Friday, August 31, 2012

My almost chance to decide a man's fate...

This is a story of forgetfulness and second chances.

And a moment of terror when I thought I might actually be called on to decide something extremely important in one man’s life.

Back in June I was suppose to report for jury duty.

Guess what I didn’t do.

I just happened to look on the night-desk beside my bed and there it was … the jury duty summons from the sheriff.


I read the summons and gulped. For not showing up, I could be found in contempt of court.

Again, whoops.

I’m writing this from jail.

I’m kidding. Truly, I promise I’m kidding. No manacles for me. I’m a good boy – even during times when I would have preferred to be a bit of a rake.

I immediately drove to downtown Wilmington and went to the clerk of courts office to see how much blood they would demand.

It turned out to be not much.

The clerk gave me a bored half-smile and shifted my jury duty to August.

In the later part of July I got another jury summons from the sheriff telling me to report on Monday, August 20.

I quickly realized the potential was there for another mind meltdown. Yep, the stars were settling into a familiar pattern foreordaining me to forget to report. The week before the summons would see me on vacation in West Virginia and Ohio visiting my 85-year-old father, my sister and a cousin battling breast cancer. It would be easy to let the jury summons slip into the cobwebbed recesses of my less-than-stellar mind. Yes, I admit … I am very good at the TV game Jeopardy – if I could only remember the answers.
Back to the jury duty summons … because I fretted so much over the fear of forgetting I ended up obsessing on it. I wouldn’t let myself forget.

As soon as my vacation ended and I got back to my home in Wrightsboro, I called the jury summons’ number and heard the pre-recorded message. The voice said to report to the justice building at 9:00 a.m. on August 20. I cursed silently, knowing that meant I might have to serve on a civil or criminal trial. I’m the reporter – the ONLY reporter – at a weekly newspaper in the neighboring county. If I’m not writing news stories, there won’t be a newspaper to print. Somehow, though, I don’t think the judge would be the understanding type.

Here’s a jury-pool secret in case you’ve never been summoned. Being a member of the jury pool entails a lot of standing around or sitting with little or no movement. There’s a reason the summons from the sheriff recommends bringing a book or magazine.

Instead of using the recommended parking deck, I chose to park on a side street off Princess Street where I used to work back when the nation had a functioning – even robust – economy. The street didn’t have parking meters, but it did require a bit of a walk – and I do need to get into shape. I’m guilty of spending far too many hours sitting in a comfy home-office chair in front of my desktop computer. I’ve another vacation planned for October – and the woman I’m going to see will want me in top-of-the-morning shape.

Again, I’ve allowed myself to get sidetracked. It’s that forgetfulness thing. Let me see … once inside the justice building and past security, I waited in a fourth-floor line that led to the jury room. Well, that’s not entirely true … some folks chose to sit on uncomfortable benches in an open area.

Once inside the jury room, we potential jurors swore on Bibles to do our civic duty and were given a video primer on how the justice system works in North Carolina. When the video ended, I spent most of my time taking short visits to the coffee pot followed by bathroom visits.

The jury clerk disappeared for fifteen minutes and when she returned she called out about 40 names of potential jurors for a civil or criminal trial. I was one of the names. We were ready, but the judge wasn’t, so we sat and sat and sat. Truthfully, that seems to be the SOP for potential jurors.

Around noontime, the clerk told us the judge wouldn’t need us until 9:00 a.m. on Tuesday, August 21. But before she gave us our freedom, she had us fill out a questionnaire from the judge.

The questions dealt mostly with perceptions about boozing, spousal abuse and guns. I answered them the best I could. I don’t drink at the house because my roommate is a recovering alcoholic. I’ve never hit a girlfriend … I prefer to kiss feminine lips, not bloody them. And I used to own a musket back when I was a Civil War re-enactor. Still, I headed to my car thinking those questions were a bit ominous. The jurors chosen to sit for this trial wouldn’t be deciding monetary relief for a homeowner with a leaking basement – as I had to do on an Ohio jury more than 30 years ago.

The next day the clerk separated the jurors, placing my group on one side of the room and the remaining jurors on the other side. All were handed out string necklaces for holding our juror ID badges. And then we did more waiting.

Around 10 in the morning a bailiff led us into the fourth floor courtroom. I was second in line and took a seat at the end of the first row in the public gallery area. The judge – on loan from a nearby county – explained the case, a first-degree murder trial and introduced the defense attorneys and the defendant and his lawyers.

My immediate thought: Don’t pick me.

Murder trials have a tendency to last a long time and the Pender Chronicle newspaper would probably shrink from 16 pages to a one-page broadsheet if I spent a week or more as a juror. Although we now have a sports reporter, I remain “it” for covering the news side.

The omens were not good. The judge called out 12 names of men and women to come forward and sit in the jury seats. Again, I heard my name. For close to three hours, the 12 were questioned by the defense attorney about our views concerning booze, bad marriages and guns. One juror was released before the questioning ended because she had relatives coming for a family gathering while the trial would still be going on.

A new potential juror was selected from the pool and the questioning continued unabated. Amazingly, quite a few jurors told the DA they had relatives who had been arrested for DUI or drug abuse or knew deputies, attorneys or judges. When the questioning ended, the DA released three – and I was one of the three. I wanted to do a jig in the middle of the courtroom. Instead, I skedaddled out as fast as I could.

Thank God most lawyers don’t want a reporter on a jury.

1 comment:

  1. No sympathy. No sympathy whatsoever. Jury service was my dream option of leaving the classroom - paid leave and a new experience. Decades I spent, paying my rates and waiting...for the call. It never came. I'll shit and scream if they ever call me now - in MY time!