Swimming in the Jury Pool

by MISSY BEATTIE

“Bet you’re glad you’re in here today instead of court,“ he said, smiling. I braked in front of the Bucheron, not recognizing him immediately. When I’d seen him at the courthouse, he was wearing jeans. At the grocery, he was business attired.

I told him I was prepared to tell the judge and attorneys that I have no confidence in the justice system.  And then I said,  “But it’s an interesting case, and I wouldn’t have objected to sitting on that jury.”

We talked for at least 20 minutes.  About the civil case. His perspective. Mine. We weren’t told much, in court—just that the plaintiff, a young man, was suing Kennedy Krieger Institute for lead-paint damage.

I’ve never gotten as far as I did last week—you know, a decider of a litigant’s future. A little over a year ago, when I received a summons, I wrote a lengthy statement about why I should be exempted—that I was convicted of trespassing at the US Mission to the United Nations in 2006 (jury trial), that witnesses lied, and that I would side with the defendant almost always. Thought that would be the end of it. Silly me. The next correspondence was notification to be at the Clarence M. Mitchell, Jr. Courthouse at 8:00, where I sat all day in a room without being called for a trial.

This time, I was seated in that same room, watching a video, waiting. An actor said something like: “With the exception of voting, jury service is the most important responsibility.”  I thought about turning to the person next to me to declare that jury duty, like voting, is participating in corruption. But the woman behind the desk spoke into the microphone, announcing that jurors with numbers between 6,000 and I can’t remember what (mine was 6,143) should go to another building.

During this walk, I was thinking about my new protest tactic—asking random people: “Do you know who Bradley Manning is?” And: “Have you heard about the Fallujah massacre?’ That it would be interesting to voir dire the judge and attorneys.

But there I sat, staring at a young man and his attorneys.  At the respondent’s attorneys.  The judge. But mostly at the young man.  Then the judge provided a little information about this civil case before he instructed the group. He said he’d ask a question and if any of us answered in the affirmative, he wanted each to stand and state our juror number.

“Are you or any member of your family in the medical profession?”

I stood. “Number 6,143.”

“Are your or any member of your family in the legal profession?”

I stood.  Again, I said that I was “juror number 6,143.”

“Have you or any member of your family worked for a landlord?”

“Have your or any member of your family owned rental property?”

“Have you or any member of your family worked for an insurance company?”

“Have you or any member of your family sued for lead-paint damages?”

“Have your or any member of your family sued for any health damages?

“Do you believe a witness would ever lie under oath?”

I was up and down, and I hesitated when the judge asked if the plaintiff’s race would affect judgment. I thought about standing, knowing that the term “white privilege” would be unnecessary if we lived in a just society.

On and on the questions continued. And this wasn’t even voir dire.

Finally, it was.

The judge asked juror number 6,000 to approach. The lawyers huddled, talking with the juror and the judge.

I sat, watching the young plaintiff.  Then, looking at the respondent’s attorneys, the suits, representing Big Business.  I will tell you that without hearing a smidge of evidence (this, after all, was not the trial), I had formed an opinion.  Had someone told me about the case before I arrived, I would have formed an opinion.

The judge proceeded, calling number after number. He stopped with juror 6,139.

When we were dismissed, I asked one of the plaintiff’s attorneys for her card. “I’d like to call you in three weeks (yes, this was going to take a while) to learn the outcome.”

I told the man at the grocery I’d done this. He revealed that he worked for a company that rented low-income property.

“I couldn’t have served, conflict of interest, “ he said. Told me he’d have sided with the respondent.  Then he said, “And the plaintiff’s attorneys would have loved you.”

Missy Beattie can be reached at missybeat@gmail.com.

 

 

Missy Beattie has written for National Public Radio and Nashville Life Magazine. She was an instructor of memoirs writing at Johns Hopkins’ Osher Lifelong Learning Institute in BaltimoreEmail: missybeat@gmail.com

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