwhelmed and just then I felt a hot flash coming on and my shoulders started tensing up and my lower lip began quivering and I knew that I could not risk taking on this responsibility. They had gotten me very excited about fulfilling the noble mission of participating in our justice process. I had been frank about who I was, carefully articulating my positions in a way that I knew qualified me. So as proud as I had begun to feel about myself, I was that disappointed that I didn’t feel capable of living up to the standard of objectivity that was required for the task at this particular moment in my life.

I told them, “This is bringing up a lot of stuff for me that I didn’t expect… I’m a writer – a communicator. I can be very persuasive. I just don’t trust myself to do justice to both of your clients if I’m going in with all of these very intense emotions, and potentially pushing them onto the other jurors.” Maybe I was overestimating my own significance, but they had gotten me to take this thing very seriously. I felt that being honest about my situation and my potential shortcomings was the best way I could demonstrate my civic responsibility.

They thanked me profusely. They appreciated my honesty and gave me a lot of credit for sharing my experiences with them, (as well as living through them). It seems that I was part of an exceptionally thoughtful and forthright group of jurors that day, and they felt very fortunate to have enough responsible people to choose from to facilitate this trial on behalf of their clients. Even without me, they would be able to fill the jury box successfully. It was a peak moment for all of us. Yay for truth, justice and the American way!

So I never did have to fabricate some pretext for not being able to serve. Sure, there’s some gray area there – I won’t pretend there’s not a part of me that’s breathing a sigh of relief right now that I can return to work and my regular responsibilities. But I learned something important over the last couple of days that has really gotten me thinking. I met a group of individuals who were really excited about doing their part for their community – a social worker who was also a Caribbean immigrant who felt extraordinarily grateful to be an American, a single mother, a teacher, the sister of a disabled girl – all ready to interrupt their regular lives to participate in this trial. I was proud of them.

I am grateful that we have this process in place, and I only hope that if I ever find myself on the other side of the jury box, that all of its inhabitants are as thoughtful and articulate as the people I met who will be trying this particular case. I may not be up for joining them on this go-round, but next time I’m called upon, I am pretty sure I’ll be approaching the entire scenario with a different set of eyes.

Photo courtesy of dweekly

4 Comments to “Adventures in Jury Duty”

  1. parsing civil responsibility in a very articulate and human way. excellent.

  2. Deborah,

    This is a really great post and has inspired me to rethink my attitude toward my next jury call. What a fascinating experience, and what potential to write and learn and observe. Thanks for sharing.

    Lisa

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