Photograph by Vitaliy Piltser

The Alternate

Few people want jury duty, but at least most jurors seated for trial get the satisfaction of passing judgment. For one writer, being an alternate becomes a tale of miscarried justice.

The jury summons showed up in December around the same time a dense fog moved in over the city. My anxiety began as soon as the official letter and coastal eddy arrived. The sense of dread that accompanied the overcast sky did little to brighten my mood.

I had always connived and schemed in various ways to get out of jury duty: I had written deranged proclamations with my left hand, pleaded antisocial behavior and profound mental illness. Years ago I tore my last summons into the tiniest of pieces, willing each shred of paper to nicely just go away. But like a virus, the state’s jury selection system had developed immunity to my pleas, making it impossible for me to wrangle my way out of this one. After exhausting my final six-month extension, there was nothing left to do but to succumb.

I remember driving with a friend one Sunday afternoon in late November, returning from a protest downtown at City Hall. Noticing the edifice from blocks away, I joked that it was the most forlorn building I had ever seen. Jutting from a plain of low-slung industrial warehouses, there it sat, like a dead giant’s thumb. The courthouse stood alone, and not unlike an iceberg—most of what went on inside this enigmatic glacier must have lain far in the icy darkness beneath. Back in November, I had thanked God I would never have to go there. Now, it’s June and here I am. I pull up to the mouth of the subterranean parking garage and slowly slide down into its greedy, soot-covered bowels.

There are two lines to get inside the Municipal Court Building. One for the innocent. The other for the guilty. I step into the shorter of the two, as the other snakes its way across the wide concrete terrace, then wraps its tail all the way around to the other side. Nobody wants to be here. This is a place where one’s future is put on hold. Examined. Judged. I do not do well in confined spaces. Nausea, particularly in the mornings, has always been a part of my life. Being thrust into these unfamiliar surroundings, especially around strangers, at this hour sends my body into quiet survival mode. I am ordered to remove my belt and empty my pockets; my brain commands my stomach to control itself.

I wonder if the woman behind the mad, untamed eyes can smell my fear.Nothing is in focus as I finally enter the jurors’ waiting room. I find an empty chair. It takes 17 minutes for my anxiety to settle into the dull hum of resignation. Then the clerk begins to recite the awful truth. “You must have a doctor fill out this section in order to be excused. But if you are already here, then most likely you have already exhausted all your appeals.” Then, “If anyone still feels they have an excuse, please raise your hand.” I recall the $17 in my bank account but feel too ashamed to raise my hand to confess. I already know the clerk won’t listen; her algorithm has already factored in the inevitability of potential lies.

Besides, I already had my way out. The police have stopped me twice since I’ve lived in this fair city, the second time with Pavlovian encouragement from the shiny hollow steel tip of a gun. If I ever make it in front of a judge, this experience assures me that I will soon be dismissed. It’s nine in the morning. Maybe, if we are called in to the courtroom quickly, I can be back home by noon. A judge from the family court now stands before us giving a speech, telling us it’s our civic duty to serve, that there are very few places to eat in the area, and it’s not entirely safe to walk the streets around the courthouse. He then suggests that if we are bored, we can come down to Family Court, where justice is fast, sweet, and occasionally sublime. Any questions? A woman who just finished the graveyard shift at the post office raises her hand and asks if she could please go home. Apparently, jury duty is even worse for government employees—Uncle Sam shows little mercy to postal workers. The judge grimaces as the woman disappears back into her comatose repose. Hours pass and eventually we are released for lunch.


* * *

The judge was right. With the exception of a handful of fast food joints and a taco truck, the entire area around the courthouse is bereft of a decent place to eat. I walk block after block, finding nothing resembling an egg white, leafy-green vegetable, or a boneless-skinless chicken breast. Maybe I shouldn’t have had those vodkas so late last night. The dizziness that accompanies the emptiness in the pit of my stomach begins to rise. There is indeed a conspiracy to slowly murder people in lower-income neighborhoods with a diet of drugs, guns, alcohol, and saturated fats. Human beings must certainly live here in the shadow of the freeway overpass, next to the chop shop, behind the chrome plating factory, in front of the sewage treatment plant. Why is there no decent food? After having spent most of my lunch break exploring the desolation, I was about to be late. I was done.


* * *

The 60 or so potential jurors in the waiting room now are reduced by half, as 30 souls are summoned down to a courtroom. Like new prisoners now a little more at ease in their new surroundings, those of us who are left finally begin to speak to one another. It’s getting late. Does this mean we might be able to go home soon? Last-ditch scenarios are gone over in a myriad of ways. Just a half hour more and maybe… The clerk calls off 14 names. One of them is mine.


* * *

We enter courtroom no. 74 to find 10 jurors already seated. They only need two more. This fact, coupled with my ironclad excuse, means my odds at dismissal are now starting to look really good. We are quickly given numbers to protect our privacy, and I am assigned 42. We are asked a series of questions, the most pertinent ones—Have you ever been or do you know anyone who has been involved in Alcoholics Anonymous or had a D.U.I.? Then, the requisite “cop” question: Would you automatically assume a police officer was lying whether he was telling the truth or not?

This is an odd way to put the question, and as my fellow potential jurors respond, I begin to wrestle with how I am going to answer. “I’m a bartender,” I offer regarding the first, “trained to identify excessive drinking—and yes, I do know a whole lot of drunk people both in and out of A.A., and to tell you the truth I don’t like ‘em, Your Honor. Drunk people freak me out. And with all the D.U.I.s I know of, the rollovers, the drunken arguments, slapped faces, vomit, and tears, I might have a hard time being objective in this case.” And then the question about my automatically thinking a cop was lying, “Well, there was the time…”

“A yes or no answer will suffice, Juror No. 42.”

“Well…then I guess I would have to say no.”

“Jurors No. 4 and No. 7, please take your place on the jury.” And then my jubilation turns to horror. “Jurors No. 41 and No. 42, you are now the alternates.”


* * *

I spot her the next day after having removed my belt and all the change and objects from my pockets and stepped through the metal detector. Five feet two inches in an acid-washed denim mini-skirt, a magenta halter, and cheap wig and—from my estimation—well into her third trimester. She stalks the main floor lobby like an animal, her eyes wild with years of unknown abuse. She entered the courthouse with her looming and silent thug boyfriend, through that other door, cursing to herself and whoever else just so happens to stand in her eyesight. “Motherfuckers,” she purrs, banging the elevator call button with her tiny fist. Deputy sheriffs, police officers, highway patrol officers, and other officers of the court move in the crowd around her, but it’s as if there is no one else in the lobby but her. Back in November, I participated in a march for gay rights, and the sight of these same black-clad and fully armed riot police sent shivers down my spine, but a lobby full of cops with guns doesn’t seem to faze this woman in the least. I pray we will not get on the same elevator. And then we do. As the elevator rises, she starts in again. “Ya’ll motherfuckers don’t even know me,” she mumbles. “Tha-fuck you lookin’ at?” she growls to no one in particular. Then her eyes finally lock on mine. These are the eyes I always try to avoid. The feral and rangy eyes of a human being whose instincts are permanently set on wild. Survival is the only thing that matters. Fuck or fight. Kill or be killed. Them or us. Until today, my only glimpse of her world has been by the illumination of a searchlight from a police helicopter on the 11 o’clock news. But here she stands before me. Live and in Technicolor. I wonder if she ever had anyone who truly loved her as a child. I wonder if the child growing inside her belly will have a chance to break the chain of inevitability. I wonder if the woman behind the mad, untamed eyes can smell my fear.


* * *

We now listen to the opening statement from the prosecution. And I am wondering why I was so stupid as to not lie yesterday. “At 12:20 a.m. on the morning of January 2, Mr. Alvarez was pulled over by Officer Hanson. At 12:37, Mr. Alvarez blew a .10…” and I can feel it. A palpable judgment passes through the 12 jurors seated behind me. That’s all they needed to hear. The prosecuting attorney has already told us that the legal limit for driving under the influence in this state is .08.

There are two lines to get inside the Municipal Court Building. One for the innocent. The other for the guilty. I step into the shorter of the two.Of course cops lie, I think, still beating myself for my verbal fuck-up from the day before. A young off-duty police officer is now on the witness stand about to be sworn in. As a black man, I have memorialized a history of officers of the law telling lies to cover for their abuse. Dashboard-cam tapes gone missing. “We arrived in the cell to find the suspect deceased.” “Officers fired on the suspect 47 times when they saw what was thought to be a weapon.” Even the starched young white police officer on the witness stand, with his polite doe eyes and too-long sideburns (the ideal place to conceal a lie) could just about be ready to start telling more.

It is now time for the defense lawyer, Ms. Nakamura, to question the witness for the prosecution. This slip of a thing looks like it’s her first time at bat. Jet-black hair pulled tight and cascading down the back of her charcoal suit, Ms. Nakamura approaches the podium almost petulant. Demure. Timid and shaky of voice, she begins. “Officer Hanson, it says in your report that you administered the field sobriety test to Mr. Alvarez at 12:37 a.m.”

“That is correct,” blinks Officer Hanson.

I’m about to feel sympathy for the seemingly unsteady rookie defense attorney, until Ms. Nakamura’s voice turns to steel. “Well, then, explain to us why it says here on the PAZ device’s own computerized record that the test was administered at 12:52…now which is it, Officer Hanson?” She’s accelerated from coy young associate to Johnnie Cochran in less than seven seconds flat.

Again, the hair on the back of my neck begins to rise, as I hear the audible murmur of the juror directly behind me. Juror No. 3, a no-nonsense African-American grandmother, can’t help herself. “She can’t be serious.”

Mr. Alvarez blowing a .10 into a Breathalyzer is a fact. What else do we need to know? More testimony? The examinations? The cross? Of course, we swore an oath to be impartial and hear all the evidence until both sides have rested, but the legal limit is the legal limit. Despite the defense attorney’s belief that she cast a demographically sympathetic jury, who could refute years of practice at identifying, scientifically testing, and prosecuting drunk drivers by law enforcement officers throughout the whole wide civilized world? How on earth could the defense change our predominately of-color minds? Sure, Officer Hanson is white. Sure, the jury consists of five Hispanics, four African-Americans, an Asian fellow, two white guys, and us two alternates, but this doesn’t mean we are stupid. And besides, race is no longer a determinant in social justice, anyway. I am living proof of that. If you trust the pollsters, more than half of the four sweet-looking black grandmothers seated in the jury behind me took their bishop’s advice and voted to take away my civil rights back in November of ‘08 when they approved California’s Proposition 8. Does the law firm who put Ms. Nakamura up to this lame defense think these grannies are going to give Mr. Alvarez’s drinking and driving problem a second thought? All that is left for us now is to whittle away the time before the jury can finally deliberate. The intangible, however, is exactly how many hours more?

The most frustrated of the 14 are me and my neighbor, Juror No. 41. The Alternates. We’re forced to listen to every word, but short of a heart attack by a member of the actual jury, our opinion ultimately amounts to nothing. The two of us are frustrated that our knives in this situation are permanently sheathed. We are unable, unlike the other 12 in our senate, to dispatch with this Caesar. Not even allowed to sit in the jury booth, we are directly between the witness stand and the prosecution, with a direct view of the judge and Mr. Alvarez’s imploring eyes. And now I can’t even stand to look at him—who exactly do you think you are, Mr. Alvarez? Breathalyzer tests know no skin color. You are guilty.

As the prosecution calls the city’s top forensic pathologist to the stand, I wish I hadn’t had those cocktails so late last night. But how on earth am I going to get to sleep, especially after having to listen to this shit all day? Thankfully, someone I love is coming over to spend the night, to distract me from the all-encompassing loneliness. The esteemed criminal pathologist lists his staggering credentials, then launches into advanced trigonometry in order to explain that Mr. Alvarez has already lied to us and had actually downed an entire six-pack of beer instead of the “just three Bud Lights” he had sworn to in his defense. The esteemed criminal pathologist then rips Ms. Nakamura’s foolish assertions new assholes time and time again. We are soon let go for the evening, and I pass the pregnant woman in the hallway, staring out of one of the few, heavily barred windows, still waiting for her fleeting chance to be set free.


* * *

Admonished not to speak to anyone, especially to each other about the case, the 14 of us wait outside the courtroom the next morning in silence. All we need in order to get on with the rest of our lives is the smooth path toward a quick deliberation. Mr. Alvarez makes sure that his limp from surgery a year earlier is particularly exaggerated, hobbling back and forth in front of us. He’s hoping this pantomime might have some sort of sympathetic influence on us, somehow explaining away his drunken swagger in the middle of the field sobriety test administered by the alleged racist Officer Hanson. Not a chance, Mr. Alvarez. The first alternate, No. 41, a 50-something housewife, specifically wore her skull-and-crossbones ankle socks today for good luck on a quick verdict.


* * *

A glimmer of hope dawns on the horizon, but not for Mr. Alvarez. His fate is already a foregone conclusion. The prosecution rests. The judge then makes mention of the defense’s final witness. Our hearts quietly soar, but I am already in heaven. I didn’t drink last night and still had the best night’s sleep since I could remember, because I spent the evening with the only person in the world with whom I feel totally safe. Kevin is in town after having done the AIDS ride, and free spirit that he is, he called out of the clear blue sky to ask if he could spend the night. But I already knew he was coming. “Of course you are staying with me,” I reassured him, having practiced this spontaneous response to his sudden phone call an entire month before. Kevin is my ex. Both of us are making our best attempt at maintaining our “friendship” after he left this city and me, while I’ve been trying my best to remain stoic and act like I’ve moved on. “I gotta be up in the morning though, so no partying. Jury duty—I know, I’ll tell you all about it when you get here—you still got your keys, right?” Maybe this is why I am so resentful at having to do this jury duty. Maybe I’m angry with Mr. Alvarez because he’s keeping me from spending as much of this fleeting bit of time with Kevin as I can.

The most frustrated of the 14 are me and my neighbor, Juror No. 41. The Alternates. Short of a heart attack by a member of the actual jury, our opinion ultimately amounts to nothing.“The defense calls Mr. Solomon,” and now a Mr. Solomon makes his way to the stand. A retired crime lab attendant with the police department, balding, rumpled, and round about the middle, Mr. Solomon bears a striking resemblance to a latter-day Falstaff. Brought in to refute the expert testimony of his former boss, the forensic pathologist, Mr. Solomon is betrayed by his own speech patterns. “Ummm. Maybe. Yeah.” At least this guy is interesting, and maybe it’s best I do have somewhere to be besides just sitting at home waiting for Kevin to tell me he changed his mind about us—yeah, that’s it, I had to do my civic duty instead of being mired in the enervating spin of the reasons why Kevin and I cannot be together. I had seen this Mr. Solomon rolling his bag of pie charts and graphs in and out of the various courtrooms on the seventh floor, casting aspersions. As the prosecution now gets him to confess that he makes $400 per court appearance, I calculate how much Mr. Solomon’s entrepreneurial zeal has made him over the last few days. As Mr. Solomon now earns this $400 basically parroting the forensic pathologist’s testimony back to us in layman’s terms, my mind drifts back to Kevin. He slipped into bed last night telling me he’s never slept better with anyone else and, once again, I watched him sleep so soundly throughout the night. I watched Kevin breathe with that tranquil look on his face as if he was at total peace with the world, laughing in his dreams, sleepily agreeing with someone whom, now, is obviously not me.

I know I’m too tethered to this city, which is one of the multitudes of reasons why things between Kevin and me didn’t work out. I’ve spent years building a concrete foundation of reasons why I have to stay in the exact same place. Fear, self-doubt, disappointment, and resignation comprise the four walls of the home I’ve made for myself, the type of home Kevin said suffocated him two years before. Kevin still thinks I don’t breathe enough. He even had me on the floor last night, meditating, of all things. Breathing. Deep breaths in and out. Stretching. Facing north, west, south, then east. His voice encouraging me to visualize a world of hope and endless possibilities. “Visualize the future and where you want to be,” he asked of me, and legs crossed, eyes closed and breathing, finally, I visualized the two of us back together as one.

“Objection, Your Honor! Asked and answered,” cries Ms. Nakamura.

“Sustained. Rephrase your question, Mrs. Jacobs,” instructs the judge.

I totally just missed something really important, I think, but what does it really matter? The bogus expert witness, Mr. Solomon, hasn’t told us anything except for the interesting fact that a person can down five shots of alcohol, get in his car, and still not be above the legal limit for as long as seven to 15 minutes. Thank you, Ms. Nakamura. Your entire case now hinges on the hope that we will let Mr. Alvarez go on account of the possibility that at the moment he was pulled over he might have been “just a little drunk.” Lord, the times I’ve woken up with my car safely in the driveway, unscratched, having no memory of how I got home. What if Officer Hanson had just let him continue driving erratically up Main Street? Mr. Alvarez might have made it to the next bar before last call, or he could have run over a single mother crossing a darkened street to get some baby formula from the 7-Eleven.

I was on my best behavior with Kevin last night. I have no idea how I managed to just cuddle. No tears or accusations. No begging for just one more fuck. Things were so good this morning when I woke up in his arms, that he promised to still be at my apartment when I get home to spend another night “and talk.” As both sides’ closing arguments come to an unremarkable end, the jury finally deliberates. This is perfect. I already have it planned that I will convince Kevin to come back to me. After dinner and a couple cocktails, the right music and the words I’ve been rehearsing over and over again for the past 27 months, I know I can convince Kevin to open his heart again and give me one more chance.


* * *

Now back upstairs, waiting for our jury to deliberate quickly and find Mr. Alvarez guilty, the other alternate, No. 41, and I finally speak. Keeping in mind that we are still instructed not to talk to each other about the case, out of the clear blue sky, No. 41 invokes the sentiment that, at least here in America, we have a criminal justice system that works, “unlike the kind of justice they receive in North Korea or Iran.” I, in turn, tell No. 41 that the love of my life is waiting for me at home, “down from the AIDS ride,” I make sure to proffer, then. reminisce on the justice I once again hope to fully enjoy as a law-abiding and tax-paying citizen of this great land of ours. “I’m going to ask him to marry me when I get home, so I hope this won’t take too much longer.” I purposefully do not look at her, not needing the validation of a response.

Hours pass. No. 41 has stopped talking to me entirely after my further unsolicited elucidation on the collapse of the American justice system since 9/11. It is nearly 5 p.m., and we begin to wonder what is taking so long. We had assumed Mr. Alvarez’s guilt was a foregone conclusion, and when finally summoned back down to the seventh floor, I see for myself exactly what the defense lawyer, Ms. Nakamura, had been hoping to accomplish. As the 11 stone-faced jurors emerge from the deliberation room, No. 7 pushes her way through them, crying. There it is. Right before my eyes. Live and in living color. Reasonable doubt.

I had noticed the young blond Latina, always seated off to herself, reading one of those popular vampire romance novels. The youngest of the 14 of us, No. 7 always smiled when she saw me, then would bury her nose again into the thick black paperback with a blood-dripping red rose on the front. I now realize Mr. Alvarez’s sympathetic stare was never meant for any of us. Those imploring eyes had done their work on the youngest and most impressionable juror. “We have to come back tomorrow,” informs the appointed jury forewoman, and with those words I am gone.


* * *

Today, it doesn’t take long for our jury to finish its deliberation and find Mr. Alvarez guilty on one count of operating a vehicle under the influence of alcohol, and another for criminal misconduct. Now I can’t help but feel sorry for Mr. Alvarez, as I see the look of utter surprise range across his face. No. 7 obviously had enough time to come to her senses. Maybe her penchant for romance only went so far. I am asked by No. 41 how my “proposal” went the night before. I finally look into her hopeful eyes and do not have the heart to confess that by the time I had returned home last night, Kevin was already gone.