The Jury's Out

I just heard that Mike, a college friend of mine, was called to jury duty. I also notice that he didn’t whine like a little girl and pretend to hate reporting to jury duty. We tend to complain about jury duty, despite the fact that it gets us out of our regular jobs and humdrum lives and adds intrigue, mystery, badass behavior and lawyers to our otherwise boring weekdays. And, you know, you get paid to serve on a jury, don’t you? And your pay can’t be docked for time off work. So quit pretending that you’ve got adult life down pat enough to think of jury duty will mess up your important schedule and get excited! Haven’t any of you seen Perry Mason?

The summer after my freshman year of college, when I was a waitress at Howard Johnson’s, I got called to jury duty and it was most definitely the most exciting thing that happened to me that summer.

When I got the summons, it said I was being called to a “petit” jury and I took that to mean a small, insignificant jury. Maybe for people who had done just tiny little crimes. How could “petit” mean something so different from “petite?”

So imagine my surprise when I got to the courthouse and found that I was being seated on the jury of a murder trial. And a grisly one, at that; full of abuse stories, racial motivations, and lots of sleaze (although at that time of my life, anyone who carried a handgun into a bar was relatively sleazy).

It was in Warren, Ohio, and it was 1978. A quiet black man stopped at a neighborhood bar on his way home from work, and a large angry white man with issues stopped at the same bar on his way from getting his gun at his house. After a few drinks, the white man shot the black man dead, without saying a word to him or even knowing who he was. Thus the need for a jury.

My boss, Mr. Hurley at Howard Johnson’s, told me to try to get out of it, because he needed me on the schedule. He reminded me that because I was being paid almost entirely in tips, I would be earning virtually nothing while I served on jury duty at $10 a day.

“Tell them you’re prejudiced,” Mr. Hurley actually said.

I hadn’t worked there long, but I already knew to ignore the majority of what Mr. Hurley said, other than any changes in the schedule or table stations that directly affected me.

I thought that being on a jury would be super exciting, especially compared to serving brownie sundaes and tuna melts all day. And guess what? It was.

We got to go on a bus with a police escort to the scene of the murder, wearing pancake-sized badges that said JUROR and implied that if anyone tried to talk to us or slip us a note, one of our cop bodyguards would bust some heads. Photographers snapped pictures of us getting out of the bus and going into the bar.

The jurors all went to lunch together, where one guy drank two martinis every single day. He’ll never got picked as jury foreman at this rate, I thought.

The defense attorney was very dramatic, portraying the defendant as being the world’s biggest loser. His mother took the stand and said he was abused and neglected from an early age. She even admitted to doing horrible things to him. I guess a mother does that to save her son from life in prison. The defendant blasted sad-puppy eyes at us for a solid week, like slow, fat laser beams. We got to hear about what made him snap, which apparently was his uncle being beaten to death by a group of black men in Youngstown about a year earlier. That and the drinks he had at the bar, and all the childhood abuse.

No one took exception to the portrait of the victim as being a standup guy, hard working man, loyal husband and father, who occasionally liked to stop for one drink on his way home from work.

A major issue was the fact that the defendant walked around with a gun in his pants. The prosecution argued that he had the gun with him because he intended to shoot someone that night. The defense claimed that this guy was of the ilk that carries a gun around with him like you and I carry Tic Tacs.

This is just like Perry Mason, I kept thinking.

“Objection!” the prosecutor would occasionally yell out, jumping up. Oh yeah, this is just like Perry Mason.

The only thing that could have made it more exciting was if we had been sequestered. Instead, during our deliberations, we were taken to dinner with our police bodyguards, wearing our pancake JUROR badges. And we were escorted to our cars with individual police guards, which hardly ever happens to a Hubbard girl.

I took the whole thing pretty seriously. I actually had nightmares about sleeping in and being late and being thrown in jail for contempt of court. Then I’d be shooting my own sad puppy eyes at people, trying to drum up a pity party. My mom was cutting out the stories about the trial from our Vindicator but I could tell by the size and placement of the hole that this was kind of a big deal.

By the time the whole thing was over - almost 2 weeks - I was near tears with the stress and responsibility of sending an angry, messed up white man to jail for 15-to-life. It wasn’t that I was unsure of our decision, but just the opposite. I had mentally and emotionally drained myself being so sure of it, so that when it was over, I wanted to smash something.

As we left the courtroom after it was over, the prosecutor walked up to me and Jenny, a fellow juror who I had befriended, and said, “OK, so do either of you want to talk about this?” I snapped, “No” and walked away. I was really upset that the whole court staff wasn’t as affected as I was. Why weren’t they having a big group hug and crying over this? How could they be so la-dee-da about it? It was like they did this every day.

The next day, Jenny called me and told me that the prosecutor asked her out. She went on a couple of dates with him, but it didn’t last long. I think he was kind of a dork. What kind of a prosecutor hits on a juror? Hamilton Burger would never have done that, not even with Della Street and she was a hottie.

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