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Trials and Tribulations

How do you tell a judicial buff that the real-life courtroom is more Night Court than Perry Mason? Send him to jury duty twice in two years, that’s how. Matthew Baldwin gets his civic duty on.

This past November I received a summons to serve as a juror for the King County Superior Court.

“Again?” my wife asked. “I thought it was supposed to be random.”

“This is how random works,” I reminded her. “Some people never get called; some people get called all the time.”

* * *

The main Superior Court is conveniently located in downtown Seattle. Naturally, I am assigned to the auxiliary court, inconveniently located 20 miles away on the outskirts of the county. I arrive a little before 8 a.m, as instructed, and quickly fill out some paperwork. One of the sheets allows a juror to donate his payment to the court’s daycare, and it looks like a 30th-generation photocopy and as if it had even been faxed back and forth between courts a few times. I consider telling them that I’ll forgo my fee if they promise to use the money to purchase Microsoft Word and a $100 printer.

After I affix a badge reading “JUROR” to my sweater and join some 300 other people in a waiting area, nothing happens. Apparently the eight o’clock show-up time is a ruse to ensure punctuality. Here in America we not only have to conscript citizens into performing their civic duty, we also have to trick them into showing up on time.

While some waiting jurors read magazines and others chat with their neighbors, an astonishing number just stare at the floor, the ceiling, or the walls. An elderly woman sitting to my left finishes her paperwork and simply shuts down; her eyes glaze over and her face goes slack. I used to carry matches as a college student, in case any of my many smoker friends ever needed a light. Now I’m wondering if I should start toting Reader’s Digest Condensed Novels to distribute to old ladies who don’t have the good sense to carry a copy of World’s Best Word Searches in their handbags.

At nine o’clock a man takes to the podium at the front of the room. “You people fall into three categories,” he begins. “Some are excited about the prospect of serving on a jury. Some are little nervous about how things are going to work. And—heh heh—some have served on a jury before, and wish they weren’t here.”

Recognizing this as a joke, many people obligingly chuckle. I am not one of them. It’s not funny, because it’s true.

* * *

The previous time I’d been selected to serve as a juror was just over two years ago, and I’d fallen squarely in the first of those three categories of people. I’d been jonesin’ for jury duty for decades, to tell the truth. As a teen, I devoured Perry Mason novels and was glued to L.A. Law. As a college student, I took the LSAT because I thought being a lawyer would be a blast—you get to argue all day, bully witnesses into blurting out secrets, and leap to your feet bellowing, “ObJECTion, your honor!” several times an hour. What could possibly be more fun?

Upon fulfilling the initial selection criteria for a case, my fellow jurors and I were given questionnaires. As I skimmed the document, I could feel my excitement hastily throwing all of its clothes in a suitcase and vacating the premises. Every question had something to do with “sexual misconduct.” Worse, the final question read, “Has anyone you known had a child forcibly removed from their home?” Sexual misconduct + child = case I did not want to be on.

Fortunately, everyone I had spoken with back then about my impending jury duty had passed along a nugget of wisdom that was sure to get me dismissed from serving, including: play up my education (“they don’t want educated people”); play up my occupation (“they don’t want analytical programmer types”), give long, dispassionate, and candid answers (“they don’t want people who appear overly thoughtful”). Unfortunately, it turned out that the only surefire strategy for getting off this particular jury was to lack a Y chromosome. The defense and the prosecution took turns dismissing the women from the jury pool. I couldn’t understand their reasoning—surely if one side wanted all men, the other side would want the opposite, right? But it seems that the prosecution and defense had agreed to put their differences aside and work as a team, just this once, to ensure that I’d get stuck on this god-awful case. After skewing our gender-ratio 11-to-1 in favor of men, both sides announced their acceptance of a jury that featured me in the #7 slot.

* * *

The man at the podium wraps up his introduction, and we are shown a video on the history of trial-by-jury, narrated by Raymond Burr. The film is thoroughly generic, but the filmmakers have “customized” it by squeezing in as many references as possible to the state of Washington: “The judicial system is as majestic as the Olympic Mountains,” Burr says. “And as exciting as a Seahawks game.”

Burr later reassures us that those called to serve “are certain to find it a rewarding and enriching experience.” At that moment I hear the woman behind me sigh loudly into her cell phone and say, “Yeah, I’m stuck in jury duty, goddammit.”

* * *

The case I wound up sitting on in my previous jury duty was every bit as bad as the questionnaire had hinted: five counts of molestation and rape of a child. This wouldn’t have been so bad if the evidence was a slam-dunk for one side or the other—after all, what juror wouldn’t feel good about putting an obvious rapist behind bars or setting free a defendant wrongly accused?

Instead, we were handed a classic case of he-said, she-said: The plaintiff, a woman in her late teens, alleged that the defendant, a much older relative, had abused her on five separate occasions over the course of a decade. Nothing corroborated her testimony—no eyewitnesses, no physical evidence, no medical reports, nothing.

Worse still, the prosecutor’s arguments were painfully clumsy. She called up a number of witnesses who all said the same thing: that the plaintiff had told them of the abuse but they couldn’t personally speak to the veracity of her claims. At one point the prosecutor tried to fix the timeline of events in the minds of the jury by writing them on a flipchart in their order of occurrence, but she got three of them mixed up and put them in a chronologically impossible sequence. She then spent five minutes trying to rectify the error, crossing out bullet points with her Sharpie and jotting clarifications in the margins.

By the time the prosecution rested, I wanted to raise my hand and ask, “Can we just skip to the verdict? Because there’s no way on earth we can convict this guy.” But, of course, that wouldn’t have been fair. The American judicial system guarantees both sides the inalienable right to fuck up their own cases.

And so the defense began, and spent the last half of the trial mounting a vigorous siege on the “not” in our presumptive “not guilty” verdict. When the plaintiff took the stand, the defense attorney referred her to an interview she’d conducted with the police some six months prior, in which she alleged a whole host of abuses at the hands of the defendant beyond the five specific charges we were considering. Maybe the defense was trying to get us, the jury, to question why she had opted to pursue some allegations and not others. Instead, it simply stoppered a huge hole in the prosecution’s case. The idea that the defendant had assaulted the plaintiff only five times in 10 years, despite ample opportunity to do so more often, had raised considerable doubt in my mind. Now, thanks to the defense attorney, we understood the abuse to be systematic and frequent.

He then called to the witness stand three of the most unskilled liars I have ever seen, one after the other. I’m not one of those people who fancies he can unfailingly spot a fib, but, seriously, these people could lie like Keanu Reeves can act. Each was a close relative of the defendant, each gave testimony that was factually unbelievable and delivered in a carefully worded “I-rehearsed-this-10-minutes-ago” monotone.

By the time the lawyers concluded their summations and the judge sent us to the jury room for deliberations, I was certain of one thing: this Cavalcade of Ineptitude was a far cry from the exciting bout of legal sparring I’d envisioned when I’d received my summons.

* * *

At 10 a.m. a voice over the loudspeaker informs us that we now can take a 15-minute break. We are all a little unclear on how a “break” will in any way differ from the 75 minutes we have just spent dozing in our chairs and eating Hostess cherry pies fresh from the vending machine, but we nonetheless leap from our seats and file from the room. Once outside we mill about aimlessly, wondering how we’d been hornswoggled into abandoning the comfort of the heated waiting area for the winter weather.

Immediately upon our return, Loudspeaker Voice says the jury pool is too large and 50 people will be dismissed. I immediately tell myself not get my hopes up, and do such a good job that I am genuinely surprised when he calls my name.

But that’s how random works, I remind myself as I gather my things and flee the courthouse: “Some people never get called, some people get called all the time.”

* * *

The Sixth Amendment mandates that “n all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury … .” The Seventh Amendment allows the same for civil cases as well. And Thomas Jefferson once wrote, “I consider trial by jury as the only anchor ever yet imagined by man, by which a government can be held to the principles of its constitution.”

It sounds good on paper. But as with most people of my generation, my first real exposure to the system in action came in 1995, when O.J. Simpson was acquitted after the jury deliberated for a scant four hours. That same year, the small town of Wenatchee, Wash., became a modern-day Salem as over 50 adults were accused of being Satan-worshiping child-abusers (really), and many were convicted by juries based on little to no evidence.

The jury I served on did much the same thing: We found our defendant guilty on three of the five charges of child rape, despite almost no circumstantial evidence whatsoever. The initial vote was 11-1 to convict. I was the sole holdout, even though I agreed that the plaintiff was credible and the defense’s case anything but. It took the other jurors two days to disabuse me of my romantic notion that we couldn’t vote guilty without a smoking gun, but I conceded in the end.

After we had rendered our verdict and the case concluded, the prosecutor chatted with us a bit. She told us a host of additional details about the case, facts that all but proved the defendant’s guilt but that, for assorted reasons, she’d been disallowed from presenting in the courtroom. Some of the other jurors took this as a sign that we’d done an outstanding job, that we’d managed to ferret out the truth from a paucity of evidence. I couldn’t help but think that it only proved we were lucky guessers.

I can’t say that my experience did anything to bolster my faith in the trial-by-jury system. And it seems to me that things are only going to get worse. Thanks to advertisers and PR firms, the art and skill of getting groups of people to think what you want them to think are becoming ever more refined. Recently, in fact, I heard of a court case where the prosecutor used an elaborate (and, by many accounts, deceptive) multimedia presentation in his closing statements to gain a conviction. I can’t help but wonder is this isn’t the future of the American legal system: Juries will be shown a commercial for “guilt” and a commercial for “innocence,” and then be asked which product they want to buy.

And I’m not particularly comforted by the fact that, despite its enormous flaws, it might still be the best system in existence.

* * *

I have to traverse rural King County on my way back home, and I impulsively stop at an enormous thrift store along the way. When I emerge 20 minutes later, I notice a man in the parking lot selling Mexican food out of the back of his van.

As I clamber into by car, with a bag full of $3 CDs in one hand, two homemade tamales in the other, and half a day off from work ahead of me, it occurs to me that—this time—my jury duty was a rewarding and enriching experience indeed.