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OK, I confess. I finagled my way out of jury duty

I went in wanting to do the right thing, but after three days of wasted time, I was ready to go over the wall.

November 28, 2009|By Peter Mehlman

Let's say three moments per week an average American concludes that, in this life, you just can't win. I'll follow up on that later.

Recently, I was Juror No. 6 in an Inglewood courtroom. Late into a third day of jury selection, the prosecutor, whose questions had been crisp and pointed, suddenly went off script, asking, "Does anyone feel they cannot judge the facts fairly?"

My hand disobeyed my brain and flinched -- then backed down like an umpire deciding the pitch wasn't really a strike.

"Juror No. 6?"

Caught. "You know . . . ," I began.

Wait. I'll follow up on that too.

This is the story of how fast the justice system mutated people who wanted to hear the facts, deliver a verdict and make America great into citizens hellbent on shirking our duty.

I love trials. While living in New York, I attended the "yuppie murder" and "Central Park jogger" trials. For the "subway vigilante" trial, I brought a date.

Maybe I was spoiled by sexy trials, but on Day 1 in Inglewood, I wasn't the only one of 42 prospective jurors who drooped at the news that we were up for a misdemeanor case. OK, it was two misdemeanors. And yeah, yeah ... one involved a gun.

The judge welcomed us, explained stuff a poodle would know, then dumbed it down: Five minutes on "no cellphones." Stolen glances in the jury box said: "You're the judge. Say no cellphones and end it."

We also heard a surefire way to dodge jury duty: Renounce your American citizenship. In all, the judge's one-hour monologue featured seven laugh lines prompting one rogue "Heh." Then he told us to come back tomorrow.

And oh, the trial should last between six and eight days.

How hard can it be to get a French passport?

On Day 2, we jurors didn't get into the courtroom until 2:10 p.m. When we heard that two people had been excused for hardship reasons, you could almost hear the rest of us glumly calculating how our odds of being chosen inched up from 29% to 30%. Day 1's idealism fluttered.

The judge began the voir dire. "Juror No. 6?"

I responded with name, occupation, jury experience and "Yes, in 2007, my home was burglarized, and my mother was carjacked at gunpoint." Pause. "Otherwise, I had a pretty good year."

The whole courtroom laughed. The defendant flashed me a smile.

At 3:20 p.m., the judge said that if he gave us a bathroom break, it would be late by the time we all finished. So he excused us for the day.

Outside the courtroom, a juror said, "After an hour we need to go to the bathroom? Are we children?"

Another juror whispered to me, "You made a big mistake in there."

"Really?"

"See, your mom was the victim of a gun crime, so the prosecutor liked you. But your joke about it exposed your humanity, so the defendant also liked you. You're screwed. We think you'll definitely be picked."

Apparently, many jurors who started off with good attitudes had boned up on the finer nuances of ducking jury selection. It was like they'd been spun back to 1969, reduced to kids trying to dodge Vietnam. Due to budget cuts, courts are closed the third Wednesday of every month. Due to heavy caseloads, Thursday was no good either.

When we returned on Friday, the prosecutor and defense attorneys got to question jurors and eliminate anyone they pleased with no explanation. Only there was no defense attorney. The defendant represented herself. When the judge gave her instructions, she'd respond, "Gotcha." Patience in the jury box trickled down around empty.

When questioned, some jurors gently told her she was foolish to represent herself, others less gently. She bounced chastisers with a cheerful "Juror No. __, you're free to go."

During breaks, the remaining jurors stood around saying things like, "Juror __ played it so smart! The second she cursed, you knew she was free. Why didn't I think of that?"

The pool was soon cut in half. From a hallway window, I could see my car on the garage roof. Would going on the lam be a misdemeanor or . . . ?

We all liked the young prosecutor. When the defendant asked if any of us had lost a child, the prosecutor calmly said, "Objection. Relevance."

As a "Law & Order" fan, I smiled at the familiar courtroom lingo. The defendant somehow saw me smile and smiled back.

Right then, I began rescheduling the next two weeks of my life. The word "sequestered" pockmarked my thoughts. But wait . . .

Remember when I said that the prosecutor suddenly went off script and my right hand rebelled?

"You know," I began, the creepy self-righteousness of a soapbox rising in me, "three of our state's biggest problems are deficits, crowded prisons and backed-up courts. Well, this case is a microcosm of all three. All this time and money wasted on a misdemeanor case. It's all incredibly frustrating."

Moments later, the defendant scanned the jury box deciding whom to set free. I locked my baleful eyes on her. Remember the theory of three moments a week making you think you just can't win?

I fled the court holding a little diploma for having finished jury service. But instead of feeling ecstatic, I felt like garbage. I had gamed a system I believed in my whole life.

Driving home, I saw four police cars surrounding three kids facing a wall, hands cuffed behind their backs. I'd be up for jury duty again in 12 months.

Peter Mehlman, a former writer on "Seinfeld," is a screenwriter and essayist.

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