Trial by jury duty

I do my civic duty...kind of...

It’s a Monday morning and I have to be at the downtown county courthouse by 8AM; I’ve received a summons for jury duty.

I set an alarm and realize I haven’t had to do that since I got laid off at the Kansas City Star a couple years ago. Say what you will about semi-retirement (it’s “semi” because I work as much as ever and just get paid less), but getting up whenever I feel like it is one of the few benefits of my current lifestyle and I’ve enjoyed it pretty much every damn day.

Parking downtown is a nightmare so it’s either ride a bus or Uber and as much as I enjoy commuting with a bunch of possible mental institution escapees and stopping every two blocks while praying someone with enough B.O. to bring a water buffalo to its knees doesn’t sit next to me, it’s raining so I’m not standing at a bus stop.

Uber it is.

The Uber dude is nice enough, but I live directly south of downtown with several main roads available and after 38 years of commuting to the Star I can tell you the best way to get downtown is not heading due East…which is what the disembodied voice on the Uber dude’s GPS tells him to do.

After a few instructions that would make sense if we were headed to St. Louis, I suggest an alternative route and that’s what we take.

The county courthouse

After getting through the metal detector I’m directed to the third floor, but told that while there are six elevators, four of them aren’t working and I’ll probably be better off taking the stairs.

The county is getting right on repairing those elevators and expect them to be usable in a year or so. The same government body that might send you to prison for life has trouble fixing elevators.

Not a good sign.

I’m also warned that there are mezzanines between each floor so reaching the third floor will take about six floors of climbing. The jury duty room is filling up with a bunch of grumpy-ass people who don’t want to be there, so I fit right in.

There’s coffee available, but at my age I need to use the bathroom about every fifteen minutes so I don’t want to put any more liquid than necessary in my system because I don’t know how they’re going to feel about stopping a trial so I can use the head.

I never saw that happen on Perry Mason.

Things finally get started when a very nice lady gets on a microphone and tells us just how much they appreciate our service and then informs us we will all be receiving a check for $6 which is what they pay prospective jurors for showing up.

They also offer $8 for parking and seven cents a mile and if you’re lucky enough to be selected to serve on a jury you will then get $18 a day. Lunch is not included.

So now we know exactly how much they appreciate our service.

The video

We then get to watch a video about jury duty starring George Brett and some woman I’ve seen on local TV and a bunch of local “celebrities” who tell us just how incredibly awesome serving on a jury will turn out to be and we should consider the opportunity a privilege.

But the video’s message is lost on me because I’m totally distracted by George Brett’s shirt.  

It’s a blue polo and it appears to have come straight out of the package – creases down the front, no ironing – so I’m wondering what George showed up wearing that convinced someone to run out to the closest department store and buy him a different shirt for the video.

If I see George at spring training, I’ll ask.

Lucky number 13

They announce the first trial of the day – a criminal case – and say they need 65 potential jurors which seems excessive because only 12 will serve and two more will be alternates.

Being an alternate  juror is kinda like being the runner-up in the Miss South Dakota beauty pageant; you only get to serve if the winner can’t fulfill her duties because she got caught smoking a joint between appearances at a bowling tournament and a sauerkraut festival.

We are told we will be given a number and our names will not be used: I’m lucky number 13.

The first 65 people chosen are directed up to the 6th floor where the trial will take place and I quickly figure out why they need 65 people; about 35 of us are going to die climbing the stairs.

On several landings an out-of-shape juror drops out to catch his or her breath and waves the rest of us on. I feel like we’re climbing Everest and abandoning the stragglers. If the county can’t fix the elevators, maybe they could hire some Sherpas and buy oxygen tanks.

I’m hoping I don’t get picked for jury duty because that will mean climbing 12 flights of stairs every time I want to leave or return to the courthouse, although it does sound like a great way to get in shape and they probably ought to mention that in the video.

Clearly, the people who need cigarette breaks are screwed.

Voir dire

That’s the legal name for the preliminary examination of jurors, but they can’t call it “the preliminary examination of jurors” because then the rest of us would know what the lawyers are talking about and they couldn’t charge us $125 an hour to discuss simple stuff in Latin. (I’m completely guesstimating that hourly rate – your mileage may vary.)

This is called “gatekeeping” language and it’s a real thing.

“Gatekeeping” is using language designed to keep the rest of us mystified so the experts – think lawyers, doctors and sabermetricians – can seem like experts. They don’t want us to understand because if we did we wouldn’t need them.


The lawyers for both sides are going to ask us questions to find out if we’re suitable jurors and if we have something to say we’re supposed to raise our numbers. They also tell us if we’re in doubt, speak up because they don’t want to find out something later that will screw up the trial.

OK…you asked for it.

My objection

I had a moral dilemma which surprises me because I wasn’t all that sure I had morals.

We were being asked to buy into the concept that it was possible to receive a fair trial in America, but unfortunately I believe you get just about as much justice as you can afford.

I think minorities and the poor get screwed way more often than wealthy white people and when a wealthy white person does go to jail it seems to be the kind with tennis courts and a miniature golf course.

And when the opportunity arose, I said so.

The defendant was black so his lawyer probably wanted to French kiss me and the prosecuting lawyers were probably wondering if it would be OK to throw me out the sixth floor window which, considering the mezzanine situation, would give me about 12 floors worth of velocity before I hit pavement.

If you spoke out they would question you about your beliefs and if they asked me why I thought what I thought I was ready with a question of my own: how many unarmed black men can the police shoot before a cop goes to jail?

Theoretically, you are presumed innocent until proven guilty and right now there are people who can’t afford a lawyer, waiting for a public defender and since we don’t spend enough money on public defenders some of those presumed innocent people do their waiting in jail.

The wait can be more than a year, which in my opinion is kind of lengthy for someone the system claims is presumed innocent. Plus, when a public defender finally becomes available he or she is probably overworked and won’t find time to concentrate fully on your case.

After I spoke out I think both sides wrote me off; the prosecutors definitely didn’t want me and the defense attorney knew he would never get me.

I said my piece early, but they don’t let you leave until voir dire is over (and if I was a lawyer I could charge you $125 for using that term) so that left me the rest of the day to think about the justice system and if what we have sucks, what’s the alternative?

I’d say trial by combat or throwing someone in the village pond to see if they float, but we already tried those and they didn’t work out so hot.

The jury is selected

I spent an entire day listening to potential jurors answering questions and while some of them seemed intelligent and reasonable, others said some scary shit like: “You can’t get in trouble if you tell the truth.”

In my personal experience telling the truth is pretty much exactly how you get in trouble.

After a very long conference the 12 jurors and two alternates were selected and I couldn’t help but notice that – for the most part – those 14 people had very little to say during voir dire. (That’s another $125…my legal assistant will bill you.) It was a process of elimination and apparently those of us who spoke out helped eliminate ourselves.

But if the jurors who didn’t speak out were more likely to be selected, who the hell knows what they actually believe and that assumes people actually told the truth during voir dire. (Your legal bill is now $375.)

So what have we learned?

I think our legal system is way too much of a crapshoot, so do your best not to get arrested unless you have a few million in the bank and then you can do pretty much whatever you want.

But remember to get a good lawyer and until you pay the legal fees you already owe me, I’m not available.