Wednesday, February 15, 2006

My New Part-Time Job: Juror

$15 a day. Well, minus the discounted parking fee of $2.50 a day. Not bad.

I figured that, divided by the time I spent at the Hayward Courthouse -- a community which included the Hayward Police Station next door, plus the bailbondsmen and public defenders' office down the street -- I earned about $2 an hour. Not so good.

I was a juror for on-and-off two weeks at the Hayward Courthouse when The People decided to bring a case against a man who strolled into a Hayward bar and beat up his housemate about a year and a half ago.

I expected to be excused because of my prior enforcement background. Nope. I expected, at the very least, to be questioned about it. Nope. I disclosed a lot, but nothing happened. Well, the judge smiled. But that was it.

It was one of the most interesting points of my life, certainly of my retirement, serving on this jury. As several acquaintances and friends have said, you hope the jury experience confirms your faith in the system. This time it did.

Judge Brenda Harbin-Forte, an African-American judge in the Hayward courthouse, was fair, attentive and engaging. (I googled Judge Harbin-Forte, and she's 52 years old with an impressive professional history, all local within Oakland and Hayward.) She smiled all the time, and seemed quite approachable, even during the jury-selection phase. That phase seemed brutal.

There were about 6 people who asked to be excused in the first phase. She would listen to each and every one, listen to their reasons -- and I'm sure she's heard all of these reasons before -- and excused every one, save one. The one she didn't excuse was a 40's-ish woman Asian with limited English who raised her hand twice to be excused. Her excuse, her reason given not to serve, was that she was inexperienced in such matters and would have a hard time deciding any case. The judge explained to her that almost all of us were inexperienced but that we would find a way, and that reasoning would persuade her for a couple of minutes. And then she'd try again.

She was saved by The People, when the prosecuting attorney excused her. Actually, between the prosecutor and the defense attorney, most of the women randomly selected for the juror pool were set free.

But I continued to find the reasons rather interesting. A lot of entrepreneurs begged off, of course. One older African-American freely admitted he had gotten out of jury duty a full SEVEN times! And the judge stifled a laugh, and after a couple of questions, let him go while admonishing him that he might get caught one day on a trial that would take much longer than ours.

The guy next to me asked to be excused because of two reasons: there were very few in his office to do rescue work, and he had poison ivy. During a short recess, I told him that must be painful; he then lifted his long-sleeved shirt to show me the black scars on his arms, and this only a week after he contracted the poison ivy. I couldn't even imagine the layers of pain. Her Honor let him go.

So, finally, we 14 jurors (12 plus the two alternates) found ourselves together in a little room, sharing newspapers but little talk. We only began to talk during the deliberations.

But before the deliberations, we sure sat around a lot. The court was busy, as the judge had many cases to hear before we would even get into the room. Most days we'd sit in the jurors' room until about 10:45 or so, ring the bell once so they'd know we were all present -- and everyone was good about that -- then wait until we heard two rings in a row to signify we were to march into the juror box in the courtroom again. One day we didn't go in until 11:30 -- and this was because the judge had two matters to hear before we went in -- then we broke for lunch an hour later, then we didn't get back into the courtroom until 2 pm. But that was the day we heard closing arguments, then the judge's instructions, then started our deliberations -- and it was a long day.

I was totally impressed with the education level of the average juror. Most had at least a bachelor's degree, some had master's degrees, and we even had a CEO or two among us. And all of the jurors seemed to possess an uncanny ability to ferret out truth from fiction (or bullshit), or common sense.

The only discussion we had among us was mostly about definitions. What's great bodily injury? What's battery vs. assault? But that's about it. Within an hour we had our verdict. We had to stall the bailiff about ordering out for lunch because we knew we'd have a verdict within minutes.

It was a fascinating bout with the American justice system. Fascinating, interesting, compelling. I wouldn't mind spending more time with those people. We joked a lot, especially after we decided the verdict. I joked about our annual reunion, an event which will never happen, of course. And we were each eager to continue with our lives, picking up where we left off, going back to our routines.

But for one brief, shining moment, we represented American life at its best. And we were very proud to do so.

No comments: