Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Duty Free

My service as a juror in Kings County Court came to an abrupt end today.

I had been picked (screwed?) with 7 other people to sit on a civil case involving a car crash. We had expected the trial to go on for at least the rest of the week.

But just after the attorneys made their opening arguments, Judge Solomon—yes, that’s his name--stopped the proceedings and sent us home.

We were told this morning that the two parties had settled their case and our services were no longer needed. It was very difficult not to do a Homer Simpson “woo-hoo!” in court and run out the door, but I managed to control myself.

Our court officer, Ralph, told us that people who seem really determined to go ahead with a trial often lose their nerve upon seeing the jury.

“They realize that it’s serious,” he said, “and they think, ‘hey, I might get nothing.’ ”

Judge Solomon told us that we wouldn’t be called for jury duty for another eight years—when I’m 60 years old—unless, he added, “we have a spike in crime.”

I was wondering where I would be in 8 years, but then I recalled the words of a guy in one of my film classes at Hunter College. I was 20 at the time and I was speculating about where I would be in the next five years.

"Just make sure you're above ground," my classmate said.

So now after all my complaining and agita about jury duty, I got cut loose in two days. My father used to tell me that I “get big headful of steam” about things and my mother always warned me not to “get into a state” over something. You really should listen to your parents.

On the positive side, I got a brief, but close-up look at the justice system and I met some very nice people.

Chief among these was Ralph, who has been on the job 38 years. A thin balding man with one of those little rattails—he dismissed any idea of shaving his head like yours truly—Ralph was a real character.

He told jokes, gave little tidbits of gossip, and discussed the news of the day. Ralph told us to stay away from the water cooler in the hall because it hadn’t been cleaned in years.

“You have to be really desperate,” he said.

Today, while we waited to be dismissed, Ralph sat down to tell us his life story. He had been a school teacher in 1970 and he loved it, but he wasn’t making enough money.

“I thought as long as I’m going to be a lion tamer,” he said, “I might as well be a policeman.”

When we were dismissed, Ralph escorted us down to the clerk's office by way of a special staircase.

He said these stairs kept going for several stories below ground level because the courthouse had been built in the 1950s and it had been designed to house people in the event of a nuclear war.

“There are dorms and showers,” he said. "You could get lost down there."

When we returned to Central Jury I looked around at all the unhappy people waiting for their names to be called. I recognized the look on their faces; I felt the same way just a few days ago.

We all received letters thanking us for our “participation and contribution to the delivery of justice.” I don’t feel like we accomplished much of anything, but I’m not going to argue.

“See you in eight years,” Ralph said. “I’ll probably still be here.”

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