Hours and hours of doing nothing. Boring beyond a reasonable doubt.
At the courthouse by 8:45 a.m. each day. Same large coffee and puny sweet roll from the same canteen. Sign yourself in. Read the paper. Read a book. Reread the paper. Reread the book.
Only once in a great while do you get to do what the government pays you $20 a day to do: be a juror.
For 10 days last month, at D.C. Superior Court, this was the life I led.
It was not without moments of activity. I served on one jury, on a case that seemed simple, proved difficult, and ultimately took more than five hours to resolve.
Otherwise, there was frustration. One juror started an argument with another who refused to turn down the sound accompanying a TV soap opera.
And humor: The juror who was fined $50 for falling asleep during the judge's instructions. The cleaning of a long-clogged courthouse water fountain spurted black grunge all over the first-floor hallway.
And love: Two jurors who met during a game of jury-lounge whist were soon seen going to lunch together every day and whispering in a corner.
And hate: One prospective juror in a case involving a damage suit against the Macke Company admitted he once lost $15 in one of its machines and feel slike kicking in every vending machine he sees. (He was excused).
There were absurd cases: Man tries to buy farecard in Metro station. Farecard machine eats dollar bill. Repairman celled. Altercation erupts. Curiously, man punches repairman instead of farecard machine, thus getting charged with assault.
And there were trivial cases: One young men was charged with selling four barbiturate capsules to a police undercover woman.
There was pathos: One young defendant began to cry just as his trial began, forcing the judge to postpone it.
And there was bigotry: One defense attroney could be heard whispering to a judge at the bench that he wanted "no young black folks" on that case. DAY ONE
A rainy and blowly Monday morning. We're all strangers, packed into five rooms on the third floor of the Pension Building, 440 G St. NW. The building was a horse stable in the 1880s: there are those who believe its role has not changed.
On jury panel was called to a faraway courtroom in the morning. But I was not among them. Two more panels called in the afternoon. I was still left out. Final insult: 50 of the 250 in our group sent home in hour early for lack of work. I was not among them.
I bought a junk novel on the way home and drank three scothces as I listened to Howard Cosell. He was once a lawyer. Maybe he was also once a juror,and got smart. DAY TWO
The same kind of morning, but the novel had lots of lust in it, so I was diverted.
I was finally called to a panel in the afternoon. Two young men accused of assaulting a third when an exchange of money for drugs does not go smoothly. Amazingly, I got on the Jury. For about 45 minutes.
The jurors were asked to wait in the hall. After 44 minutes, marshals led two defendants past us in handcuffs. "Have a good day, peoples," said one of them derisively. Then we were called in to hear officially that the defendants had just pleaded guilty to a lesser charge! No more need for a jury. DAY THREE
Go used to a spiel used when a panel of jurors: "May I have your attention, please?" said the voice over the loudspeaker. Then it courteously instructed you whether this panel would be gathering inside or outside the Pension Building (so you know whether you need a coat). Then it droned names. But it doesn't drone mine all day.
I called friends I haven't called in years, from a phone booth in which neither the fan nor the light worked. I bought more styrofoam cups of coffee, 3 ounces for 22 cents> and flirted with some of more provocative fellow inmates. And I paced the floor a lot. DAY FOUR
I took in all comers at Scrabble and won five in a row. Used all my letters eight times. And, glory be, I also got called to acase.
It was the farecard assault case. I was apparently seated among the final 12. And then I was asked to step down. This is called a "peremptory challenge." Neither attorney had to give a reason for not wanting me, and nither did. DAY FIVE
Called twice more. Disempaneled twice more. All the restaruants in the world to choose for lunch, but I chose the green-walled GAO cafeteria across the street. Surest sign yet that I was losing my mind. DAY SIX
Called on two more panels. Each time, I was the first to be rejected. Fellow jurors knew I was the only one among us not seated on a jury yet. They rooted for me.
But it will take more than that. The prosecutor in today's second case asked me at the bench whether I had ever covered a police or court case during my news career.
"Is there a reporter who hasn't?" I replied. He grinned and then asked that I be stricken as a juror. DAY SEVEN
A woman wandered up as I studied the movie listings in the paper. She wanted to know if juries are always as emotional as the one on whcih she has just finished sitting. She wanted to know if there is always so much screaming during deliberations. She says she felt coerced.
I suggested she talk to the chief judge. She marched off to his chambers. Later, I asked what he told her. "He said. "How in the world would I know?" she reported. DAY EIGHT
By now stupefied, fresh out of suits I haven't already worn, I hardly believed it when I was not asked to step down from the morning's panel. I was sworn in.
The charge was assault with a deadly weapon. The young, male defendant had stabbed his stepfather in the back several times with a butcher knife. It seemed very simple.
Except that the stabbing occurred just after the stepfather socked his common-law wife, the defendant's mother, in the jaw. And the stabbing was apparently an attempt by the defendant to rescue his brother, who challenged the stepfather to a fist-fight immediately after the stepfather struck the wife.
All day, we listened to the principals, the police, other witnesses. I went home confused, yet exhilarated. I drank orange juice, not scotch. And I thought. DAY NINE
We got the case early in the afternoon. We were nine men and three women, nine blacks and three whites, people in our 20s and people in our 60s. My spine tingled as the marshal closed the jury room door.
They elected me foreman simply because I sat at the head of the table. I immediately asked if the panel felt we should vote. Everyone wanted to talk first. All at once. Five debates proceeded simultaneously. We couldn't agree on a thing. To get things a little more focused, I passed a note to the marshal, asking to see the evidence - one butcher knife and one very bloody Army fatigue shirt.
Then we started rolling. There had clearly been an assutl ( the defendant admitted the stabbing on the stand). There was clearly intent. But did the defendant use undue force? Was the brother in danger of being killed by the stepfather at the time the stabbing took place? Would we also have grabbed a knife from the kitchen and slashed away if we had been in the same circumstances"
By 5:30 p.m., a young man and a middle-aged woman still insisted that the defendant was innocent. Both felt that when a man beats up a woman, any retribution is understandable, if not justifiable.
Over the next half-hour, other jurors worked them around tothe opposite view. At the stroke of 6 p.m., it looked as if we had a verdict.
The marshall opened the door and said the judge wanted tosend us home and resume on Monday. We asked him to wait.
But when we took another vote, a woman who had previously voted guilty said she was not sure. We adjourned until Monday. DAY TEN
At 9 p.m. sharp, we reconvened. By 9:01 it was over.
The holdout said she had changed her mind. There were simply too many ways the defendant could have broken up the fight without stabbing his stepfather. So we had a verdict.
Back in the courtroom, I was asked to stand. The defendant glared hard at me when I said we had reached a verdict. How do you find? "Guilty as charged."
He was still glaring. His attorney slumped visibly. The judge thanked us. And then we smoked cigarettes in the hall, feeling a special sort of release.
Back in the jury lounge, we were greeted like returning soldiers. We debated the case around the coffee cart for a few more minutes. And then we killed the rest of the day waiting for another case that never came.
"We hope you'll come back and see us in four years at our new courthouse," said the voice on the loud-speaker, as it dismissed and thanked us. It felt like the end of study hall in junior high school. People whooped and sprinted for the stairway.
As I rode the escalator down to the Metro subway, it felt good to be free.