"YOU HAVE been selected as a prospective juror to sit in a criminal case which is scheduled to start in early June," says the Pre-Screening Jury Questionnaire that arrives in the mail in early May. "The court may require the jurors in this case to be sequestered . . . ."

I've lived in Washington 24 years and this is the first time I'm called for federal jury service. And it's the Barry trial.

In the next six weeks, I'll meet many people to whom I'd gladly trust my own fate, and some that I would not. I'll discover how people weigh the burdens of jury service against their civic obligations and the chance to make history. And I'll learn how right my friend Jim the trial lawyer is when he says that the system operates for the convenience of the court, not the jury.

Ours was in most ways a typical federal jury panel: names chosen at random from voter and driver registration rolls; minimum service two weeks. In other ways it was typical only of the big cases. There were 250 of us, compared to 40 on a normal federal panel. We'd be winnowed three ways: through the mailed questionnaire ascertaining whether we could be sequestered; through another 25-page, 69-question questionnaire filled out under oath in the courtroom; and through in-the-witness-box interviews. Finally, 18 jurors would be chosen and the six alternates among them would not learn who they are till arguments ended and the case went to the jury. Monday, June 4: You couldn't have asked for a better day to walk the mile or so from Stanton Park to the courthouse at 3rd and Constitution. By 8:30 the first wave of prospective jurors is beginning to report in to the fourth-floor jurors' lounge. Outside, cameras crews in loud shorts and louder shirts strew the space between sidewalk and courthouse doors with blankets, thermoses, webbed aluminum chairs and the ubiquitous black umbilical cords that disappear into the backs of vans.

If the ambience of the Superior Court juror lounge is like a Trailways station, only cleaner, the U.S. District Court's is more like an oversized Holiday Inn lobby, only quieter. Upholstered tuxedo arm chairs are grouped around low oak coffee tables. Along one wall, a recessed enclosure holds a Mr. Coffee setup and a refrigerator stocked with juice. On the opposite wall, a door leads to a TV room. Within a day or two the soaps-watchers will know their places in the roll call well enough to be able to anticipate when to pop their heads out the door and call "Present." Whist partnerships form quickly around tables in the smoking section. Men with briefcases commandeer the two phones at either end of the room. Readers read. Sitters sit.

"They also serve who only sit and wait" reads a framed piece of calligraphy on the wall. And after 90 minutes of just that, the first wave of 125 panelists is led down two flights to Courtroom No. 2. D.C. Mayor Marion Barry, his two lawyers and the prosecution team are already seated. Each of us stands when his name is called, and Barry scrutinizes us as if memorizing the faces.

We are sworn to tell the truth, not read press coverage of the case or discuss it with anyone, and are handed 25-page questionnaires.(What precisely do you do in your job? Any drug use or alcoholism in your family? How do you feel about sting operations? What is your party? Voting record? What TV/radio stations and newscasts do you listen to? What newspapers and magazines do you frequently read? Have you attended any rallies or other events to support Marion Barry? Made any contributions? Ever been the victim of prejudice? What do you think of police?) Those with last names beginning A-C are to return the next day. The rest of us are to call a phone number nightly for next-day instructions. We are led out of the courtroom in small groups and taken on a back-corridor route "to avoid the media."

Wednesday, June 13. Of the original 250 in the jury pool, 146 will be interviewed by the end of this week; 82 will qualify for the final selection. Shortly after 10, I become one of 10 people waiting to be interviewed in the room where the Barry jurors will eventually decide the case -- a cramped, windowless rectangle barely big enough to contain an undistinguished dark wooden table and a dozen or so dark wooden chairs. On the wall next to a small recessed drinking fountain is a sign that says "Smoking section." Tiny restrooms lead off the other wall. Eight or 10 wire coat-hangers dangle from a rod. There's an empty water pitcher and plastic salt and pepper shakers on the table. Ten of us sit there in total silence. I can't stand it and try to get a conversation going. After a few attempts I give up and pick up my book.

Every 20 minutes or so, when the marshal comes in to take one of us into the courtroom, everyone checks the clock. There's mumbling if anyone's gone less than five or more than 25 minutes. The silence continues, broken only by exceedingly loud flushes of the toilets. I begin to wonder what I can do to stay alert enough not to appear a total dummy on the stand.

After the lunch break, the makeup of the group changes. Some are talkers, thank goodness. Eventually one of the men wonders out loud who wrote the questionnaire. It is written "too high," he says. "If they wanted people like me they should have written it for people like me." He doesn't know why he's here and he wishes he knew what he could do to get off. The three card players at the other end of the table agree and begin to speculate. Admitting bias seems to be the ticket. A young woman wonders what she could do; she has a small child at home.

The man in the red Snap-On Tools jacket does not look up from his paperback. An elegant, distinguished-looking gentleman -- who will later be excused after less than five minutes on the stand -- balances his briefcase on his lap and says nothing. Another man leans on his cane. I'm the third one called. I step out one door, through another and find myself in a swivel chair with a microphone thrusting toward my mouth, facing the defense table. I'm vaguely aware of an audience out there beyond my range of vision. I turn my swivel chair to the left to face the judge who asks the first questions, including, "What have you read about the case and what's your opinion?" The judge looks as if I'm the 123rd person of whom he has asked some of these questions.

Barry looks slimmer and fitter than he does on TV. He also looks as if he's mentally somewhere else. (Later that day he will appear on television to announce he will not run again.) Defense attorney R. Kenneth Mundy, however, appears fresh, in charge, totally absorbed and interested in what I have to say. He leads into a question by noting that I work for The Washington Post. There are titters. He points out that when I summarized what I knew about the case, I made a factual error. (I said the mayor was accused of having lied to the grand jury about his cocaine use). Mundy explained the mayor was accused of having lied about Charles Lewis's cocaine use. Did I get my misinformation from reading The Washington Post? I take personal responsibility, but I'm not sure it is heard over the guffaws.

After the interview, which takes perhaps 20 minutes, a marshal escorts me to an elevator. When the doors open, there is a reporter from The Washington Times asking how to spell my name and what I do at The Post. I could see the headline: "Jury Panelist From Post Gets Her Facts Wrong." Fortunately, hizzoner's withdrawal from the race upstaged me and my misinformation didn't end up as fill for a slow news day.

Although the news media knew by 5 p.m. Wednesday that I had not been excused for cause, the jury lounge personnel did not get the news until late the next morning. Come back Friday at 10, I was told. Why? In case the judge has any additional questions. But we were never briefed on what serving might entail, what the jury-selection schedule was, or what would become of the 18 who would finally be sent home in the company of a U.S. marshal to pack their bags and leave their real lives behind indefinitely. (No wonder so many of us admitted to turning to the news for this information while scrupulously avoiding all other news reports about the case.)

Friday, June 15. We cannot talk about the only thing we have in common: this case. So we concentrate on minutiae and talk in fits and starts: How will you get your clothes clean if you're sequestered? Do you suppose they'll let us send our stuff out? Someone asks a marshal what sequestering will be like. He says you get plenty of good food; she gets that at home, she says. Will I be able to call my kids at night, someone wonders? Will they let my office send over work so I can do my job at night, someone else would like to know. People who live alone start making "what-if" lists. How will I get my paycheck to the bank? Pay my bills?

I overhear a woman say that a little boy she'd talked to couldn't understand why she had to go to court if no one had come to lock her up. Another woman hesitantly noted that the hand in her lap had shaken throughout her interview. Another admitted to a thumb twitch. A couple of men seemed to take great pride in saying they'd said as little as they could on the stand. Only one of us admitted to sleeping well.

And there were the rumors: A couple of jurors suffered on the stand for answers they'd given on their questionnaires. One had a slight twitch when she started and ended with her whole body shaking. Another had written that she didn't know anyone involved in the case but was said to be the girlfriend of one of the mayor's bodyguards. And so on, until we were dismissed at 3:30.

Monday, June 18. This is it: Jury-selection day. You reconsider the odds: With 82 of us left, they've gone from 20 to 1 to 4.5 to 1. Without consciously realizing it, I've begun to make a just-in-case segue from being an uninvolved consumer of Barry news to a disinterested observer and possible participant. Our numbers are reshuffled and I am number 22 in the new order, sitting in a group I've not talked with before.

One woman is worried about having to board her cats. Others wonder about their place in the new lineup. Someone gets on the microphone to remind us we're not to talk about the case. Shortly after 9 a.m., the first 15 on the list are sent out a side door in the company of a marshal. A few minutes later 16 more, I among them, follow -- into a freight elevator, then a corridor, then another jury room, and at last into the back of the courtroom. From this perspective the witness box looks benign and much less intimidating than when you're sitting in it. The first set of 18 people are seated in the jury box, and the preemptory "strikes" begin. The defense rises and says "Number 4." The clerk intones "Number 4 is excused." The next person on the list walks over and takes that seat. The shuffling continues until, at last, I take chair number 8.

Six weeks of anxiety ends in 20 seconds. Mundy stands and says "Number 8."

I join the other rejects in the jury room. Finally we are gathered up, moved back to the fourth-floor lounge and officially dismissed from the case and jury service for the next two years. I am a private citizen again. Walking out, I talk with two other panel members I'd not met until today. Mary Gay, the first to enter the jury box, had left it with mixed feelings -- relieved but disappointed as well. As a third or fourth-generation Washingtonian, she had always wanted to do something for her city but had never found an opportunity. She would have considered serving an honor as well as an opportunity to have followed in the footsteps of her father and grandfather who, she felt, would have been proud of her.

I hope Patricia found someone to take care of her cats. And I hope Debra's child will be okay without Mom for awhile. I'm glad Toby will not miss her son's return from college. I'm pleased that the little boy who thought you only go to court when they come and lock you up had an opportunity to learn otherwise. I'm sorry Mary Gay didn't get to make her ancestors proud. And I'm more than a little disappointed I didn't get to help decide this case.