New jurors are easy to spot. They make tentative steps in both directions when they walk in the front door of the courthouse and when they step out of the elevator. Alone, they have the purposeless look of strangers who didn't ask to be there, and would rather not be.
In the jury assembly room of the Pasadena Courthouse, new jurors are the ones who mistakenly smoke in non-smoking areas, who neither speak nor smile, who sit solitary and self-conscious until they hear the familiar sounds they've been waiting for: their names, being called for a panel.
That magic moment gives them instant identity. They are now part of the system. They get printed instructions, identification badges, parking permits, purpose and direction. But they remain strangers.
Hundreds of these people stream in and out of the assembly room and courtrooms every day and they turn out to be the true cross-section of America that the justice system depends on. Their broad sweep of ages, races and backgrounds makes it apparent that most have very little in common except their citizenship.
So when I was on a panel of jurors selected for a recent criminal trial in Superior Court, it was the inevitable grouping of strangers.
We were a reporter, a heavily accented construction worker who was a native of Mexico, a young computer whiz, two quiet housewives, a student-musician-composer, an enormous man with a booming voice, a beautiful young woman, an engineer from China and three retirees from assorted businesses.
We were to determine the fate of a young man accused of armed robbery.
But how could such an unlikely grouping be expected to agree on anything--especially when the two-day trial produced only two witnesses for the prosecution and one of them, the victim, didn't speak English? The only witness for the defense was clearly biased, since she was the defendant's mother.
That was it? The trial over, we found we were in instant agreement on one thing: We were stunned that we had to decide a matter so serious and they gave us so little to work with.
We chose the young computer whiz as our foreman, some of us doubting that his amiable nature could balance the factions that instantly appeared. There were eight for conviction and four doubters.
The first day of deliberations produced some surprises. Certain words spoken from the witness stand were memorable for us all, in the same ways. Under his bulk and bellow, the man with the booming voice was blessed with calm logic. The sweet little housewife with the hearing aid wasn't afraid to order people to speak up. The student-musician-composer wasn't afraid to hang the jury, if necessary, over his interpretation of "beyond reasonable doubt," the key phrase that must be established for conviction.
Surprises on the second day of deliberations: Twelve people could devour $12 worth of doughnuts. The computer whiz proved to ba a masterful foreman. The meekest and mildest juror commanded respect, simply for the clearheaded questions he asked. It took longer, and seemingly much more work, to reach a unanimous decision than it did to try the case.
We convicted the defendant, and we felt pretty good about it. We were sure of our rightness.
We were a team. We were 12 strangers who only a few days ago had walked in those doors, hesitantly turning both ways to get our bearings, many of us wishing we were someplace else.
It seemed really odd that we, who mattered so much to each other, who knew each other so intimately, would part forever.