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A Jury of One's Peers

One Day at 26th and California

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I push past hot-dog carts and curbside vendors into the Criminal Court Building, where a scruffy handwritten sign directs women to the left, men to the right, through metal detectors and X-ray machines and periodic friskings. Other signs prohibit things like magic markers and "seriously short shorts."

Inside the waiting room, a video is launched with trumpet fanfare-- Superman-flavored music introduces a plump-chinned narrator with a hair wave who tells us about the somber joys of jury duty.

The video judge looks just like Wapner. A woman beside me in a gem-studded hat nods vigorously as the video man tells us that to speak to anyone, even a spouse, about a trial in process may be an act of contempt.

The jury supervisor, who has basset-hound sacks under his eyes and chin, announces that he will decide which channels the three TVs will be tuned to so that there will be no arguments. "What a good group," he keeps saying, woodenly. "Over to the east we've got vending machines, money changer, that type of thing. Smoking is in the north here only. Over behind me here, there's phones for you to call work or call home and tell them how great it is here, that type of thing."

In the hall we are lined up in twos like in grade school. The guard escorting us to the courtroom has an Elvis hair helmet, plastic-pink cheeks, and thick-lensed glasses that magnify her grape eye shadow. We are marched into an ancient courtroom, where the judge tells us the trial involves charges of murder and attempted murder. After the attorneys and the 15-year-old defendant stand and greet us, the judge gives us endless dry instructions about murder and criminal trials and reasonable doubt. Then 12 are called up into the jury box, where the seats are wonderfully worn out and comfortable and squeaky. The first woman called is a clerk, says her husband's a technician for Zenith. The judge asks her chatty questions about herself, her family. Then he reads a blur of instructions in legalese. The woman nods timidly. When he asks, "If you feel that the burden of guilt has been proved beyond a reasonable doubt, what will your verdict be?" she blushes, hesitates, stumbles off automatic. The judge kindly offers to read the question again. "Any hobbies?" he asks at the wrap. "Sewing?" She says it like a question. "Um, and exercise, though it doesn't show."

A woman to the right is testy. She's Asian and speaks broken English. When the judge asks, reading from her card, "You work at home? You're a homemaker?" she barks, "Yes, my husband had stay home from work today so I come here." But when the judge reads the ages of her children from her summons, they're mostly in their 30s. When he asks about her ability to be impartial, she snaps, "I don't know." Answers all his questions fiercely. "I don't know. I don't know." Suddenly she says, "I'm confused and scared right now." The judge smiles, saying there's nothing to be afraid of. While the attorneys and judge confer, I lean over to her. "Have you never done this before?"

She shouts, "I don't want to. Some people want to do jury. Why don't let them! Let me go home. My husband stay home work so I drive all the way here. Why they call me? From my register to vote?" Several people explain that's not how it's done anymore. The reluctant juror grows more irritated. "No? From driver's license? Oh, great. So means I have stop driving? Why they do this to me! I don't want to."

"I think it's considered a civic responsibility," I suggest. She grumbles more about how far she drove, and someone says, "It's inconvenient for a lot of people." There's a sudden chorus of nodding around us. "That's right," the woman in front of us says. "A lot of us are inconvenienced."

We are so quickly dismissed from the case that the guard outside the courtroom looks startled to see us.

"We got bounced," I tell her.

"I did too when I got called," she says sympathetically. "You never know why. It's nothing personal."

Out the windows of the jurors' waiting room, you can see trains crawling slowly along the smog-stained horizon to the east, the scrolled barbed wire of the high-security prison to the south. Inside we sit, name-tagged, at our designated tables sipping our pops.

With a quick grin, a black man named Andrew sits beside me, snaps open his briefcase, unpacks a half-eaten pack of Halls Mentholyptus and pads of scribbles, and explains how he was late because his son left his house keys at home so he had to drop them by the school. When he walked in late, everyone looked at him. When he sat down several people shifted away from him. "One woman covered her purse," he laughs with narrowed eyes. "I told her, 'Relax. It's daylight. We're in a court building. I'm here for jury duty like you.' People are so funny sometimes."

In the next courtroom we're escorted to, the judge opens by explaining it's a possession of a controlled substance case. Has anyone served on a jury before? About 20 hands go up, and she says she'll start with the people in the jury box. Civil case or criminal? You realize the burden of proof is different in a civil case than it is in a criminal case? Anything about your prior jury experience that would affect your ability to be fair or impartial in this case? Hands that had popped up drift down as the first few folks struggle to remember if their case was civil or criminal and where and what it was and how it ended. But the basketball-bellied man to my left--a short fellow with a stained shirt and flawless white socks, in his 40s--keeps his hand raised the whole time. We are in the last row. He lifts slowly up off the bench, then stands with his hand raised while the judge moves through the jury box. Then she moves methodically on to the first row of the left side of the courtroom. The gent's arm begins to tremble, and he tucks his left hand under his armpit to help keep it hoisted, blinking earnestly behind silver-rimmed glasses. Finally the judge reaches him, and he introduces himself forcefully as Salvatore. "When did you serve on a jury, sir?" the judge asks.

"In 1960," he announces.

She asks if anyone has been or has family members who have been the victim of a crime. Most of the hands go up. Everything from cars and homes burglarized to a mother's house burned to the ground to one woman stabbed in the back and another woman strangled by a crack addict. One woman says her father's pocket was picked at the Statue of Liberty several summers ago. An older woman in kelly green jumps up, sits down, squirms in her seat. Mumbles into her hand, "I don't even want to tell it." Brings her fingertips to her lips. The judge waits. "Nope, I don't even want to tell it. It's my brother's son, my nephew." More silence. "My nephew, oh, I don't like to say it, he's down in Mississippi." The woman sighs. "Well." Long silence. The judge leans over her desk. The lawyers fidget. Then suddenly the woman spurts, "He killed a white man!" She taps her lips and sits sideways in the wooden seat, shaking her head. The judge says, "Ma'am, excuse me, but the question is were you or any member of your family or friends a victim of a crime."

"Oh, uh, well. I guess it don't matter then," says the woman.

Another woman announced crisply that she was once attacked and that her brother was murdered in a drug deal. "Was anyone apprehended in those cases?" the judge asks. No. "Would you hold it against the police that no one was apprehended?" Yes, the woman shouts. "OK ma'am, you are excused."

The judge asks the woman who was strangled if that would affect her impartiality. "Yes, it would insofar as the person who attacked me was a crack addict."

"OK, ma'am, you are excused," the judge says quickly. She is thorough and gentle, compassionate with crime victims, and patient with one flustered woman who raises her hand to indicate she cannot serve but has no specifics as to why. Just doesn't think she can. She keeps stammering something about only coming here to "honor, to honor my, to honor the thing I got in the mail."

"The summons?"

"Yes, I came here to honor my summons."

"But is there any reason why you cannot serve?"

"I don't know. I'm not sure."

Later she tells the judge her husband is going in for surgery tomorrow and she wants to be with him. The judge instantly dismisses her, reassures her as the woman repeats that she came to honor her thing in the mail. "That's all right. I understand," the judge told her. "Go be with your husband and I hope all goes well."

Everyone has hit an afternoon slump. The sun has turned bloody. The clock slaps against four, then five o'clock. As jurors begin to see others dismissed, a few cons sit up.

"Your honor, I believe I'm not an impartial person here in this case because I got, some of my friends, you know, they been in jail and also they been victims of crimes from drugs."

"Friends or family members?"

"Well, this one friend, he's my brother."

"He's your friend or he's your brother?"

"Well, you see, he's my best friend's brother's girlfriend. He got, once he was in jail, I mean, she was, she got attacked, it was from drugs, and I just don't think I could be on a jury, you know. 'Cause I got some deep feelings about that still. I think it's my impartiality."

It goes back and forth till the judge, exasperated, dismisses him. He struts out with a smirk. The cranky homemaker from this morning clears her throat and stands up. Says loudly, "My daughter in California, she was victim of holdup at ATM."

"Your daughter is in California?"

"Yes."

"When did this happen?"

"Two year ago. No, soon. Like this year."

"Is there any reason why that would affect your judgment in this case?"

"I don't know."

"How would that incident relate to this case?"

"Maybe drugs was involved."

"OK, ma'am. You're excused. The sheriff will give you your check on the way out."

One man in the jury box shifts while the judge innocuously reads questions off the summons card.

"Says here you burn machines. What does that mean?"

"Means I work steel and things. Burning metal and things."

The judge keeps listening, but the man doesn't continue. "OK. It says here you have seven children. What does the oldest do?"

"Pardon?"

"What does your oldest child do?"

"Do? I dunno. They all in California. I don't know what they do."

When the judge comes to "Have you ever been party to a lawsuit," the old man's tongue lurches to life: "I was arrested but by accident. See, my son was goin' with this girl and there was a fuss and I'm the senior so they come and arrest me but I didn't do it. My son, he did it. But I was the senior. It was a mix-up. And I was in jail another time--"

"Hold it, hang on, wait. Back up. You say you were arrested once but they were really looking for your son?"

"Mm hmm. That's right."

"And was that case ever resolved?"

"Uh. Yeah. I guess so."

"What happened?"

"I don't 'member exactly. Then I was 'rested another time."

He gets excused eventually. Another man says he makes videos. He was arrested in the 60s for possession of marijuana. He is tidy, polite, bright, fine-boned. When the judge gets to "Is there any reason why you could not be impartial in this case?" he states with succinct acrimony, "I don't trust Chicago cops." I accidentally burst out laughing.

"OK, sir, thank you. You may step down. The sheriff will give you your check."

The clerk from this morning is up again. Same befuddled gal, but this time she bumps her husband up to an electronics engineer. She agrees docilely to everything the judge says. Then the judge asks, "Do you understand that the burden of proof rests with the state and that they must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty before you can render a guilty verdict?"

There's a long pause. Then the woman grips her purse and says, "Yes, I know that, but I don't know why it's like that."

"Pardon me?"

"I don't know why he's not guilty first, then--"

"Wait, hold on, stop right there," the judge says. She sits down hard, rubs her forehead, then explains that the Constitution guarantees a citizen's innocence until guilt is proven. The explanation is careful, clear, and animated with loverlike devotion to the document. The woman nods again, sighing as though this goofy rule ought to be changed but she's not going to make a fuss about it. Then the defendant's lawyer rises and respectfully requests the good woman be released.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.

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