Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Jury Duty - In All Its Glory

I was summoned as a standby juror a few months ago for jury duty and, like every honorable US citizen, I scrambled for ways to get out of it. Unfortunately, I wasn't a student, I would be in the country at the time of the summons, and again, living up to my great American standards as a citizen, I was really just too lazy to find a good enough excuse.

The true panic didn't set in until the date that I was supposed to call. The first thing that happened was that I lost my sheet. The sheet that in bold letters says you must bring this sheet with you if you are summoned. Touche. (For all you people in the south, I am not spelling the word 'touch'. My keyboard is not in French so I cannot include the dash above the 'h'.....or the 'e'.....wherever it's supposed to go). I had glanced at it when it was in my possession so I knew that if I was selected, I'd be at the Daley Center downtown.

Anyway, since I was only a standby, I figured that I'd be lucky and my name wouldn't be selected for those who had to show up and waste their day sitting around. Is it sad that jury duty elicits such anguish? Yes. But is it also true?......Yes. As luck would have it, my last name fell into the category of people that needed to show up the next day. However, I did not have my sheet that told me what time to report - was it 8:30 am? 9:00 am? 9:30 am?! Had I read my sheet correctly and was I really supposed to report to the Daley Center?! Plus, it had my juror ID number on it!! Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!

What made no sense to me was that I was supposed to wait until 4:30 pm to call in and see if I had to show up the next day, and after I called and had a million questions - like What if I happened to lose my sheet with all my information on it? -  the only people who could answer my questions stopped working at 4:30. So the office was closed when I called and I went straight to the computer to google 'lost jury duty papers'. Can you believe that through the hundreds (ok, possibly 10) of links that I read, no one had an answer about what you're supposed to do if you lose your sheet? Some people talk about blowing off jury duty entirely, some people talk about going straight to hell - wait, no, that was a Republican article - but I couldn't find anything about what to do or where to go. I even sent an email to the clerk's office, asking for this information, thinking that there had to be someone on email duty. Um. No. I began to panic and the only thing that calmed me down was that all walks of life are summoned to jury duty and there MUST be someone else out there who lost their paper and lived to tell about it. I mean, who hasn't seen the people of walmart website?

Long story short, I woke up early, went down to the Daley Center, spoke to a guy at the information booth who flat out told me that I did not need my jury duty paper, I only needed a valid driver's license......?.... Let's take a step back here. While I'll admit that losing my paper was irresponsible and idiotic, which is more so - the fact that the paper tells you that you MUST have it or the fact that you really don't need your paper at all? Had the paper simply stated - Please keep this, it really helps us to speed up the process - I may have kept it. I like to be considerate of others. Well, hindsight is 20/20. At this point, it is 8:30 am.

After I got through security, I went up to the 17th floor and there was a man collecting your jury duty sheet. I smiled sheepishly and said I didn't have mine and he told me to tell them at the counter. The woman was very nice, she gave me a new sheet, found my jury ID number through my driver's license, and told me to have a seat on the right hand side after I filled out the paperwork and she gave me a stub with a number on it. The entire process lasted maybe 5 minutes. It is now 8:38 am.

The room was not at all what I had imagined. In my mind, we would be in a giant cafeteria with loudspeakers jutting out at different angles. I would have a table to myself and be able to put my head down and sleep or have the table to write on. The room was actually like a train station waiting area. There were rows of seats facing front and seats lining the edge facing in. Many of the seats were already filled so I chose to sit in the front, facing the entire group. There were big bay windows to my left that let the light in and made you feel less trapped than you really were. I looked at the giant clock on the far wall. 8:40 am. You're not allowed to have cell phones on, and I wasn't sure about computers. I saw someone with their computer on but I wasn't sure if they had snuck past the gestapo. Actually, there was no one standing there hovering over you. We were treated like mice without the behavioral disorders.

At 9:00 am, one of the men who checked people in, came over the loudspeaker and started going over the sheet that every prospective juror was given. It talked about how we were doing our civic duty and that we would get paid $17.20 a day (I'm thinking Italy should be my next trip), and how our employers were not allowed to fire us for being there. I wasn't sure if my boss even knew I was gone. Then he went over the schedule. A number would be called and if it was your number, you had to stand up and form two single-file lines (thank GOD I went to grade school), and the bailiff would take you to your potential case room. If your number doesn't get called that day, then you've served your duty and will not be summoned for jury duty again for the next 12 months. You know, if it's such an honor to serve as a juror, shouldn't I be able to keep on serving? Oh right, right - give others a chance. There was more that was said, but I was busy watching the guy to my right pick his nose. Judging by his vigor, he didn't plan on giving others a chance to do that.

Then, the video began. Since I was facing the crowd, I had to lean forward on my knees and crane my neck to see the tv that was perched above. In the video, there were many people waving American flags and the I think the Star Spangled Banner was playing softly in the background as they went over the judicial system. It was almost like Sesame Street for adults. "This is the judge. He decides what is right and wrong". "This is the jury box. This is where you will sit and listen to the facts presented to you." They also tell you that you must wear your sticker that says Cook County Juror but only in the jury waiting area and the court room. It's a red sticker that once you peel it off your clothing, will never stick to anything ever again. If you wear it outside the court room, I guess they are suggesting you could get your ass kicked and don't want to be held liable? I will say that the video does make you feel highly important. They tell you how valuable you are, how your input and presence keeps the justice system working, and how they think you'll find the experience pleasant and rewarding.....Maybe we should skip rehab and just stick people with emotional problems in jury duty. It's got to be the best self-esteem booster!!

I tuned out the video after awhile. My self esteem was intact that day. Once the video stopped playing, the man on the loudspeaker talked about lunch and how, if you weren't picked for a case, you'd get a lunch break somewhere around 11:30. I glanced at my apple and sighed. It was 9:15.

At about 9:20, they started calling numbers. I glanced at my little red piece of paper with my number. No way I'd get - 'NUMBER 2. If you have number 2, please form two single file lines'. In horror, I stared at the paper. You'll get yours, I promise, I swore silently to the numbered sheet. I stood up, and like a prisoner on a chain gang, I shuffled along with the 15 or so other people who silently clutched their fated number in horror. The bailiff led us to an enclosed area with four elevators and told us that we'd be going up to the 21st floor and she'd meet us up there. She walked out and there was that awkward silence. Someone tried to crack a joke that wasn't funny and a few people tittered, either out of nerves or because they have a really bad sense of humor. I stared at the ground, trying not to make eye contact with anyone because that's what you do in a room full of strangers. When the elevator finally came, we crammed in, and it took us up to the 21st floor which had that small area surrounded by four elevators. We popped out of the elevator and stood in the small space, not knowing where we should go or where to look.

What amazes me about the dynamic of people is that someone always has to try and step forward and be the comedian or the person who knows it all. There was this short little Italian guy - sorry, but not a stereotype when it's true - who immediately started talking about how he'd been a part of jury duty before, and bada bing bada boom, sniff sniff ... this was a walk in the park for him. I stared at him. I doubted jury duty was rocket science, so I couldn't imagine what a run in the park would be for him.

After about 10 minutes, or what felt like 10 minutes, the bailiff came  up in the elevator with a whole 'nother group of people. She told us to form two lines and we trudged towards a courtroom around the corner. When we got there, she had our jury sheets and she sat us in a specific order. My name did not get called so I sat on the left hand side of the coutroom with the other people whose name did not get called either. There was a man sitting at one of the tables that faced the jury box, and I couldn't tell if he was a lawyer or a janitor (insert your own joke).

The judge came in shortly afterwards and all of us had to rise and then swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, etc. The judge addressed all of us and told us the details of the case that we might be chosen for. I was actually surprised, I thought they kept that information secret until the jury was selected. It was a car accident case and the judge said that he would be asking us questions from the sheet that we filled out. He wanted us to be honest and if we felt any of the questions were intrusive or we did not want to say our answers in front of everyone, we could tell him in the back behind closed doors. Thank God he wasn't a priest.

The questionning took a long time and I was actually surprised that some people gave as much detail as they did. One woman, when asked if she'd ever been a part of a lawsuit, said that she'd filed one because her husband beat her. I almost expected there to be a man playing the organ after she spoke - DUNH, DUNH, DUNNNNNNNNNNNNH. My favorite woman was this older, very conservative looking lady who said she listened to Christian music and when asked about her career, said she did charity work for the Sisters of Nazareth church (?). When asked about her hobbies, she calmly stated that she was into the church, knitting, and was an active member of the NRA. Check please! After about 30 minutes, the judge told all of us that had not been placed in a specific spot, that we could break for lunch but be back in a little over an hour.

I met my dad for lunch and talked with him about the process and how to not get picked. He said to me, "Lawyers don't want smart people on the jury. Just act really smart."

An hour and a half later, I was sobbing outside the 21st floor of the Daley Center because I was picked as a juror for that particular case.

If you want to hear more about the case and about my fellow jurors and the dynamics of the 'deliberation room', let me know and I'll write about it.

If you do get picked for jury duty, enjoy your $17.20 a day and make sure you order everything on the menu when they give you a lunch list to choose from. Revenge is sweet.