Juror #3

(As he did last year, The Curmudgeon is taking off the rest of August for a little R & R. While he’s gone he’ll fill this space with encore presentations – okay, reruns – of some of his favorite past posts every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. He’s doing this so you won’t forget him because despite all the bravado and bluster he’s one pretty insecure fellow.  During his absence the serialization of Taking Care of Business will continue every Sunday. The Four-Eyed Curmudgeon will return the Tuesday after Labor Day.)

(The first six times The Curmudgeon had jury duty he regretted afterward that he hadn’t taken notes so he could write something about it.  On the seventh day he did, and last fall he shared.)

The Curmudgeon had jury duty last week.

And unless that’s sympathy for the legal system for having to deal with someone like him, stop rolling your eyes.

Actually, eye-rolling is probably the default response to the subject of jury duty, beginning with when you go to the mailbox and find the summons.

Whereupon you roll your eyes.

Oh no, not THAT.

Not jury duty.

Yes, jury duty.

In late August The Curmudgeon received a notice that he was being summoned to jury duty in October, and last week he served.

He has served before. As a resident of Philadelphia he was summoned for jury duty many times. Twice he was rejected as a potential juror for murder trials in which the prosecutor stated that he would be seeking the death penalty and The Curmudgeon, in response to direct questions from the judges, said he would not, under any circumstances, vote to execute anyone. In the second of the two cases the judge questioned his reasoning, to which The Curmudgeon responded first, that voting for the death penalty would make him no less a murderer than the convicted person, and second, that dealing with people who are problems by killing them off in state-sanctioned murders was a sign of the decline of western civilization.

Surely you have no trouble imagining this – and a totally different kind of eye-rolling from those in the courtroom.

Once The Curmudgeon was rejected for grand jury duty because through various jobs he’s held over the years he was familiar with too many of the people whose names were expected to come up during the proceedings. That was unfortunate, too, because in hindsight, it now seems almost certain that it was one of the most high-profile political corruption scandals in recent Pennsylvania history.

After making it onto a jury in a simple assault case – guilty as charged! ­–The Curmudgeon was rejected for jury duty in a civil trial. This happened shortly after the O.J. Simpson civil case (not the criminal trial) and the judge was the same fellow who had been on the receiving end of the lecture about the decline of western civilization a few years earlier. This time his honor asked about The Curmudgeon’s willingness to apply the law as the judge instructed. The Curmudgeon told the judge that he did not accept the concept of “preponderance of evidence” that was so much a part of the Simpson trial and of civil law. The judge asked The Curmudgeon if he thought it was appropriate for him to apply his own interpretation to the law instead of what the judge told him, whereupon The Curmudgeon reminded the judge that he had not asked such a question a few years earlier when he, the same judge who had dismissed The Curmudgeon from one of the capital cases, asked him why he wouldn’t vote for the death penalty.

At first the judge looked like he was going to argue, but then his face changed as he realized that his life would be a whole lot simpler if he didn’t have to deal with the guy giving him this lip.

Last week was the second time The Curmudgeon has been summoned for jury duty in his eleven years living in Burlington County, New Jersey. The first time, jury duty lasted only a little more than ninety minutes. Then, the judge himself visited the jury room to explain that he would be hearing a very high-profile case: a woman who allegedly had spiked her brother in-law’s Gatorade with anti-freeze (hadn’t he noticed that it tasted strange, or was he one of millions who has been brainwashed into drinking Gatorade because of its alleged benefits despite its hideous taste, no matter what the flavor?), killing him and creating a sensation that made both the newspapers and television news. The judge said that he and the lawyers had expected to have difficulty finding people who hadn’t heard much about the case and he had therefore asked the jury duty people to have more people available than usual, just in case. The problem never surfaced, though, and they picked their jury easily but the judge took the time to come to the jury room, explain the situation, apologize for the inconvenience, and thank the gathered for their time. It was the only new trial of the day, so by 10:30 everyone was gone.

Unlike in Philadelphia, which has a one-day/one-trial jury duty program, Burlington County has a two-day/one-trial program. They make it pretty easy for you, though: you check in on the court’s web site the night before, and if they don’t need you, you don’t have to appear. The Curmudgeon was not needed in the morning on day one of his two-day summons but was told to check in at 11:30 on the morning of his first day, and if needed that day, he would have to arrive by 1:00. It turns out they did want him, though, and he arrived promptly at 1:00, as ordered.

Surely you’re not surprised to learn that The Curmudgeon is extremely punctual.

After a little more than an hour, The Curmudgeon and thirty-five other people were led to a courtroom to be examined as potential jurors in a civil case involving an auto accident. The plaintiff was suing the man who hit his car and injured him. The driver of the offending car admitted to fault, but the question before the court was not fault in the accident but whether the offending driver should have to pay damages for what the plaintiff claimed were permanent injuries. The job of the jury would be to determine whether the injuries were permanent, and if so, to assign a financial value to those injuries.

Pretty much everyone who’s ever been summoned for jury duty spends a little bit of time and engages in more than a little bit of speculation about how to answer questions during jury selection in a manner that will get him or her dismissed as an unsuitable juror. A prospective juror in a civil case has many such opportunities: you can say you’re highly suspicious of people filing lawsuits over pain-related issues; you can talk about sleazy lawyers; you can say you think insurance should cover everything and, if the plaintiff didn’t have insurance, that’s too bad; since the case was about neck and back injuries and the judge was asking everyone if they had any neck or back injuries, you could say you did have such injuries; you could say you knew someone who was screwed in such a case (the judge specifically asked whether prospective jurors had ever sued anyone, been sued by anyone, or had a family member who sued or was sued); you could say that you testified in a trial at some point in your life and had a really bad experience (the judge asked about this); or you could say you hated Dancing With the Stars since the judge, who asked people to tell a little about themselves and, when they hemmed and hawed over such an easy question, asked them (among many other inquiries that seemed irrelevant and foolish to the prospective jurors but presumably were useful for the lawyers) what television programs they watched and made it clear that he and his wife were especially fond of Dancing With the Stars; or you could do or say any of a number of other things that would easily get you sent back to the jury room or home. It doesn’t take a whole lot of imagination to think of ways to piss off people; married people, The Curmudgeon has observed, seem to be especially good at this.

But then the damnedest thing happened: thirty-five of the thirty-six people in the group played it totally straight and offered nothing but straightforward, honest answers. They weren’t trying to get out of jury duty. Only one person tried the expected trickery, but she would have been dismissed anyway because she suffered from serious back problems. Otherwise, despite the rolling of the eyes when the summons arrived, despite the speculation about how they could get out of jury duty, despite the inconvenience we all associate with jury duty, everyone just…did their duty and answered the questions honestly. Some people were dismissed for cause – one had lost a lawsuit, another had worked for lawyers for more than thirty years, and others had been involved in numerous legal proceedings – but the lawyers had a decent pool of people from whom to choose.

jury cardIncluding The Curmudgeon, who was eventually selected to serve on the eight-member jury.

And serve he did.

The trial didn’t last long. The plaintiff was the first witness, and it didn’t go well. He was Korean, which is relevant to this story only because he requested a translator, which made his testimony last twice as long as it needed to last. In addition to the language problem, he didn’t appear to be very bright, and as a result, his lawyer kept asking him the same questions in different ways, over and over again, hoping to elicit the answers they had almost certainly rehearsed beforehand. It never happened, the cross-examination didn’t go well either, and while the jury was on a bathroom break the judge appeared in the jury room doorway, waved his arm, and announced “Folks, it’s all over.”

And then, another damnedest thing happened: the judge entered the jury room and sat down at the conference table to talk to his jurors. He explained that he was a retired judge who was working on a part-time basis and said that while he could make more money as a mediator, his favorite part of being a judge was being around jurors. That was obvious during the case: he clearly enjoyed the jury selection process, asking the jurors questions and interacting with them, and during the trial he welcomed input: jurors wanted certain people to speak louder, they preferred the work of one of the translators over the other, they requested bathroom breaks, they wanted a window shade lowered, and he responded to it all with deference and good cheer.

And even though all of the jurors wanted to leave, no one wanted to leave while the judge was still talking. “Who was the African-American woman sitting in the back?” one juror asked. “An intern,” the judge replied. “Who was the woman sitting on the side, in the gallery?” “Oh, that was the claims representative from the insurance company. After you all left the room, she walked over to the plaintiff’s lawyer and offered $30,000 to settle right away.” “That’s not much, is it?” “No, they originally went to arbitration and were awarded $65,000, so they really hurt themselves taking this to court.” “Why did the defendant have two lawyers?” “One represented his insurer, one represented his insurer’s insurer.”

jury boxAnd the judge demonstrated that he had been paying attention to his jury. Directing his chin toward the one senior on the jury, he said, “You had trouble hearing, right?” The man nodded. (He was why the jury – well, The Curmudgeon, on its behalf – asked the judge to have people speak louder.) “And you,” the judge said, pointing to juror number one, “you weren’t having any of it, were you? And I thought you were going to fall asleep at one point.”

No one made a move for the door. The jurors talked to the judge, asked questions of the judge – about everything except the quarter-sized hole in the bottom of his shoe that was on full display whenever he propped up his feet on the bench, which was fairly often – and just chatted for a while. The judge reminded the gathered that, as he had said earlier, this was his favorite part of being a judge. He was nice and folksy, at least in his mid-seventies, if not older, and on more than one occasion during the trial he seemed ready to nod off, and certainly closed his eyes – at least when he wasn’t staring at the aforementioned juror number one, whose blouse was cut too low for the courtroom and who, during jury selection, said she liked to watch wrestling on television with her son. Because of his age, his position, and his kindly demeanor, it was easy just to let it pass when he referred to the plaintiff and his wife as “the orientals.”

Then, he rose, walked to the door, thanked us again, and shook every person’s hand as they left.

And The Curmudgeon had just one unfinished piece of business to attend to.

As noted above, the plaintiff was Korean and clearly could speak and understand English – not well, but he could. When some of the questions asked of him required only a yes or no answer, he would sometimes nod before the translator finished relaying the question. Occasionally he would offer one or two words in English to reinforce the translator’s rendition of his response.

Both of the defendant’s lawyers attempted to make a big deal out of this, implying that the plaintiff was somehow trying to deceive the court. This was the only time during the trial that The Curmudgeon rolled his eyes – other jurors did, too – and when it was all over, he stopped by the defense table to have a final word with those lawyers.

“The way you treated that guy was despicable,” The Curmudgeon began.

“That was my life growing up, with two immigrant grandparents who spoke decent conversational English but would occasionally have trouble understanding some things or articulating them. That was especially true as I got older and they asked about what I was learning in school. When that happened, I’d have to go get my mother and ask her to help. They weren’t being dishonest, and that guy clearly wasn’t, either, and what you did today was despicable. Just despicable.”

Surely you have no trouble envisioning The Curmudgeon doing this, either.

The two lawyers had won, so they didn’t care, but when The Curmudgeon turned and walked away, he left them with their mouths agape.

Finally, The Curmudgeon doesn’t mean to preach – okay, who’s he kidding, he loves to preach – but he does want to say this: don’t try to get out of jury duty. It’s an important thing to do: if you ever needed to have your day in court you’d want to be judged by people like yourself – a jury of your peers – and serving on a jury is personally and emotionally rewarding. Even though the case was settled, The Curmudgeon and his seven fellow jurors, as we marched together down High Street in Mt. Holly one last time, were proud of what they had just done and felt as if, in their own way, they had made a small contribution to making this world a better place.

Case dismissed.

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