Why I want to get into jury duty, and why I'll be snubbed again



Good seats available, but not for me.
  • Jean Lachat/Sun-Times
  • Good seats are available, but not for me.
Amid the usual thrilling mail last week—a service reminder from a plumber, a solicitation from a needy credit card company, an offer of AAA membership—to my delight I received a jury summons.

How could I not be honored by the invitation, given its regal tone? "By order of the Circuit Court of Cook County, Illinois, you are hereby summoned to appear for jury service on the date and time at the court indicated below."

Many are called, but few are summoned. "My county needs me," I informed my spouse.

Some of my friends groan when they hear from the Cook County Jury Administration. They're too busy and self-important to get stuck on a jury, and so they immediately start crafting their slacker alibis. But I think serving is a privilege, and I regret that I've never had the chance.

The work of a jury seems fascinating. A group of strangers of varied backgrounds and temperaments are asked to try to arrive at consensus without assaulting each other. They handle their task with the utmost gravity, although anecdotal evidence suggests they're more apt to reach a verdict early on Friday afternoons, with the weekend beckoning.

I'd like to get inside that mysterious, almighty jury room and see how it's done. More than that, I'd like to be part of the process. How often are we able to play active roles as citizens? Yes, we get to vote; but jury service clearly is much more intense, and potentially far more satisfying.

And now there's another reason for embracing jury duty: next Monday—June 1—the salary jumps. (My reporting day is June 12.) A law enacted in December boosts the pay for the first day from $17.20 to $25. And whereas the pay for successive days under the old law was also $17.20, under the new law, each day after the first one earns jurors 50 bucks. As always, if you're lucky enough to get sequestered, you also get room and board on the county. I can't afford not to be on a jury—and the longer the trial, the better. I may get a note from my doctor declaring me fit as a fiddle and ready to judge.

Alas, jury duty probably isn't in the cards for me, at least not this time, because I was told to report to the criminal courthouse at 26th and California. My journalism has often involved writing about that courthouse. Lawyers tend to like jurors who know a little about the territory, but not too much, and in this respect, I fear I may be among the overqualified.

Still, I intend to do my best to win a position—so I'm not going to disclose any more details than necessary when I fill out the "Juror Information Form" on the back of the summons. Fortunately, while it asks if I've ever been a victim of a crime or accused of one (no and no), it doesn't ask if I've ever written a book about the building.

Besides, Courtroom 302 is so ten years ago. And I think that's past the statute of limitations, so I shouldn't have to mention it.

I asked my Facebook friends last week what odds they gave me of making it on a panel. Their answers ranged broadly, from "slim to none" to "less than zero." A judge from Seattle observed, "You strike me as a section of the cross community." (He's a creative sentencer.)

​A former prosecutor who's evolved into a defense lawyer ​wrote, "I'd love an author/journalist on one of my juries now: looks at all sides, tries to understand everything, struggles to find the 'truth,' wants to know the reasons for why people do the crazy things they (allegedly) do."

Ah, he wants that kind of juror now. But how many current prosecutors are looking for someone with those inclinations?

It's true that I lean away from the side bent on adding to the mass incarceration effort. But can I be fair and impartial? I can be fairly impartial. Or let's say I'm equally partial to every defense.

I made it to voir dire once, years ago, also at 26th Street. Voir dire is the job-interview stage: lawyers for both sides quiz prospective jurors in the courtroom, searching for signs of bias. I'd yet to think of doing a book about the courthouse at this point, but I'd already written a few stories about the place. The prosecutor looked at my juror form and asked me what I'd done lately for the Reader. "A profile of Judge [William] Cousins upstairs," I told him.

"I read that!" the judge in this courtroom, Gino Divito, exclaimed enthusiastically. "That was very good, and accurate."

The lawyers chatted briefly at the bench, after which Judge Divito gently informed me of the verdict: they would just have to do the trial without me.

I didn't take the rejection personally, not much. When Courtroom 302 was published some years later, judges Cousins and Divito both came to the release party, and I didn't ask either of them to leave.

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