Charles on jury duty: Have your day in court

Last week I had to report to the Superior Court of Suffolk County. That’s across City Hall Square in downtown Boston for you outliers. Jury duty — that every-three-year time suck that many people view with a collective yuck.

Except I’m a unicorn.

I actually don’t mind jury duty, except for the fact that they request your presence at 8 a.m. While that’s not unreasonable for the 9-to-5 crowd, it’s the crack of dawn for us Children of the Night. 

No matter. Many of us cut our teeth on court television shows. You can still watch old “Perry Mason” episodes on one of the nostalgia channels, and I would guess there’s some iteration of “Law and Order” accessible 24 hours a day, somewhere in the world. 

And that doesn’t even count the daytime parade of “real-life” court shows, from “The People’s Court” to “Judge Judy.”

One would think with the popularity of court programs, people would be knocking down the doors to get onto a jury panel.

Instead, the news of jury duty is usually met with advice on how to get out of it. “Walk in saying, ‘guilty,'” is one helpful hint that has been oft repeated (and never used).

People, people, people, you’re looking at this opportunity all wrong.

We spend our days, every day, judging each other. We have opinions on everything, but when it comes down to just hearing the cold, hard, complicated facts, we stick to rumor, innuendo and our own biases.

Jury duty might help you look at the world through a more nuanced lens. 

For one thing, it’s not like on TV.

You’ll get a lot of down time in those first few hours. Think of it as “you” time. Bring a book.

After the first hour of being checked in and looking around at the fellow inductees (or potential jurists, or your competition, depending on how you view this experience), you get to watch a film about the jury system and how wonderful it is. I’ve seen it enough times to only have to pay slight attention. At the end of the extended infomercial, former jurists extol on how good the experience was, and how they would do it again.

A judge will come in, let you know if there will be juries empaneled that day (some cases are settled if the participants are told there are plenty of eager jurists at the ready), and to just sit tight, your number will be called.

This is actually the worst time. The sitting and waiting is boring (but you brought a book, right?) and there’s only so much reading, or watching your phone or tablet one can endure while sitting on a less than comfy, cozy, straight-backed chair in a roomful of strangers.

But that’s not why I’m upselling jury duty.

I’m all for the experience — because if you ever actually get into a courtroom before lawyers and a judge, you’ll see how unlike television it is.

You’ll see far fewer theatrics. Although all the attorneys and everyone involved are fairly well dressed like they are on TV, the atmosphere is much more solemn. 

And there are a few rules. You turn off all electronic devices, there’s no gum-chewing, you’re supposed to dress for court (although there are a few people who showed up stretching the definition of business casual), and you can’t really talk to anybody. Just as well, you probably won’t know anybody anyway.

Once you’re in the courtroom, the case is explained and people are given the chance to recuse themselves. If you know anybody involved, you’re out. But there are plenty of reasons people might be ineligible — language or hearing difficulties, previous court dealings, subject matter — so that 100 or so can be whittled down pretty quickly.

I have served on a jury before. And here’s one thing all the trial shows and even the real life court shows won’t tell you. As a jurist, you don’t hear everything, and you don’t see everything. The court tries to be as impartial as possible so as not to prejudice the panel. The attorneys try to discern your unconscious bias, and you may be empaneled or excused, depending on their judgment of you. 

When I served on a jury a few years ago, it was for what I would call a “beanie drug offense.” And I’ll tell you, when you’re sitting in a room with other people deciding the fate of another person’s life, it’s a serious affair. I worried for the two nights of the trial, until I realized I didn’t have to decide that man’s fate on my own. And that was the beauty of the jury system. We helped each other in expressing our doubts and arriving at a fair conclusion.

We ended up finding the defendant guilty of a lesser offense, because we didn’t have the evidence of the more serious one. Afterward the judge visited us and we were given more information — which had we known would have changed the outcome. The defendant had been one dangerous dude. He had been in leg irons throughout the trial, which they made sure wasn’t known to us. We never saw him move from the defendant’s table to the witness box. We were brought in and taken out before he moved, so we wouldn’t know. That lesser offense we found him guilty of only tacked more time onto an already long sentence.

I didn’t get on the jury last week. I suppose I flunked the final audition — when you go in individually for an interview with the judge and all the attorneys on the case. It was a civil suit, but one that even though on the surface seemed to have good guys and bad guys, was a lot more complex, and couldn’t be thought of in black and white terms, the way they seem to be on TV.

The judge told me not to take it personally — I didn’t — and said he hoped I’d be able to serve on a jury again, sometime in the future, maybe even in his courtroom. It was a nice sendoff.

In three years, I’ll probably get notified again. I’ll bring a book, buy a coffee and a muffin, and wait for my number to be called.

Seeing how the sausages of justice are made isn’t necessarily the stuff of dramatic television. But to really understand how the system of being judged by your peers is supposed to work, one has to be willing to be part of the process. 

When my number comes up again, I hope this unicorn will still be ready, willing and able to serve.


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