2006-11-02 / Sam Bari

You can't beat a system you can't understand

A jury of peers
By Sam Bari

Because I am a resident in two states, I am occasionally

obligated to fulfill my duties as a member of the jury pool at both locations. Sitting on a jury in any courtroom is enough to convince most that we live in a system we can't understand.

As soon as I received the notice that I had the "privilege of being chosen," I knew that my little obligation to society was not going to be easy. A tear-offthe ends and it opens into a sixsided card arrived in the mail. In sugar-substitute-package-sized print, it contained a juror number as well as enough information and instructions to get the reader through law school.

Upon arrival at the courthouse after parking in the juror parking lot that is so large that a tram is required to pick up the prospective jurors, we were herded into a room with at least 800 other victims. But not before being put through a security procedure that fell just short of a strip-search. The room was similar to a movie theater, although its purpose was much less entertaining. A woman with the personality of Gestapo prison guard in a previous life read an hour's worth of rules - as if anyone was going to remember them, or even cared.

Then she took roll call of all 800 jurors by number, not by name. And I'm not exaggerating about the number. Over 800 jurors were in that room That took two hours because after the first 10 seconds, her voice sounded like a drone, and everybody seemed to forget their number. Consequently, she had to shout each number several times. This annoyed her, so she admonished each juror separately for not paying attention. The gathering was less than festive. The roll call scenario was followed by a procedure that divided the now seriously depressed herd into groups that were assigned to different courtrooms. At this point we were convinced that all crime in America was being tried at this gargantuan courthouse.

Upon being escorted to designated courtrooms by uniformed guards, we waited outside for half an hour and were then dismissed for lunch. I won't even tell you the details of what that was like. Just imagine 800 angry people jamming into four elevators to descend on three hot dog stands and invade a couple of already crowded restaurants so they could devour lunch and return to their respective courtrooms in an hour. It was not pretty.

By now the jury pool was an angry throng. All we needed was a few posters and signs, and we could have been a world-class protest group designed to protest everything worthy of protest, and possibly a few things not-soworthy. Believe me, whoever we were protesting against would have given in to our demands. I must admit that I felt sorry for anyone being tried by this mob because compassion was no longer in their vocabulary.

Then we came to the good part. My group of about 30 jurors was herded into the courtroom. The judge and attorneys were going to select 14 of us to actually hear this trial. The attorneys were allowed to ask endless questions after the judge gave us an hour of instruction. And ask they did. When it came to my turn, I felt as if I were on trial. It was intimidating

The defense attorney asked me if I had any preconceived feelings about the case. In other words, he wanted to know if I thought the defendant was guilty just because he was in court. I couldn't help myself; I had to ask a few questions. "Don't cases like this (it was a drug smuggling trial) go before a grand jury before they go to trial?" I asked. The defense attorney responded with a tenuous "yes." I then asked if evidence was presented that supported the allegation that a crime had been committed. Again, he said yes. I also asked if the evidence supported the possible guilt of the defendant. The attorney looked at the judge, and the judge gestured for him to answer the question. He again said yes. So I said that it seemed to me that the government wouldn't be spending all of these taxpayers' dollars on a trial if they didn't think the evidence supported his guilt. "My money is on the prosecution," I said. The jurors laughed and applauded. The judge smiled.

I was the first to be dismissed. I was hoping I'd have an opportunity to ask a few more questions, but they apparently thought I was not a good risk. If the accused is to be tried by a jury of his peers, why wasn't the jury pool filled with other people awaiting trial for criminal behavior? Our group of schoolteachers, retired government workers, and one slightly off-beat newspaper columnist were hardly the peers of an alleged drug smuggler. I guess jury duty is a big part of that system we just can't understand.

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