I groaned when the summons arrived. Although I take my civic participation very seriously in this less than perfect system, the prospect of missing four columns to spend two weeks on jury duty, coupled with the suspicion that I would never actually get to sit on a jury, loomed as a colossal waste of time.
The ordeal of being a juror provides first-hand experience of the judicial system's inadequacies and need for overhaul -- grist for a writer. But I wasn't sure I could find any life in that dead horse. Court officials had only recently announced plans to change the current procedures. Now, jurors serve for two weeks and are required to remain at court all day whether they are called on a case or not. Next year, jury duty will become more palatable when a new one-day or one-trial system goes into effect.
But future reform was no good to me when, on Dec. 3, I reported to D.C. Superior Court and joined several hundred other jurors in the third-floor jury lounge to be indoctrinated into the anonymity and regimen that reigns. I became "Number 94."
I had mixed emotions during the next weeks: I saw failures in the day-by-day operation of the system, like court officials underestimating the number of jurors who would be needed, prompting a shortage that inconvenienced judges and left some jurors assigned to several cases while others did little but play bid whist or watch "All My Children." While I liked some of the people I met, I despaired at seeing others, like the continual line of young, mostly poor, black men standing before judges. They were there for a variety of reasons. Some were accused of murder, assault, burglary and selling drugs. Others looked as much like victims as the people they allegedly victimized.
My jury experience began with a process that became familiar: assembling for jury selection. As the judge and lawyers questioned prospective jurors, I sized up the juror pool. It was predominantly black and it contained a surprising mix of ages, occupations, education levels and religions.
My belief that no lawyer would select me for a jury proved groundless. While they passed me by on criminal cases, I became part of a jury that listened for three days to a handful of witnesses in a damage suit brought by a Northeast couple against a large supermarket chain that allegedly reclaimed groceries they had already paid for. The couple, we felt, had unfairly lost their groceries, but had not been damaged. So, we only awarded them the cost of the groceries -- $77.50. Although I knew this case was important to the couple, when compared to those young men whose lives were at stake for serious crimes, it seemed minor.
While I secretly began to yearn for a major case, one involving some of those desperate young men, my destiny was only to be an alternate in another civil case, a negligence suit brought against the city by a woman whose son had lost the sight in one eye in a 1973 playground accident. Because I was an alternate I was dismissed from the case, but I later learned that the jury found for the city and did not award the boy a thing for his lost eyesight.
That decision showed me the unpredictability of juries, and why some rich corporations and criminal defendants are increasingly turning to the controversial practice of jury research to help lawyers select jurors favorable to their side. Sometimes a lawyer's gut reaction to a juror's apppearance and manner is wrong. Traditionally, lawyers get rid of any fat person on the grounds that a plump juror would tend to give out overly generous portions. But it was a fat juror who was vociferously against any award to the poor, one-eyed boy.
Meanwhile, I met a lot of different people: a graying high school counselor who was concerned that many jurors did not take their duty seriously; a chauffeur who told me about all of the Beltway discos, a joke-cracking gravedigger and a religious young mother who welcomed her jury duty as a "vacation" from the government job that paid her regular salary.
So, what's the verdict from this reluctant juror? Although it might sound pompous, I believe that we must take jury duty seriously if we take justice seriously. Jury service is not just a civic responsibility. It can also be an eye-opening experience.