Oct 20, 2009

Jury Duty (2009 Edition)

On October 13, 2009, I was summoned for petit jury duty in New York State Supreme Court at 100 Centre Street in Manhattan. This is the second time I’ve performed jury duty for the state, and the first in criminal court.

The summons requested that I show up at 8:45 a.m. and go to room 1517. If it wasn’t for the subway being “held momentarily by the dispatcher” for ten minutes, and the ten minute long security line, I would have been early. However, I was only 5 minutes late, and missed the start of a jury informational video featuring Diane Sawyer. At precisely 9 a.m., the head clerk came out, introduced himself as Larry, and basically tried to get everyone who didn’t need to be there to leave. By that, I mean that he announced who should be there, what your summons should look like and say, how long you’re expected to be there, that you must be a citizen of the U.S., that you must reside in Manhattan or Roosevelt Island (New York County), and a slew of other requirements. He told everyone that didn’t meet the requirements, or who couldn’t commit to the time of a typical trial, to go to 60 Centre Street and get a postponement. Several people gathered up their belongings and left. Larry started taking some questions from the people still sitting there, and at 9:10 a.m., a judge walked in and took over the mic from Larry. In the span of about five minutes the judge gave us all a little pep talk about how jury duty was an honor, about how our justice system is fairly unique and wonderful, how a jury trial basically works, and how doing it every six years or so shouldn’t be considered a hardship. He pointed out that people that live in Onondaga County probably only have to serve every 15 years, but that’s because nothing ever happens there, and how exciting is that? At 9:15 a.m., the judge handed the mic back over to Larry and left. Larry went over everything again for those who were still straggling in, and then instructed us on how to fill out the back of the summons and how to hand it in. Once that was done, he basically told us to sit and wait.

Waiting is pretty much what you do most of the time on jury duty in Manhattan. While the jury waiting room doesn’t have the latest in creature comforts, it’s not horrible either. The chairs are big, generously padded, and not bolted to the floor so that you can move them a little bit for legroom. In a separate room near the main room are several computers available for anyone to use, albeit with a 20 minute timer, however, free WiFi is available throughout the jury waiting area for anyone who brings in a laptop or other WiFi enabled device, which was very nice to have. In another room down the hall from the main room was a lounge room with tables for food and drink consumption; it also had snack and beverage vending machines. The entire area that was the jury waiting area had speakers connected to the main mic so when announcements were made about lunch or jury selections, everyone could hear and you didn’t have to fear about missing out on something. And, most importantly, there are bathrooms right off the main jury waiting room.

At about 11 a.m., the clerk came in and called about 60 names as potential jurors for a case. I wasn’t one of them, so I continued to wait. During my waiting time for the two days, I amused myself by emailing and instant messaging friends from my BlackBerry, surfing the web on my laptop, listening to my iPod, and finishing up Dan Brown’s “The Lost Symbol” (it was OK, but no “Da Vinci Code”). At about 11:30 a.m. on the first day, the woman to the right of me was watching a movie on her iPod, and it was clearly a comedy because she kept laughing out loud, so much so that she laughed herself into a coughing fit at one point. At roughly the same time, the person to the left of me was snoring.

Typically, lunch is from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m., but at about noon the clerk came out and announced that no one would be needing jurors until after lunch, so we might as well go at that point, and everyone needed to be back by 2 p.m. I headed out and spent time wandering around SoHo. Unfortunately, I had to cut my lunchtime short due to the fact that I had two large cups of coffee in the morning, and hadn’t gone to the bathroom. Bad planning on my part.

Whenever you tell a friend that you have jury duty, they almost always say the same thing, “Maybe you’ll get picked for a case.” I can’t tell if that’s a good thing, or one of those quirky, ironic “good luck” statements like, “Break a leg!”

After lunch was more waiting. At about 3 p.m., the clerk came out and picked around 30 names for a different case. I was one of the names…it was about to get a little more interesting. We had to fill out a form, and then were escorted down to a courtroom by an court officer. Once inside, the judge introduced the defendant and the two lawyers and gave a brief rundown of the charges: basically, the defendant was accused of rubbing up against a woman in the subway. The judge read off a list of names of potential witnesses and asked everyone who had a problem being on a jury for that case or who might know any of the witnesses to line up and he would speak to them one-on-one. After speaking to several people and doing a little administrative work, they started calling out names of potential jurors to sit in the jury box for voir dire. The jury box held 20 people, so of course, I was number 20. The judge gave the lawyers a few minutes to look over the forms we filled out, so I just sat there taking in the view of the inside of my first courtroom.

The courtroom looked nothing like what you see on “Law ‘ Order” or in the movies. It looked like a standard 30 x 20 foot office, except that the judge’s bench was raised a bit, had an “In God We Trust” sign behind it, and USA and New York State flags to the sides of it. In front of the judge’s bench was a desk for his clerk, and a little area for the court reporter to sit at with her weird little machine. The two desks for the plaintiff and defendant were bolted to the floor. Behind the defendant, a court officer sat with their feet wedged against the defendant’s chair in such a manner that he couldn’t move back—combined with the bolted table, he couldn’t move anywhere with any ease. Behind the court officers was a waist high barrier with a swinging door that separated the “business” part of the courtroom from the “spectator” portion that held roughly 40 people. The court officers had two desks in corners of the room, and then there was the 20 seat jury box, where I was sitting, off to the right of the “business” side of the courtroom. They even had a cute little podium on wheels.

After giving the lawyers a few minutes to look over the forms we filled out earlier, the Assistant District Attorney started asking general questions to the potential jury as a whole. He asked questions that were closely related to the circumstances of the crime, like if we had all ridden the subway; if we had ridden it when it was packed; if we didn’t ride the subway for a specific reason; if we thought “rubbing up against a woman in the subway with an erect penis” should not be a crime; etc. After about 10 or 15 minutes, it was the defense attorney’s turn. He started off reminding us that the defense didn’t have to prove a thing, that the burden of proof is entirely on the DA. He then started his questions, which had almost nothing to do with the crime, but rather if we could be impartial, such as if we thought people could sometimes exaggerate facts when they recall them later even if they are not doing it intentionally; if we thought a police officer is more trustworthy than a normal citizen, and if we thought a police officer could exaggerate just like a normal citizen could; if we would put any weight on the fact that the defendant did or did not testify; etc.

When the questioning time was over, the judge explained that we would be taken to the hallway while the lawyers talked about us behind our backs, after which we would be brought back in and a jury would be picked. After about 15 minutes in the hallway, we were led back into the courtroom where six jurors and two alternates were called, myself not being one of them. Those not called were led out and the court officer told us to appear in the main jury waiting area at 11 a.m. the following day. On my way home I began wondering why I wasn’t picked. What was it about me, my appearance, my answers, my head nodding, that made me so undesirable? As I began to logically think about it, I realized that when they picked the jurors, they probably started at number one, and approved or passed on each juror in succession until they found the eight they needed. I, being number 20, was probably never judged since they found their eight jurors by number 15 (hypothetically).

I timed things a little better on the second day of jury duty, and arrived at 10:45 a.m. Upon entering, I found a seat and started reading a magazine. At 11 a.m., Larry came in and announced that there were three potential cases needing juries that day and that he would have more info as it changed. At about noon, one of the clerks came out and announced that no one would be needing jurors until after lunch, so we were free to go eat lunch and to be back at 2 p.m. This time, I wisely went to the bathroom prior to heading out, and entertained myself by wandered around the Lower East Side and Chinatown for the two hours.

Upon return to the jury waiting room, I listened to my iPod. At about 3 p.m. Larry came out with a stack of papers. He informed us that the three cases that might need juries that day were not going to need them, and he promptly dismissed all first-day jurors. All second-day jurors got a piece of paper that served as the proof of jury duty and we would be exempt from serving on another New York State jury for six years, and that the federal courts usually honor that for four years. And with that, my jury duty was over.