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Wednesday, February 28, 2007

You probably know that I've been on call for jury duty for several weeks now. Here in Taos county, the gig is two months long, so I'm still on the hook for the whole month of March. Each weekend we have to call in to see if we need to report for jury selection the following week. This week we all showed up at 8:30 Monday morning, and waited to see what would happen. I brought a book and a notebook, and tried to keep myself amused while we waited. But the court room is so distractingly ugly, it was almost impossible to relax and enjoy a few minutes of quiet reading time. The entire courthouse complex is a retro nightmare of cinder block construction. The outside hides fairly well under a coat of adobe-looking stucco, but they've painted the inside in pastel yellow with blocks of other easter egg colors strategically painted to resemble Native American designs... and then there are the "art" pieces on the walls... huge white 3-D things that telescope out from the center, looking like overgrown acoustic tiles that are only meant to suck the life, intelligence, and inspiration from the room. They work pretty well. And just to be sure to make it the ugliest room in the world, they covered the ceiling with cheap fluorescent panels that haven't been cleaned or maintained in 30 years. A few were actually working, but most were either out completely, or flickering on and off.

So there we sat, 50 or 60 of us, in the huge, pit-shaped room, wondering if we'd be sent home, or needed for a jury. Eventually we were told that the case would go to trial, and they would begin the jury selection process right away. Great...

I'd gone in there fully intending to get out of it any way I could. I was prepared to lie, or pretend I was sick, or even make some skanky racist comment... anything to avoid actually serving on a jury. After all - I'm a busy woman. I run a business that supports my family. Without me, there is no business and no income. I have no free time for things I want to do, and certainly had no interest in spending my own precious time on total strangers who were stupid enough to land themselves in court!

The process began, with no opening for me to speak up. The basics of the case were told to us, and the two parties involved were seated there. The group as a whole was asked several questions about whether we knew either of the women or their attorneys.
Clearly, in a small town like this, a lot of people knew someone involved, and would have to be dismissed as jurors. But that still left maybe 30 or 40 of us, and they only needed 13, so as we were sent on a short break, there was still some hope...

Not for long though... the whole group filed back into the courtroom, and 13 names were read off. My name was in there, and we were now jurors. No further questions. The job was ours. But interestingly, by this point, I'd begun to look around the room, and realized these people needed me. I sure didn't want to be there, but since I was there, I figured I'd better do a good job and see what all this was about.

Instructions were given to us, seating was assigned, and the opening statements began immediately. It was a civil case concerning a traffic accident that had happened in 2001. Mrs Plaintiff claimed that her back injuries and general deterioration were a direct cause of the accident, which was pretty obviously the fault of Mrs. Defendant. Without too much detail - because lawyers do their best to muck up a clear case with too much useless information and conjecture - we sat there until lunch, and then came back for a couple of hours in the afternoon.

It was starting to look like we knew all we were going to know, but I tried to keep an open mind and wait for more information. It never came. And the second day was much like the first, with more witnesses, and more lawyer blahblahblah. When it came time to send the jury off to decide what to do with these ladies, we were overloaded with facts and non-facts, and left on our own to sort through it all.

Fortunately, we were a relatively intelligent group of people. One of us was told she'd been the "alternate", and could go home. The other 12 of us squeezed around the conference table in the tiny jury room and looked at each other. None of us had ever served on a jury before. We knew we had to choose a foreman, and nobody wanted the job. Wouldn't you know it - they all turned to me and said, How about you? You're sitting in the middle so we can all hear you. High praise indeed. Well.... I'm thinking OK, I'm here for the total experience, and to do my best job, so why not. Just like that, I had a stack of papers in front of me, and I was Jury Foreperson, which really felt more like Jury Mom.

I kept everyone involved and made sure we heard from each person in the group. I turned to the guy next to me and said, "We're not going to rush this, so you just have to stop it!" And to the woman who was feeling overly sympathetic, I had to say, "I know you feel sorry for her, but we have to stick with the facts. You can take her to lunch next week if you want to be nice to her." Very mom-like leadership.

It didn't take long to decide that the accident was indeed the fault of Mrs. Defendant, but that years of poor health were not a direct result of the accident. There was long history of car accidents on Mrs. Plaintiff's record, and an even longer history of health problems, along with the refusal to follow prescribed care and physical therapy. We decided that we'd only compensate her for the few weeks following the accident in question, since she stopped seeing doctors for over a year after that. We generously awarded her $5000, knowing that her medical expenses had only been about $300 during that time, but not wanting to be insulting to an elderly woman who had a lot of pain and suffering in her life. Bottom line was, the other woman ran a red light, and we couldn't ignore that. $5000 was too much, but we knew her sleazy attorney would take a big chunk of it, and that if we came in too low, he might even ask that the case be re-tried with a new jury.

It's a tricky little walk across that tightrope of justice. Facts and truth and reasonable doubt are pretty slippery tools, but they're all we have. I went in there as a total cynic, and came out with a renewed belief in a judicial system that's all we have to hope for. If I found myself as a defendant in a case like that, I'd sure want to know that the jury was taking their time and considering everything presented. Sure, my time and my business are important to me, but when it came right down to it, it was important to me to take these people's lives as seriously as my own.

There's still the possibility I'll have to serve again this round, since we're still on call through March. But I don't think that local attorney for the plaintiff would have me on his jury again! Everyone in the room looked surprised when the wild haired woman in the front of the jury box stood up and handed the verdict to the bailiff, calmly, loudly saying, "Yes, we have reached a verdict, Your Honor." Not a push-over in the bunch, and I was there to tell them so.

Case closed. Back to beads!


susan said...

It was a good thing you didn't make a remark to get taken out of the pool. I did that one time and had to go before the judge, defendant, plaintiff and the lawyers and explain my remark. I had to go back to downtown Phoenix (I hate it there) for 3 days in a row. By the third day I wanted to be on the jury and was not chosen.

Justice is blind but sometimes it gets even.

Beadily yours

jean said...

that was a beautifully written story and you did it just right.