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Tuesday, May 15, 2007

... Waiting ...

You know those studies that reveal how much of our lives we spend at a particular task? If you sleep an average of 8 hours a day and live to age 75, you will have spent 25 years asleep. Add in the time spent on the freeway, bathing, shaving, urinating, and you actually have precious little time left to solve the problems of the world — unless you can multi-task.

I’ve never been very good at multi-tasking, not when it comes to my trial work. When I am in trial, I need to concentrate on the dozens — or in capital cases, hundreds, — of decisions that seem to be so crucial to the task. I can’t focus very well on other, less critical things, like my other cases, or personal chores such as defrosting dinner in the morning or calling for dental appointments.

Yet, I have spent a huge chunk of my life in courthouses simply waiting, rather than practicing law. Here’s a typical example. Judge orders me to be in court at 10 A.M. to begin the jury selection. I arrive promptly, wait until 11 A.M. while the judge clears his calendar of other cases. After a brief discussion about the trial, the judge recesses until 1:30 P.M., when 70 jurors will arrive.

At 1:30, I arrive promptly, wait until the panel gathers, is counted and we finally begin at 2 P.M. At 3, the judge calls a 15 minute recess, but doesn’t resume until 3:30 because of one more calendar matter to clear. At 4 P.M., we break for the day. Checking the next day’s calendar, the judge orders us back for 10 A.M.

I’m there at 10 and wait until 11 to begin. And so it goes.

Waiting is endemic to the system because there are so many moving parts that must come together before it can begin to grind. Defendants are shuttled from jails (either in central L.A. or Valencia) to courthouse and to holding cells. Each morning and afternoon, long security lines delay witnesses, lawyers, jurors from entering the courthouse. Lawyers on both sides have other courts to go to. You need back up bailiffs, a court reporter, a language interpreter, a clerk, and a judge who may have meetings or phone calls to attend.

Over the years, I’ve seen many lawyers efficiently deal with the waiting. Some read other files, some read case reports. As a public defender, I was amused by the private lawyers at the pay phones all day, with their pockets full of coins and scribbled note pads. Now, cell phones, PDA’s, and laptops occupy them. They wait outside of courtrooms mumbling like hallucinatory escapees, hearing imaginary bluetooth voices.

Some still read the daily newspaper, some do the crossword puzzle. A few doze off while sitting in the court waiting for their case to be called. Some keep sleeping during the trial.

I can’t do any of that. I just wait. And think, ruminate, worry. I do mental “what ifs” about my trial, pre-experiencing every eventuality, imagining all the bad things that may occur during the trial. It is fatiguing and gets worse as I get older. My long experience has fueled my imagination, because I can foresee more bad things happening than I used to, and I have less energy and even less patience with the foreseeable wastefulness of the process.

I can see all too clearly how the jurors will answer questions, what the DA will argue, how the judge will rule. I foresee the futility of my efforts and the prospect of “going through the motions” — a phrase which seems perfectly suited to this process — is daunting.

I am like an old man who has walked miles through the desert, standing at the foot of a steep mountain, gathering all the energy left to make one more trek. Waiting. Until I can finally rest.

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