Free-Floating Hostility

Tuesday, January 24, 2006


A Fly is Scraped from the Windshield of Justice

Today I was summoned for jury duty, and my conscience is still strong enough that I answered the call, even though it meant I had to miss my History of Epidemiology seminar with the sweetest man in the field, MD, MPH. I was late (thank you, Amtrak), and as I prepared to race across the crosswalk to the courthouse I was barked at by a uniformed man to stand back as they were transporting prisoners. I looked up, and there were about six guys ankle-cuffed to each other wearing honest-to-goodness striped suits. I was surprised that county prisoners needed such steep security, but what the hell do I know. They shuffled off and I made it just in time to miss a detailed rundown of courthouse parking.

My first observation was that I had found the one corner of Northern California in which people are really quite grumpy. Jurors, defendants, lawyers, security personnel were all in pissy moods. After some waiting the bailiff came for us and led us to the courtroom, which was clean, not too ugly and a reasonable temperature. The two attorneys were there, as was the defendant, though it took me a few minutes to cop on to the fact that he wasn’t just another lawyer, cause that’s how he was dressed of course. The clerk introduced herself and asked which of us needed the hearing aid, which, honestly, was a really stupid way to find out who needs a hearing aid. She made a phone call and then called to the deaf man by name. “Would you like a hearing aid, Mr. M___!” she bellowed. “I’m a little hard of hearing!” he bellowed back. She gave him the hearing aid.

We were sworn in, and then the judge appeared. He cracked a few jokes to warm up the crowd and I decided I liked him, especially when he said that this would be about a two-day trial, but couldn’t possibly go longer than four days because he was going to the Bahamas on Monday. I took an immediate dislike to the defendant, which is what made it so ironic that I was ultimately booted by the prosecutor. When he was introduced as Johnny S., he made a little combination wave and eyebrow raise as if to say, “This is such a waste of time.” He was accused of two counts, one of possessing a sawed-off shotgun, and one of threatening “grievous bodily harm” to his baby mama. I felt sorry for the Defense attorney, who was not far off my own age, and seemed like this could actually be his first case, maybe his third. The DA was thoroughly smug, making a big show of his efficiency, slapping his binder open and manipulating a forest of post-its on the jury chart.

At this point those who wanted to plead hardship were asked to raise their hands and the rest of us were recessed. By now I had decided I wanted to be on this jury, so I left. On my way out, Deaf Mr. M___ yelled, “What’s going on?”
“Could you hear?” asked the somewhat embarrassed guy next to him.
As a notorious buttinsky that was my cue to intervene. “If you have a hardship!” I roared, “You should stay here!”
“Hardship?” he asked.
“Hard! Ship!”
“I’m hard of hearing!” he explained.
“I see! I think you should stay!” I had been out the door less than a minute when I saw him leaving the courthouse.

After a forty-five minute break we returned and the first twelve jurors were selected. The judge explained some stuff, asked them questions like whether they have law enforcement officers in their families and then gave the lawyers a chance to do the same. After about three or four jurors had been excused I was called. It’s kind of funny to realize there’s a real transcript in existence somewhere, but here’s my best recollection of it.

Judge: Ms. Cash have you heard the questions I and the defense and the district attorney have asked the other jurors?
Me: I have.
Judge: If those questions were asked of you would you answer the same or similar?
Me: I would.
Judge: Ms. Cash, would you please state the information on the chart over there.
Me: Actually, Cash is my maiden name, and I’ve changed it [chuckling in the courtroom]. My name is now Anna Mirer, that’s M-I-R-E-R. I live in Davis, I’m a graduate student in Public Health at UC Berkeley, my husband is a sportswriter, I have no children and I’ve never served on a jury.
Judge: Do you know of any reason why you cannot be fair and impartial in hearing the facts of this case?
Me: No.
Judge: Okay, then, voir dire is to the defense.
Defense Counsel: Ms.—um--Mhyrr, what are you in graduate school for?
Me: Public Health. I’m pursuing a Master’s Degree in Epidemiology and Biostatistics.
Defense Counsel: Mm-hmm. [Note: this is in fact the most common response to that information]. Do you belong to any organizations advocating for or against gun control?
Me: No.
[Some stuff happened here, but it was boring.]
District Attorney: Ms. Mirer, what are you planning to do once you get your degree?
Me: Um, well, assuming I don’t go for another degree which is actually what most people do in my program, I might work in like a county health department or state or something in research or—
District Attorney: Right. [Note: this is the most common response to my rambling about career plans] You have no opinion on guns?
Me: I wouldn’t say I have no opinion, but I think I can be impartial.
DA: Do you think, given that sawed-off shotguns are illegal, it should be illegal to have one.
Me: Yes.
DA: You want to say more.
Me: It’s just that coming from Public Health I’m aware that firearms in concentrated urban areas pose a public health threat, but I’m not personally comfortable with the idea of banning all guns.
DA: Hmm.

Anyway, to summarize, I believe this was the comment that got me thrown out. It was the defense’s turn to throw out the next juror, and he picked a woman whose husband was a retired highway patrolman and whose son had been convicted of battery (specifically hammering someone’s head). After the next juror was questioned, it was the DA’s turn to excuse someone and it took him fractions of a second to say, “I would ask the court to thank and excuse Ms. Mirer. Formerly Ms. Cash.” Smirk smirk.

In the hallway the cop’s wife and I did the I’m-okay-you’re-okay. We were both a little hurt to have been rejected. She apparently gets called every six months or so, but never gets chosen because either the defense objects to her law-enforcement husband or the prosecution objects to her criminal son, so she never gets credit and always gets called. She was very nice. As we were kibitzing, we watched as other rejected jurors made their way out. I am fairly sure the defense was trying to weed out Latino jurors because the victim was Latina and the accused was Black. I can’t prove it, but he did excuse two jurors who had said, literally, nothing more than to state their names and demographic information. In the meantime, someone who described his occupation as a Professional Witness and someone who said he might be biased because he’s an “avid hunter” were still sitting on the jury when the nice lady and I left. Hmph. All that because the DA didn’t like the look of me, or cause I talked too much about gun control, or didn’t think to give a nice zippy answer to my future plans like “disease research, sir.” Well, it’s all done now and I wish Johnny luck if he’s not guilty, which I suspect he totally is, although in fact I would have striven not to let that color my decision. I don’t think lawyers actually want critical thinkers on the jury, and it’s got me blue, bluer than I was when I found a jury summons in the mail.

5 Comment(s):

Post a Comment