Thursday, April 9, 2009

Twelve Angry Men Part II (aka "Getting to have a sidebar in court")

Tuesday morning, bright and early, found me carrying out one of the responsibilities of citizenship -- jury duty -- at the U.S. District Court in downtown Providence (sorry, I just can't bring myself to say "Downcity", the silly marketing term designed to make downtown Providence seem hip). As you might remember, I seem to have the unusual luck of being called like clockwork every two years or so.

Previously, my jury duty was always served at the state court in Newport. However, the last three times have been at the behest of El Federales though this was the first time I actually had to attend. The first time I received the summons, I was going to be on a business trip and, after sending copies of my plane reservation, hotel reservation, signed letter from God, and a talking ferret who could make my case in fluent bureaucratese, the jury administrators believed me and allowed me to skip it. The second time, the case was settled at the last moment and jury duty was canceled.

While I do grouse about jury duty, my complaint isn't about the duty itself. I'd actually be interested in sitting on a jury sometime and do find it all pretty fascinating. No, the issue is really that their timing typically stinks and I get the call at a time that really isn't very convenient. Yes, I know, the rights and responsibilities of citizenship are sometime messy but it would be so much easier if, as my wife reasonably suggests, we were given a choice of three dates upon which to attend so we could work the messiness into our schedules a bit more conveniently.

Anyhow, I was one of 34 lucky souls gathered in District Court this week for the empanelling of two juries. Initially there was a lengthy bit of waiting around and then we trooped up the broad, sweeping marble stairs to the courtrooms above. This was definitely not like the state courtroom in Newport. This was gleaming and looked new. Video monitors were installed by each juror's chair to make viewing of evidence and presentations simpler, and white noise generators clicked on any time the judge and lawyers were in sidebar.

The first trial was the one that worried me. Expected to be two weeks in length, it pitted a motel owner against a local municipality in a dispute over a septic system and the approval (or not) to do business. Gripping stuff. No doubt we'll see it as a "ripped from the headlines" segment on a future episode of Law & Order. Thankfully, my name was not among those randomly drawn for the honor of being one of the 14 people who would be whittled down to 8 for the actual jury that would sit in judgment over a period of two weeks (ugh!).

Personally, my favorite part of the day was when the lawyers and court clerk went into an antechamber to select the 8 jurors who would actually hear each case. To pass the time, the judge offered a civics lesson, first explaining how the U.S. District Court fits into the legal framework of the United States and then later, how he was awakened at home at 2 AM to sign a search warrant to let the cops enter a house occupied by some not-very-nice people who had just taken possession of a large shipment of drugs. As for the U.S. federal court system, I had no idea that District 1 (out of the 11 encompassing the U.S.) includes not only the New England states but Puerto Rico as well. I can't quite wrap my head around the logic of that one. Was whatever district handles Florida booked solid when they had to divvy up the islands?

Anyhow, the second empanelment rolled around and when I heard the case details (woman and her then-boyfriend-now-husband were in a car accident and are suing the insurance company due to a dispute about what exactly was covered) I knew I was home free. Conveniently, the insurance company in question just happened to be the insurance company that has provided my car insurance since I was 16 and now insures my home and, when I had it, my boat. Not only that, but a few years ago, my wife was in a car accident (not her fault) that totaled her little Geo and our insurance company not only covered it but recouped our deductible from the other insurance company. Needless to say, we were very pleased with the whole affair. I knew that there was no way the plaintiffs' lawyers were going to want me on the jury.

And such was the case. While I wasn't among the first 14 to be called, one guy who was basically made it clear that he was going to do whatever it took to get off the jury. In exasperation, the judge told him politely to take a hike and then my name was called. Oh joy. Still, to avoid tainting the jury, I was called up to confer with the judge and lawyers in sidebar so I could tell my story. It's probably the only time I'll ever get to do that it and in truth, it was pretty cool. Still, when the names of the lucky 8 were read out, mine was not among them and I was released back into the world.

It was a relief -- busy times at my office right now -- but also a bit of a disappointment. Sure I had a boatload of stuff to do when I got back to work. And yes, you might not always agree with the verdicts or perhaps you might think that lawyers are scum. However, it's worth remembering that the system does work, by and large, in part because it's not nameless, faceless judges imposing verdicts but because it's people like the electrician, the former teacher, the self-employed single mom, the IT support technician, the electrical engineer, and the other people I met on Tuesday who are making the decision of guilt and innocence.

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