I Got PTSD…From Jury Duty
Who protects the jurors?
“You are summoned to appear for JURY SERVICE.”
Summoned. In large cities, you are summoned a lot. Some poor suckers are summoned once a year like clockwork. I met one guy who was collecting every single piece of paper related to jury duty just so one day he could take his mile-thick folder to a judge and say, “Hey, I’ve done jury duty!” Let’s be honest: most people ignore the summons. Like my Uber driver: “Yeah, I get those but a guy I work with said to just ignore them because they can’t prove you got it, right?”
And that’s a problem with jury duty: the only people who go are either good citizens, people terrified of anything that seems “legal” or bored retirees. And, really, who can afford to serve on a jury? Not my Uber driver. My city won’t even pay you for the first day. If you’re self-employed or run a small business, you’re fucked. You’ll need an understanding judge to excuse you. Or what if you’re a single mom working two jobs? You’ll probably qualify as a “hardship” case and dismissed. And if you’re a lawyer/cop, married to a lawyer/cop, you’ll never serve. Jury service becomes jury penalty. For some, there’s even fear. One man told me his friends will never answer a summons because they’re afraid they’ll get arrested the minute they report. Jury duty for them is a police trap. Irrational fear? Considering the things I’ve been reading about the criminal justice system, the videos I’ve been seeing, I don’t know anymore.
I really hate people who tell me, “Hey, don’t worry, you’ll sit around for a day and then get sent home. Take a lot of reading.” Sure, they get sent home. Not me. Last time around, I didn’t even get a full hour to read. Immediately after the “Hey, jury duty is a great way to make friends” video, I g0t called for jury selection. A criminal trial. A series of robberies. Three male suspects, each with his very own lawyer. I want to die. Because each lawyer, including the prosecuting attorney, will take turns asking each potential juror the exact same questions. And this is only after the judge has her turn asking questions. This takes hours; this takes days. And what is it with government buildings? Stifling, stale air. Rock hard seats. Formula for a migraine.
I am not called to be one of the potential jurors. I sit the whole day like a fish in one of those horrible tanks at a Chinese restaurant, a forced witness to the same endless Q&A, which is really one basic Q&A: “Are you going to be an impartial juror?” And, of course, the answer is “yes” because, as we potential jurors discussed over break, who the hell wants to say “no” and be humiliated as each lawyer takes their turn grilling you about ‘why in the world would you answer “no”’? Like, do you understand the question? One of the lawyers even got pretty darn clever, stating, “No one can be unbiased. Anyone care to discuss that?” Boy, would I. But I wasn’t a potential juror.
Instead of answering, I’m left to mull silently this question: Why are we doing this? Can there be a more antiquated, wasteful system? Four bloody lawyers handpicking jurors? How much is this costing us? And not just in terms of pay to all the lawyers, judges, administrators, jurors, potential or not, but in productivity loss. Every person sitting here is a person who isn’t at work (except the many, many retired women who seem to want to be jurors). There has to be a better way.
After lunch, half the potential jurors are dismissed. Half? In what seems like a straight-forward robbery case? Immediately, my name is called and I am now a potential juror. Fucking hell. Like this is literal hell.
I confess, I find the whole jury selection thing surreal. Like I’m an extra on The Good Wife or Drop Dead Diva. The defense attorneys are that slick. Sadly, not the prosecuting attorney. Maybe it was his first case. I dunno, but I feared the defense attorneys were going to eat him alive. Three objections on Day 1 alone, one on a legal point. I didn’t even know you could make objections during jury selection. And a lot of his questions were about media: “do you watch NCIS? have you listened to or heard about Serial?” (Thanks to TV, can you even have a fair jury trial anymore?)
I digress. So, I’m now a potential juror. First things first: the cheerful, out-of-this-world laid-back judge who likes to encourage potential jurors with “super!” and “I’m sorry to hear that” sets the stage by asking me about my experiences with crime: have I been a victim of crime? Who hasn’t? Like all the potential jurors, I spend about five minutes listing my experiences with crime. Then I have to remember if I know any cops or lawyers. Then the judge asks if any of my experiences with crime or cops would affect me as a juror.
“Well…” I tell the judge, “I have had some strange experiences with cops.”
“Can you tell us about the strangest experience?” asks the judge, who can’t help smiling at the idea.
Here I go: in L.A., a cop knocks on our door and asks if we’ve seen anyone suspicious; we haven’t; we get into a friendly conversation with this neighborhood beat cop and he gives us this advice: if anyone we don’t recognize comes to our door, mace them — don’t ask any questions, just mace them.
The entire courtroom bursts into laughter. So I feel the need to say, “I was horrified. And I realized that cops and I live in a very different culture.”
This makes Lawyer #1 wary. Can I be a fair juror? he asks me. Am I going to freak out every time a cop testifies. One question leads to another and then, before I know it, I’m talking about how unfair the criminal justice system is, about how much race, wealth and sex determines “justice”, even about how studies show that judges dish out harder sentences at the end of the day. How can you expect people to be unbiased? Isn’t it time we modernize the jury system? Isn’t it time we start to pay for professional jurors, jurors who have had training in bias psychology? Lawyer #1 doesn’t like this one bit. He shakes his head. And then he tries to sell me on the romance of the jury trial: a cross-section of one’s peers coming together to serve justice (or something like that).
“That’s a beautiful theory,” I reply. And then I can’t help myself. I just had to confront not just the lawyer but the whole U.S. criminal justice system. And years of watching Perry Mason reruns serves me well, because I find myself saying: “What I’m seeing in front of me is three, young, African American male suspects. We’re suppose to be judged by our peers, but [I sweep my arm across the courtroom] I’m looking out at the jury pool and I’m not seeing that reflected.” (Most of the potential jurors are white and Asian.)
The whole courtroom gasps. An elderly black man nods and makes a triumphant noise in agreement. The lawyers silently groan. And they’re right to groan because now all a potential juror has to say is, “I agree with juror #X”, which is exactly what another juror says. Yes, the emperor has no clothes and stupid juror #X just had to go and point that out.
“Uh, what was your college major?” the exasperated lawyer asks me.
It’s always the philosophy majors that give you trouble.
We go on break. I’m told I was highly entertaining. The highlight of everyone’s jury duty. The jury pool agreed with everything I said. “Of course, you’ll get dismissed,” everyone tells me. “You didn’t say the right things.” Which is strange, one person says. After all, most people say they don’t want to do jury duty but when questioned, they say the right things because no one wants to be judged.
Well, that’s the crux of it. Judged. We, as good citizens, are supposed to answer our summons and, if chosen, serve our community to the best of our ability. So why are we punished? Because we are being punished. As soon as we become potential jurors, we become the suspects on trial. Question after question as lawyers try to trip us up and reveal our true selves. They cajole, and even make fun of us. They ask us incredibly private things in a public forum. Jury duty is invasive, offensive and traumatic. Yes, traumatic. This was a criminal trial. We were obligated to remember every crime we’ve ever been victims of. I’m lucky. I’ve never had a gun pointed to my head. Others aren’t that lucky. One man talked about having nightmares re-living a violent crime because of this jury selection. Another woman had to recall a rape she suffered over three decades ago as a young girl (she tried to report it to the police but was so humiliated by the officer on duty, she fled the police station). Outrageously, for two days each lawyer grilled her about the rape and humiliation. She was dismissed — it was clear she’d be dismissed, so why did they put her through all that trauma? The entire jury pool was horrified. We were all sure she’d have to go into therapy. There was nothing in the cheerful jury duty video about having to go into therapy — just about making lifelong friends while judging the fate of some poor creature, who, if found guilty, will live the life of a battery-farmed chicken in an overcrowded, for-profit prison.
I’m still haunted by what that poor woman went through. She said she hadn’t thought about the rape in years. So we forced her to remember rape in the name of a jury trial? I’m thinking each of us potential jurors should be allocated a lawyer and a therapist. Shouldn’t jurors be protected too?
So, was I picked for jury duty? Get this. After the break, we were all dismissed. The entire jury pool. Because a relative of one of the suspects had talked to a potential juror on break. We were all contaminated. So how much did that cost us?
(BTW I did not make any lifelong friends.)