Saturday, September 27, 2008

Serving and getting served

Last Sunday I offered a bit of a lamentation about impending jury duty. Okay, it was probably closer to a complaint (and not a particularly well-composed one at that), but enough semantics. (From me? Really? Yes.) I had a feeling that I'd get assigned to a case. Why? Because the previous time I got a jury summons I went a whole week where I only had to call in but did not have to actually report to the courthouse any of those days. By a certain standard, Fortune had let me off too easily then, so I was due (so to speak) to not only have to report but to have to serve on a case.

I was not wrong. However, I was not exactly right.


So I was on jury duty. Which is to say: Monday morning I sat in (or near) the jury assembly room, waiting around on the off-chance that there was a need for me to sit in a jury box in a courtroom.

So for the first couple hours it was a chance to catch up on some reading—that activity that I only do when I'm away from a television, which pretty much boils down to two specific scenarios: while riding the train and while at lunch during the week; in those two scenarios I tend to read magazines or The Onion newspaper, so the opportunity to read an actual book was somewhat special.

I did have a laptop with me as well, and after a couple hours of reading I decided to put the reading on hold to type for a little bit, just to see if any worthwhile ideas occurred while I was typing.

However, I was sure that if I got any good ideas while the laptop was on and I was typing, that's when they'd call a panel (as they refer to it) and I'd have to actually attend to my so called civic duty.

Roughly ten minutes after booting up the laptop a panel was called, and predictably my name was included. As expected.

Frankly, it was a bit disappointing how easily that was anticipated. Still, to the extent that I may have been able to take advantage of the potentially idle period to compose something worthwhile, because I was expecting to be thwarted I didn't attempt any real topic, and thus I was thwarted anyway. Ultimately I was only biding time by typing.

Which is all I expected to accomplish.


35 of us trekked down two floors and waited outside a courtroom. After 15 minutes or so, we were told to enter and to sit in the "audience" area at the rear. The judge told us a bit about the nature of the case as an introduction, and then there was the period where the judge asked who wished to be excused (due to "financial hardship"), and that killed a bunch of time. Then the clerk started calling names.

One by one names were called, and I kept thinking as my name was not called: Come on. Get it over with. Announce my name.

The twelve seats in the jury box were filled, and then six chairs in front of the jury box for the alternates. The clerk had announced the eighteenth name, and I was still sitting in the audience.

Oh, so that's how it's going to be, I thought. I'll be lulled into a false sense of security by not getting called initially, but then they'll eliminate most of the jurors already up there and then I'll get roped in later.

The attorneys took their turn at asking questions of the juror pool in the chairs. As a few were thanked and excused with preemptory challenges, the alternates moved to the empty seats. All right, I thought, keep going; I know it's coming.

And then the attorneys agreed on the 12 jurors in the box. Still I sat in the audience.

However, the dismissals had exhausted five of the six alternates, and I knew that each jury needed two alternates, so we were not done.

My name was the second called of the five announced by the clerk to fill those empty chairs up front. That made me Alternate #3. The attorneys had not dismissed Alternate #1 during the prior proceedings, so she seemed a lock. And if the attorneys had no issue with the rest of us, Alternate #2 (to my left) would fill the other slot.

The attorneys sped through their questions with the five of us, and had no objections to any. I started thinking that as it was nearly 3:00 in the afternoon, if the rest of us were released back to the jury assembly room it seemed unlikely that another panel would be called during the last hour. We'd sit around for a while then be let go, having served our required one day.

Then one of the already-empanelled jurors and Alternate #1 both asked for a sidebar with the judge and attorneys. They all went out a door into a back hallway for a few minutes, and when they returned the two people just kept walking out the other side of the courtroom. The judge then announced they were being excused. (Why they waited all that time before speaking up none of us left understood, but that was what happened.)

The last two alternates—the persons whose names came two after mine was called—were also excused. Alternates #2, #3, and #4 (so, me and the persons to either side of me) were assigned to the case. However, one of us would need to take the seat on the actual jury vacated by the recently excused person.

Rather than simply moving #2 up there automatically, the clerk wrote numbers on pieces of paper, folded them, and selected one at random. (I am not kidding.) Which ended being #2 anyway.

Thus, I became Alternate #1. I'd get to sit through the whole trial, but I wouldn't actually get to participate in deliberation. All the responsibility of paying attention, but without the payoff of rendering an opinion.

That, I must admit, I had not anticipated when I was ruminating Sunday night about what would happen during my jury service.


So I showed up Tuesday morning. There was a fair amount of waiting around for the court to be ready for us. Although they did get through the completion of presenting evidence (cross-examining witnesses) and closing arguments by the end of the day, the jury wouldn't get to start deliberating until the next morning, so I would get to come back Wednesday as well.

All I would do is sit in the jury assembly room, waiting to be paged on the off-chance they needed me, or waiting to be told there was a verdict for me to sit in the courtroom and hear.


The jury assembly area at the court in question has an outdoor patio, an adjoining room, a cafeteria down the hall, and a hallway outside with chairs. When waiting, one is free to go to any of these areas, but for the first 90 minutes I stayed within earshot of the loudspeakers. I never saw the other alternate juror, but that wasn't necessarily surprising, considering all the area where she might be.

I went up to the desk and asked a question, and the clerks there identified me from my badge as an alternate for the department in question. They reiterated how I'd be alerted when a verdict was ready.

I then walked down to the adjoining cafeteria and got a snack. I sat outside a few minutes eating some chips, not more than 30 feet from the door to the assembly room. But within a few minutes someone (not a clerk but a non-assigned juror closer to the door) got my attention and I went inside, overhearing a page for me.

Why the outside speakers don't work, or weren't turned on, when we it is perfectly acceptable for those waiting to be called to go outside, I don't know. Frankly, it strikes me that the court is less able to keep track of people it needs than is Olive Garden.

Restaurants have had what are essentially pagers that they give to waiting patrons and which they turn on (usually causing buzzing and flashing of lights) when they wish to alert said patrons that their table is ready. This alleviates the need for patrons to keep listening for every announcement, or to congregate in a congested area to stay within earshot of said announcements.

However, the court is not that advanced. I digress.

At the desk the clerk told me she'd been paging me "for minutes" (which may be true, but I'd just spoken with her approximately six minutes earlier, and I'd have been within earshot for part of that time, so basically the paging must have commenced virtually the very moment I was out of range) and that they wanted me to go down and wait outside the courtroom.

I wasn't too worried, because in courts there is always a lot of waiting around when they call you. For two days we had averaged about 15 minutes of sitting around when being summoned to the courtroom.

Nonetheless, I scurried down the escalator two floors and went almost to the end of the hall and, as instructed, waited just outside the door. I didn't see any of the other jurors from the trial, but I suspected they might be inside, and that the bailiff would come out any second to retrieve me.

After a minute some of the jurors started streaming out the door, and then the rest emerged. I flagged one down and asked if it was over, and he noted we were done, but that I'd need to turn in my badge to the clerk.

So I opened the door to the courtroom and took a step but was waved out by the judge. (Apparently I walked in on a part where jurors are not involved.) I immediately got out and waited in the hall. The clerk came out the door a moment later and collected my badge, confirming that we were done.

I then returned to the jury assembly room, catching up with the other jurors, and we got our paperwork (proving we'd been there for part of three days). On the escalator down, I asked the other alternate (who I never saw in the assembly room prior to our being paged, but who apparently had heard it and gotten to the courtroom) how long it was from the time she went in to the time they all came out. "Maybe two or three minutes," she replied. She then mentioned what the verdict had been.

I was not surprised to hear what the verdict was, but I was amazed at the expediency with which they sped through reading it. Apparently there was another trial getting under way in the same courtroom, and they wanted to get to that as soon as possible.

So, not only did I have to show up three mornings in a row and pay attention to the testimony and evidence but have no say in the deliberations (which were what kept me waiting around all morning), but I also missed out on the culminating moment of the whole trial, the only moment of tepid payoff I might have gotten.


I'm not suggesting missing the reading of the verdict was that big a deal in the proverbial grand scheme. Nor did my absence appear to hold up the proceedings at that point.

Of course there's no surprise that the moment I went outside, even only for a few minutes, would be when the page to report would come. What I didn't anticipate was that it would be the one time over the course of the trial that anything would happen quickly.

Which seems obvious in retrospect, yes.


The only thing you can be certain of is that you can't be certain of what is coming, and even if you have a suspicion of what, you don't know how it's coming.

Don't bother trying.


Of course, it could all just be coincidence. We are inclined to see it as a pattern, whether one truly exists or not. (Granted, perception shapes reality, so if we perceive a pattern then there is a pattern. But that's another story.)


  1. Doug:

    Patterns? Good to see someone else struggle with metaphysics. [G]

    “Restaurants have had what are essentially pagers that they give to waiting patrons and which they turn on (usually causing buzzing and flashing of lights) when they wish to alert said patrons that their table is ready.”

    Hey, they have those at the public library when a public access computer is ready. And Plattsburgh, NY is a Podunk! They buzz and light up like mini flying saucers. A perfect subject for a bit of PhotoShop fakery…

    “So for the first couple hours it was a chance to catch up on some reading… so the opportunity to read an actual book was somewhat special.”

    Did you ever see that episode of Becker, the comedy series starring Ted Danson as a doctor working in the Bronx, where he was stuck with jury duty? He just wanted to get it over with. Every time they interviewed him as a potential juror, he was rejected because he read books. You might find some humor in it if you ever catch that episode.


  2. I'll keep an eye out for that one, Ray. Thanks for mentioning it.


So, what do you think?