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Friday, May 08, 2009

Avoiding jury service: a How-To Manual

For the last three days I have been deep in the woods of a fictitious place on the far side of the looking glass. We’ll call this place Sin Flernarndoo.

That’s where the courthouse is situated. It is also where most of the accused people, their families, witnesses and victims - er, alleged victims - live or used to live before they were shot or in the case of the witnesses moved to undisclosed locations. It is also where there is much graffiti art decorating walls in the neighborhood - as well as in most of the cells in the courthouse and the necks, chests, arms, backs, and some of the faces - yes, faces, cheeks, foreheads, necks, eyebrows - of some of the accused persons and their girlfriends and associates who frequently have been summoned for business there.

The citizens fortunate enough to be called for duty to form a jury of "peers" in order to satisfy the whim of the 6th Amendment of an ancient Constitution are strangers to the city of Sin Flernarndoo and to its denizens.

In the present case, 65 such people sauntered into the courtroom, thinking they were to serve their one day of jury service.

A few years ago, the state legislature sought to rectify the age old problem of obtaining willing volunteers for this civic duty. The joke used to be that a juror was defined as someone too stupid to avoid jury duty. Ignoring the request was without penalty, hardship claims were readily accepted. Juries on the more serious and lengthy cases - the kind I mostly do - consisted mostly of government employees and those of other businesses large enough to pay jurors for an "unlimited" time, retired people and – in summer – the occasional teacher or student.

That law was changed. The basis for hardship was narrowed and the pool broadened to include the "middle class". In return, jurors are promised "one day or one trial" per year.

So, if not chosen for a jury on their first day, they are done. But if chosen, they are stuck for the duration of the trial, no matter how long. This results in depressed moans when the judge informs our panel that our trial is estimated to last 2-3 weeks.

The depression deepens when the judge refuses to excuse any of the following: single mothers with small children and no day care; people who work for commission, even those who claim that their house will go into foreclosure if they can’t work.

To be chosen, jurors must of course pass muster as "fair and impartial" in the jaded eyes of District Attorney, Defense Attorneys (there are two in our case, one for each defendant), and the judge. This produces the claim of attitudes, opinions and experiences designed to so outrage decent, competent lawyers and judges that we will throw them bodily from the courthouse and back into their lives where they can tell their friends how they snookered the system.

Some examples which worked in our case, forcing the judge to excuse them for "cause": a young man wearing a deadhead tee shirt and piercings is in a rock band. "I’m the only white guy in a Mexican band," he nervously reveals. "I’m scared of retaliation by gangs. And I use a lot of drugs, too." "So do I," another young man says, leaning forward. "I been a set painter on movies for 15 years and I sniffed so many chemicals my brain is fried. I can’t make any decisions." "That’s not so bad," a third young man says. "I am homeless, on worker’s comp for an accident and I’m on pain meds."

In some instances, the jurors ask to disclose personal experiences in private. We go to the "side bar", in this case a tedious trek to a hallway behind a closed door - lawyers, judge, court reporter and her machine. I lean against the wall as one woman cries. "I’m in a psychiatrist’s care, on medication, have panic attacks, my chest is heaving." A man tearfully relates a series of tragedies: friends or relatives killed by gangsters in New Jersey. A woman’s first husband was acquitted of attempted murder and her daughter was molested by him.

Then there are the certifiable wackos. One woman lists her occupation as "psychic reader". She thinks she may have trouble believing witnesses if she senses their auras are lying. Another claims he doesn’t believe anyone should be punished for any crime because society is to blame. A woman claims to fear that the defendants may look at her and she would be afraid to vote for guilt.

Then there have been the opposite kind. They deny any bias, contrary to all logic. One man tells us that his friend’s son was murdered by gang members and police caught no one yet. So he and many retired police officer friends have done their own investigating to solve the crime. Would this make him unable to fairly judge a case in which the 2 defendants are accuse of a gang drive by attempted murder in which their bullets entered a building and narrowly missed killing a child? "No," he says with eyes wide. "I can be fair." Because he says so, the judge will not dismiss him for cause. The defense will have to ‘strike’ him, using one of the 30 challenges each side has.

Most of the rest of our panel fits the following profile: they live in Santa Clarita, an area in the north Sin Flernarndoo Valley known as the bedroom of law enforcement personnel where housing values depend on White Flight and safety from urban – i.e. Sin Flernarndoo Hispanic gang crime. They are married to, or dating, or related to, or neighbors with, or in church with, or bowl with an average of 3 police officers each. Several recognize names from a list of 20 or so LAPD officers expected to testify for the prosecution. One such witness for the DA is married to the juror’s sister. All say they would not be biased by these associations, would have no qualms about acquitting, and would judge a cop’s testimony by the same standard as anyone else.

I want to ask them: "Will you pay my malpractice insurance if I leave you on the jury?" I don’t.


  1. I cannot believe that a country supposedly in tune with technology and all things progressive would not already have PROFESSIONAL juries! When I have been called to serve, the "peers" were from a pool of people who I would never deem my "peers". Professional juries have been used in other countries for a long time. They are on a salary, are available, can read and write, and follow a line of reasoning to its logical conclusion. This method does not remove people from their every day responsibilities. The jury pool in this country by and large does NOT want to be in there, and will do whatever it takes to get it over with. How can this result in a fair and impartial trial?