Friday, April 28, 2017

The Rural Juror

I got summoned to jury service on Monday. I know everyone always gets the notice in the mail and groans, but I've never been called in before, so I was looking forward to a new experience. Also, the Yolo County Superior Courthouse is within easy walking distance from my house and on a normal Monday I have to drive 65 miles each direction in crappy traffic. So I'll just admit that it was not a bad thing to call in the night before and find out that I needed to go to court on Monday morning.

When I got there, it was just like going to Home Depot, except without the smell of lumber or the feeling that I have more DIY abilities than I really have. No, what I mean is that there was an automated check-in kiosk that scanned the barcode on the summons. Actually, there were three kiosks but one wasn't working according to the employee whose job it was to stand there and help people get the scanner to work properly. So you see, it was exactly like Home Depot except the kiosk didn't keep beeping because the item hadn't been put in the bag.

The good news is that the new courthouse is nice and spacious and the jury room is gigantic so I was able to snag a comfy chair next to the window without anyone next to me. There were probably around eighty people in the room by the time another employee came in and took roll. When she started at the top of the alphabet I was still rolling my eyes because we had just checked in and they already knew who was there, but -- someone had already skipped out. Theodore, you naughty boy, you can expect to get another summons in the mail soon.

Then we watched a quick video which reminded us that we were doing a great service to our country by showing up for jury duty (unlike Theodore!) and then we had a half hour recess. At this point I was trying to figure out how to switch my career to "professional juror" and I got half a page of my current novel written.

After recess, they sent all of us up to department eleven on the fifth floor.

Side note -- I hate elevators. I'm not really claustrophobic, but if I'm not in a hurry and it's only a few floors I'll usually find the stairs.

So seventy people lined up for the three elevators, and me and another ten people wandered around until we found the stairs and then started climbing. Only five floors, right? Piece of cake. Except each story in the new courthouse has high ceilings, so this was more like ten stories. After three flights of stairs I think all of us were regretting the decision. Silently regretting it because we didn't have the breath to speak. Then we finally made it to the fifth floor, walked down the hall to department eleven, and found out that all those bastards who used the elevator had taken all the seats.

When we walked into the room there were three high school students facing us. Then the bailiff -- who might have celebrated his eighteenth birthday at least two weeks before -- introduced them as the prosecutor, the public defender, and the defendant.

Some days I feel really old.

Then the bailiff took roll again. Theodore still wasn't there.

When the judge came in I was relieved to find he was at least my age so there was an adult in charge. The first thing he did was call out thirty names and send those people back downstairs again. I was starting to see some inefficiencies in the process but at least I had a seat.

The judge briefly explained that the case was for DUI, and that he expected it to be done by Thursday at the latest although he couldn't promise anything. Then he asked if anyone had a hardship that would make it impossible for them to serve.

About fifteen people raised their hands and we went through each one of them. In the end I think the judge let them all go, but most of them he sent downstairs to reschedule. I was secretly giggling as he grilled the first college student on whether he had talked to his professors about making up the absences. Of course he hadn't. I wouldn't have either when I was in college. It wouldn't have occurred to me that being in college wasn't a valid excuse for getting out of jury duty. But now that I'm older and see what entitled little snots college kids are, it was fun to watch the judge explain that college is a job like any other and that nobody wanted to go to jury duty. The students had to go reschedule. A few other people were primary caretakers who claimed they couldn't get anyone else to do what they did (and had to go reschedule). Three people didn't speak English well enough to serve (although the third one seemed comfortable enough to use slang, so I have my doubts). They didn't have to reschedule but I think the first two didn't understand what was going on so they might have rescheduled anyhow.

Finally eighteen random names were called (not mine!) and those people were seated in or in front of the jury box, and the fun began. The judge read off the list of people expected to testify and asked if any of the eighteen knew them.

How many people had been arrested or convicted of a DUI? (Clearly the whole designated driver thing hasn't caught on because fully a third of the potential jurors had a DUI in the past...)

Did anyone have any background in chemistry? (Apparently the defense was planning on challenging the blood alcohol results.) Woodland is only ten miles from Davis. We had three retired professors in the first group who were in fields that had some use for chemistry.

Did anyone have relatives in law enforcement? Turns out almost everyone does.

Every time someone answered in the positive the judge went through it with them and asked questions to see if the person could be fair to both sides.

Finally every person had to give their full name, what town they lived in, their occupation, and the occupation of any other adults that lived in the house. By the time we got to the fifth person this was going pretty quickly because everyone was ready for the question. And yet... the last guy, who'd listened to seventeen people answer the exact same questions before him... no. He gave his name. Then he had to be prompted on the rest. "Where are you from?" "Yolo." "The city of Yolo?" "No, Yolo County." "What city do you live in?" "Woodland." I'm really not sure how people like that go through life. He said he built buildings. "What kind of buildings?" "Big buildings, little buildings." Everybody who has dealt with contractors is nodding right now. This guy had found his tribe.

Then the judge turned it over to the attorneys. The defense and prosecution were pretty evenly matched, by which I mean that neither one could ask a clear question. The public defender was particularly bad about that, often starting the question in one direction and ending in another so that if someone answered "yes" it wasn't clear what they were agreeing to. The judge stepped in a few times and reworded the question after the potential juror became hopelessly lost.

Then we stopped for lunch. I took the stairs down to the first floor, walked home, let the dogs out, ate lunch, then walked back. I took the elevator back to the courtroom.

The attorneys finished confusing everyone with their questions. The defense attempted to remove a juror for cause, but the judge denied it. Then they alternated picking people. "The Defense would like to thank and excuse juror number..." "The People would like to thank and excuse juror number..." It was just like P.E. during grade school, but in reverse and a lot more polite.

Nobody was surprised when the village idiot was the first to be excused.

They freed up seven seats before they stopped, so another seven names were called out. I wasn't one of them.

Then the whole thing started again with the new people. The public defender looked like he thought the woman was pulling his leg when she said she was part of the Sheriff's Posse during the law enforcement questions. (We have a mounted group that does search and rescue operations in rural areas and also does PR at events.) The judge had to explain it to him. The public defender still couldn't say "posse" without looking confused and finally switched to calling it "that group". I started to feel sorry for him.

More confusing questions from the defense and prosecution. Most of the seven people just gave up on yes and no and talked about what they thought might be related to the answer. The judge stepped in and told the defense that he wasn't allowed to ask if anyone was a member of Alcoholics Anonymous, but gave him an alternate wording that would be okay. The public defender repeated the revised question word for word.

I continued to feel old.

The attorneys took turns getting rid of the new people and stopped when they had twelve people total -- which meant they had to do it all over again because they still needed an alternate.

My name was the first to be called.

This time there were four of us. We knew all the questions. We had quick answers. We weren't members of the posse, but at least the public defender knew what a posse was now anyhow. I had to explain that my brother being the chief of lifeguards actually made him law enforcement but that didn't particularly bias me one way or the other. I had to say that I had been a veterinarian, so I had sent blood out to be analyzed, but that wouldn't keep me from going with the facts as presented. One woman, probably in her sixties, said that she didn't drive because she'd gotten her license when she was young, had three accidents, and decided the world was a safer place if she wasn't behind the wheel. The entire courtroom laughed.

At this point they only needed one person, and I was in the first seat. I didn't have any obvious bias one way or the other. I was pretty sure I was going to have to tell my boss that I'd be out until Thursday, especially when there was a long silence as both attorneys stared at their post-it notes.

Then... "The People would like to thank and excuse..."

Yep. I'd been rejected by a guy in a cheap suit. Story of my life.

I did the walk of shame through the room into the empty corridor, then took the elevator down to the first floor and walked home again.