I’ve been summoned to jury duty many times, but in the past I always got out of it, usually because I was a student at Berkeley and couldn’t serve in Pleasanton. The one time I did call in all week, they never actually called me to the courthouse. Last week I had to report for service for the first time.
I arrive at the courthouse and wait outside the jury room. Among the other people waiting is a girl listening to a CD Walkman—a CD player, how quaint—who looks like she’s about to cry. There is also an old man with Velcro shoes and one of those newsboy caps that only old men and girl pop singers wear. Everybody gets called into a room, and I start to follow, and then I realize it’s a courtroom. I’m in the wrong place. I check the jury room sign again and realize I’m supposed to enter. The people waiting outside had thrown me off. The old man looks confused too. We both enter the jury room.
The jury room is hot and stuffy. George Lopez is on Good Morning America promoting The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl in 3-D. The jury room clerk explains that we will have to bear with her, since she is the sole person running what used to be a two-person office. To dissuade people from trying to argue their way out of jury duty, she explains that everyone has to do jury duty, even judges.
A little later, a judge comes by to reinforce this point. Seriously, folks, stop complaining. We're not going to let you go. This is because jury service now is "one day," which means, assuming you don't get picked for a trial, you only have to come hang around the courthouse for one day. As opposed to in the past, when you had to hang around for ten days, and before that, thirty days (insanity!). On the downside, now you get called more often and being a doctor or teacher or student won't get you off. Seems fair.
We watch an intro video in which former jurors wax poetic about their jury service. The video also explains the principles of a trial by jury, in case we’re completely unfamiliar with the concept. The video plays as though it were made for very slow children. It opens with a narrator proclaiming California, unequivocally, “the greatest state in the Union.” In your face, New York and Texas! The narrator explains that the rich tapestry of California is normally a thing of beauty—“harmony, even.” That is, except when something goes wrong, and the justice system springs into action.
One former juror, a young Asian-American woman, explains her initial trepidation, having perhaps confused jury duty with, I don’t know, skydiving or lion taming: “I was afraid. I didn’t know what I was getting into.” But she soon sets our mind at ease, confiding, “I brought a book. It wasn’t bad at all,” in an oddly somber, contrite tone of voice, akin to an abused housewife guiltily blaming herself for her black eye.
The fake trial in the video dismisses juror number six after the juror admits to working in the pharmaceutical industry. The video warns us not to take our sweet release from forced service personally—it simply means you weren’t right for that particular trial. An audible chuckle from the crowd.
Did you know you don’t need any special training to serve on a jury? I do now. You’re also not allowed to go to the scene of the crime or perform independent investigations. A video juror tells us that the deliberation was his “favorite part.” It was a touching experience, and many jurors choose to keep in touch after the trial. The deliberation-loving juror says the experience made him feel good about himself. He felt he had done his part and put some common sense in the jury’s mind. I start hoping to be selected—perhaps I, too, will have a chance to make a difference by setting the other eleven idiots straight.
The video ends with that line about justice of the people, by the people, and for the people, and a shot of the blindfolded Justice statue.
There are two trials coming up—a civil case and a criminal case. As we wait to hear more, George Lopez promotes Sharkboy and Lavagirl again, this time on The View. I imagine him running from studio to studio in the time we've been sitting in the jury room.
The civil case settles, but the criminal case, a murder trial, needs a big jury pool to choose from. They call seventy people, almost everyone in the room. I am among them.
NEXT: Jury selection!