I recently had a chance to serve as a juror on a first-degree murder trial -- I was in the pool from which the jury was selected. But right from the start, things did not go well.
I became instantly suspect to the defense lawyer as soon as I disclosed that my wife is a federal prosecutor. And I became instantly suspect to the prosecutor as soon as he saw me: I have a '60s-era mustache and '60s-era hair, giving me the look of a man who might well accept, as a murder defense, "the munchies." I think I still had the judge in my corner, though, until he asked me if I had ever written about the court system. "Well, I write humor," I said, looking up at him pleasantly, hoping that would suffice. It wouldn't. And I was under oath. ". . . So, uh, I naturally have to write about the courts from time to time."
This little operation you got here? It's a hoot! (I'm pretty sure that's how he heard it, based on how quickly he dispatched me back to my seat.)
Still, I got to sit in the courtroom for a while and watch other people be selected for the jury. The whole process is instructive. For example, when the defendant is accused of murder, serious courtroom security is desirable. But, apparently, the security cannot be too obvious, on the theory that it might prejudice the jurors against a defendant if they thought that, without supervision, he might leap from his chair and take one of them hostage with a cafeteria spork. And so there was a tough-looking guy seated behind the defendant, in a place where lawyers customarily sit. I think he was trying to look like a lawyer, because he wore a suit. But it was a shiny suit with a chest bulge, and he also wore an expression as flat as last Thursday's mug of beer. If he was a lawyer, he was a lawyer with a colorful nickname in quotation marks (e.g., "The Squid") who owns a Queens, N.Y., trash-compacting and olive-oil-importing business.
The defendant also wore a suit. Evidently, defendants are encouraged to wear suits, even when it is most likely the first suit they have ever worn, even when they look every bit as comfortable in it as a corpse in a casket. (The prospective juror seated next to me mentioned that she had once been in a courtroom where the defendant wore a real nice suit but his shoes were prison-issue cardboard slippers. Our justice system is good, not perfect.)
At one point, the judge directed a series of questions to the pool of prospective jurors, asking us to stand if our answer was: Yes. "Have you ever been a victim of a crime?" "Do you have religious problems sitting in judgment of people?" And so forth. Then, to ascertain whether anyone was insufficiently fluent in English, he asked: "Is there anybody who cannot understand me?" He asked this in English. No one stood up. If anyone did, wouldn't it be prima facie evidence of perjury?
One of the prospective jurors looked exactly like Laurence Olivier playing the evil Nazi dentist in "Marathon Man." When he got called to the bench, I half-expected him to ask the judge: "Is it zafe?" I don't know if he did because the jury cannot hear this portion of the proceedings. The judge pushes a button, and a loud, staticky noise drowns out the conversation at the bench. This is exactly like snow on a TV screen, except you have no remote and can't switch the station, and after a while you would happily trade it for any programming at all, even "Saturday Night Live" during the Joe Piscopo era.
Eventually, the jury got seated after a lengthy tug of war between the prosecutor and the defense lawyer, each of whom was exercising his "peremptory challenges." This appears to be a legal term for the defense excluding white jurors and the prosecution excluding black jurors. That's against the rules, but the judge seems never to notice, like at a pro wrestling match where the ref never notices that the bad guy's manager is hitting the good guy over the head with a chair.
The whole thing took an entire day, and when it was over, I could see pride and excitement and awe on the faces of the surviving jurors, who had triumphed in a grueling but glorious ritual as old as the republic. They remained proud and delighted and awed for a few hours, when they were disbanded. Procedural screw-up. As Emily Litella would say during a better era of SNL: Never mind.
Gene Weingarten's e-mail address is email@example.com.
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