Jury Duty, the Right We Have Come to Despise

Civic duty is much nobler in speech than it is in action. Jury duty is an honorable civic duty that most citizens do everything in their power to avoid.

I received a jury duty summons in the mail to serve in my home borough of Queens. But rather than get a definite day to report, the system keeps you guessing and requires you to call by telephone to see if you must report the following day.

So for a few days I lived with the Sword of Damocles over my head wondering if I was actually going to serve. I called on a Friday after 5 p.m. per the instructions on the notice only to be told to call again on Monday. At 5 p.m. Monday I called and learned I’d have to be in Kew Gardens the next day. Fantastic.

It was a warm Tuesday and I took the wrong subway and ended up taking a very long walk along Queens Boulevard to the central jury room, which is actually in Queens Borough Hall across 82nd Avenue from the large criminal court house.

I arrived a half hour late but was not the last one there, and I filled out a few notices and settled in for a long wait. The waiting room was filled with people that reflected the wide ethnic diversity of Queens, which is both a blessing and a curse. It is definitely interesting and good to meet people from faraway lands and learn about their language and cultures; it is bad when a sizable portion of your jury pool can viably fake not understanding English.

I had my work laptop with me and just as I was starting to make some progress on things, my name was called. About 40 of us were lined up and brought to the court of Judge Gene Lopez. We filed into the audience and the clerk randomly drew names and those called took a seat in the jury box. Both attorneys and the accused were there.

The defendant was an elderly Chinese man who had a Mandarin interpreter with him. He was charged with several serious crimes including assault with intent to maim, causing grievous bodily harm and menacing with a firearm, among others. I almost wanted to serve on the jury just to find out what the hell went down.

Judge Lopez appears to be a distinguished and amiable jurist. He has also probably heard every excuse known to man as to why people can’t serve on juries in his court.

Just about everyone wanted out and was willing to say anything to be excused. One women, a chiropractor, said that if she were chosen to be a juror she would be so emotionally distraught that it would affect her impartiality. Several people requested private conversations with the judge in order to discuss personal or medical issues. Each time both attorneys and the stenographer had to position themselves on the far side of the bench from us. The success rate for these private conferences was very high. Most people got out of being on the jury after one of these.

People who voiced religions objections were let go without any questioning. The first man let go said he was a Jehovah’s Witness and said he couldn’t sit in judgement of another person. He even cited a Bible verse. Good for him if he did the research on that religion to come up with that. I don’t know if it’s possible for jury duty to be so bad as to forgo a lifetime of Christmas and birthday celebrations.

The only juror that got excused on a language excuse that seemed believable was an Asian woman who didn’t recognize her own name being called. She was gone pretty fast. The others hammed it up and got some righteous guff from the judge.

A typical exchange went like this:

JUDGE: Miss Kwan. You say have an issue understanding English?

Ms. KWAN: Yes.  I don’t understand some things so good.

JUDGE: What is your profession?

Ms. KWAN: I a nurse.

JUDGE: Are you a licensed, registered nurse?

Ms. KWAN: Yes. Registered nurse.

JUDGE: And you had to take an exam to get your license, yes?

Ms. KWAN: Yes.

JUDGE: And was that exam in English?

This could go on for a while. The results were never different: if you could pretend you didn’t know English that well, you would eventually be excused. Eventually more than half of the potential pool was excused and the rest of us were called to the jury box except one person. By the time we were seated it was 4:30 p.m. and the judge let us go home early with instructions to be back by 9:30 a.m. the next day.

The next day I got to the court house with time to spare. In the lobby of the court building, a gruff female court officer who sounded like Harvey Fierstein directed foot traffic in the main entrance of the criminal court building.

I had no problems getting through security on my first day, but as I entered court on day two of jury duty they discovered the multi-tool knife in my bag, and the key tool and the handcuff key on my key ring. Those court officers on duty are sharper than the police who arrested me (twice), other court officers in every other court I’ve been to over the past 17 years, and countless TSA agents. I’d had that handcuff key on my key ring since 1998. They told me I wouldn’t be getting it back. It’s OK though. I have others (and you can pick handcuffs with a staple as well). They gave me a voucher form so I could get my knife and key tool later.

Eventually we were all gathered and jury selection resumed. The prospective jurors ran the gamut: a NYPD police detective who worked in the department’s bomb squad, a Kentucky-born actress who managed a deft exit after a private sidebar with the judge, a future law student trying to decide between the University of Virginia and Fordham University law schools, a few college students, an accountant, a music producer from Whitestone, and an elderly retired nurse, among others.

After another battery of questions from the judge and the prosecutor and defense attorneys, we were sent out of court to wait for a while until being called back in. And from these 16 last remaining from the jury pool, none of us were selected. Of the 40 or so that were called, only two had made the cut. We were sent out of the court room and a court officer told us to be back in the central jury room by 2:15 p.m.

I got my lunch at a deli and went to Maple Grove Park, a small area on the side of the court building. The small and underused park is basically a wedge between Queens Boulevard and the Van Wyck Expressway. I noticed the park from the third floor of the court building and saw only one person use the park: a homeless man sleeping on a bench. He was gone when I went there. I used a napkin and some of my water to clean away a film of green pollen so I could sit down without looking like I was sodomized by the Incredible Hulk. There was construction going on in the area around the park and construction vehicles came and went under the direction of a flag-waving hardhat worker. A few other people followed my lead and brought their lunch to the park, but it was relatively solitary.

After I was done eating, I had the chance to do something I hadn’t done in a long time: sit on a park bench and read. If nothing else, this jury duty outing gave me a half hour or more of peaceful, unconnected living of the kind we used to take for granted.

I still returned to the central jury room before 2:15. I sat and read some more as my phone charged in a corner along with other smart phones soaking up power from some inconveniently placed outlets. I kept a cautious eye on my phone while it charged and waited for some kind of announcement. I looked around for people I recognized from the panel and didn’t see any. Finally they called up people who had been to court earlier that day and gave people letters signifying that they had concluded their service. After they were given out, I and one man from my panel were left.

“What about us?” we asked the clerk.

She went back to the office and found another stack of jury ballots with two letters. “They called these at one,” she said before handing us our letters. I was one of two lucky or unlucky people who waited an extra two hours. I got to read a book outside in the nice weather and enjoy a leisurely lunch, so I regret nothing.

I made my way home in the pre-rush hour traffic but still couldn’t avoid a packed Q44 bus. I should be safe from jury duty for another four years.

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