Well, it had to happen one day. After three jury trials, two as jury foreman, I was booted out of a jury pool last week on Round #2 of juror questioning. So much had changed since I was last on a jury in my home county of Contra Costa that I hardly recognized the place. The court’s jam-packed parking lot, the only free parking available that I could find, was ringed with by scores of unclaimed “reserved” parking spaces with “No Juror Parking” signs. The downtown meters were for just two hours, max.
So after squeezing into a “compact” parking space in my VW bug between two SUV behemoths, I managed to scissor myself out of the car to hoof it over to the courthouse. En route, the sidewalk skirted the multi-story concrete jail, where several signs ominously warned that talking to an inmate could lead to arrest. Geeez, I could be arrested for saying hello to an inmate? And I hadn’t even seen the official video yet in the jury assembly room about the transcendent importance of the individual rights enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. A homeless man was asleep on a wooden bench along the sidewalk leading to the next-door hallowed halls of law and order. He had wrapped himself in plastic wrap against the morning chill, but was still trembling even after I gave him my sweater.
Then it was on to the jury assembly room, a cavernous space filled with row after row of folding chairs. Two smiling and perky young women checked us all in. So far so good.
Then the video began. First off, nearly every judge, attorney, and interviewee featured in the video was Black, Asian, or another non-White female even though, according to the last census, Contra Costa County had 2.48 times more White (Non-Hispanic) residents than any other race or ethnicity. If your only source of information were that video, you’d be tempted to think that there are but a scant handful of White folks living in the county. This video was to be the first of three what I call the “fifth-grade civic lessons” delivered to jurors on Day #1.
Not that anybody noticed much; nearly everyone was deep into a cell phone or other electronic device. A few old-school jury hopefuls were reading physical books. I didn’t see anyone who was actually asleep, however.
Once the “why America is the freest, most democratic country on Earth” video mercifully ended, we were escorted to our assigned courtroom. About 50 of us were crammed into either the jury box, where seat numbers were taped to the backs of the seats, the first row of seats, also numbered, or into the two numberless back rows. The judge then introduced the prosecutor, the public defender, and the defendant, by name only, and read the three DUI-related charges against the defendant.
After enduring the obligatory fifth-grade civics lesson for the second time that day, the judge was matter-of-fact, and after apologizing ad nauseum for interrupting our lives to schlep our hard-working behinds down to the courthouse, he asked a few general questions about juror availability: the ability to communicate (as one example, an Hispanic woman did not speak English), or any other personal circumstances that would make jury service prohibitively difficult.
The general hand-wringing and manufactured concern, delivered oh so soulfully, struck me as unseemly as well as insincere. A more convincing approach might have been a more direct admonition that if one of us landed in the defendant’s seat one day (quite likely after hearing the scores of alcohol-related horror stories shared by the potential jurors), wouldn’t we want a jury of our peers?
I was much more personally aligned with the philosophy of a judge in the same courthouse on a different trial years ago. After hearing a sob story from a first-line supervisor about how his corporation would go under without his diligent daily attention, His Honor didn’t miss a beat before denying the guy’s “business über alles” excuse. He told the self-important candidate juror that the interests of business never trump the interests of justice. How times have changed…
So, about the “peer” part. I knew nothing about the defendant since I was dumped during the jury selection process, so about all I can say about him is that he was White and looked fortyish and muscle-bound in his stiff black suit. As noted, the 50 or so prospective jurors in my group were mostly White retirees. Only a handful appeared to be around the defendant’s age or younger, disappointing in my view as the younger generation we created will ultimately inherit the mess we’ve made of their country.
The two attorneys then rose separately to question the prospective jurors after dragging a heavy wooden podium to their respective sides of the counsel table and fiddling with the goose-necked microphone, which appeared ill suited to the podium’s slanted surface. Just as we’ll all be old and feeble one day if we’re lucky to live that long, we were all young and inexperienced once and endured the humiliating pains of actually learning how to practice our newly minted chosen professions in the outside world.
Perhaps even more than in other professions, the effective practice of law depends on experience; studying law and passing the bar are of course requirements, but they don’t teach you how to be a lawyer. I note this because both attorneys on this case were young women closer to my grandson’s age than my daughter’s. Striding purposely to and from the podium in their skirted suits and high heels, both had carefully crafted the professional image so critical for young, attractive women just starting out in high-stakes, dog-eat-dog professions like trial law. It’s a lot to take in.
Both attorneys’ lack of experience was unfortunately clear as they questioned us individually, especially when it came to hypothetical examples used to illustrate legal principles. At one point the judge frowned and provided his own example. To probe the limits of juror empathy, the prosecutor asked each of us if we would convict a 70-year-old man (probably the oldest person she could imagine…) charged with stealing a loaf of bread if his crime was proved beyond a reasonable doubt. A few of the younger members of the group struggled with their responses, probably in part because they had spent their lives believing that they should help the old and poor.
The prosecutor pressed on in her effort to promote the principle that “the law is the law” and must be treated accordingly – no exceptions, no pity for the accused no matter how insignificant the alleged offense. This line of questioning and thinly veiled attempt to extract law-and-order pledges from individuals disgusted me and was probably my Waterloo on the path to trial.
I thought of the family that hid Anne Frank and her family in their three-story Amsterdam home during the Nazis’ World War II pogrom to exterminate Europe’s Jewry, and also of all the monuments in this country erected in recognition of courageous Americans who risked their lives to protest against and even openly defy unjust laws. I guess in the eyes of American jurisprudence today that long-ago Dutch family should have called the cops to bring the Auschwitz-bound paddy wagon around to collect the Jews, whose only crime was being alive in the wrong place at the wrong time.
At this trial there was no mention of the spirit of the law or of nuances of any kind to the black-and-white blind adherence to the much ballyhooed letter of the law. When the question came around to me I said I was appalled by the hypothesis, that the stolen bread example cheapened and trivialized the role of human empathy, which is an irreplaceable and inextinguishable component of being human. “Thank you for your service,” said the judge. “The bailiff will give you your proof of duty, which you need to clip to your juror badge on your way out.”
This latest jury experience deepened my already outsized cynicism about the path we’re trudging along as a country. The preachy fifth-grade civics lessons to me revealed, in part, the court’s lack of confidence in the jury pool’s basic knowledge of American civics. I get that nobody has to pass a four-hour exam on the U.S. Constitution in eighth grade to enter high school anymore like I did in this very same county back in the day, but in our current era of insidious online misinformation, ubiquitous TV, and a crisis of confidence in our institutions, maybe it’s time to bring it back – not to win hearts and minds but instead to inform the hopefully participating adults of tomorrow. There are gathering storm clouds on the judicial horizon…
Most concerning of all, considering the county’s demographics, was the relative dearth of young adults in the jury pool. When I got home I spoke briefly to the 30-something son of one of my neighbors. He’s a smart, well-informed guy who would be an asset to any jury. When I asked him if he’d ever served on a jury, he laughed and said he responded to his one-and-only jury summons a decade earlier by admitting that he didn’t believe in the government. “They never called me back,” he said.