“It’s my third frigging time,” the man says to the court clerk; his bald head was turning red. “My neighbor hasn’t been called once, not once.” He slams his jury summons on the counter.
“I’m sorry, sir,” the clerk replies. “It is a totally random selection …”
“My neighbor hasn’t been called, either,” says the woman next to him. She’s wearing a Charlie Brown Christmas sweatshirt. It is August.
These interactions made me feel somewhat at home in Room 101 of the Criminal Justice Center on the recent Monday morning of my own jury summons. I was up most of the night with horrible anxiety, as usually is the case before I go perform my civic duty. The silver lining? No one in the room wanted to be there. Jury duty is like a miserable family reunion, with only one difference: We are supposed to be deciding people’s fates here. And we all want out. Badly.
I fill out my pre-jury questionnaire like a pro; I’ve done this before, and, to be honest, I am not sure why they keep calling me back. Journalist? Check. Was a family member victim of a violent crime? Check. Do you trust law enforcement? Nope — check. Usually, it’s a waiting game: When are these people going to realize that I’m a total crazy pants and send me home?
I get called with 59 others for a criminal case; we get carted up like cows in an elevator too small and uncomfortable to a courtroom where a clerk excuses herself time and time again for coughing, her eyes heavy and her skin pale. “I’m sick,” she says.
“She’s sick, alright,” whispers a heavily tattooed woman sitting across from me. “She’s sick with a fucking hangover.”
“Oh, and before I show you this film, remember this is the Criminal Justice Center,” the clerk says. “People steal stuff all the time, so don’t come crying to me if you lose your purse or if you leave your stuff lying around, alright?”
She starts the movie of a bunch of judges reading off of cue cards; it’s easily 15 years old and has a production value of, like, 10 cents. No one is paying any attention.
Another clerk comes in, a heavyset man with an awful comb-over and an equally painful mustache.
“Look,” he says. “We run on court time here. Anyone know what that means? That means that if I tell you I’ll be back in 10 minutes, it might mean two hours, okay? Deal with it. You got a problem? Tell the lady in the robes when you get questioned.”
They collect our surveys and, surprise: I, along with about 20 others, am told to leave the room. This doesn’t mean we’re done, mind you; it’s only 11 a.m..
Next, I get called to be part of a civil case, where I’m escorted to City Hall with 39 others. After finding the one elevator that works, we arrive in the courtroom where I surveyed my fellow “peers.” There’s one guy who catches my attention right away: young and fast asleep (hey: didn’t we just get in the door of the room?). His underwear is sticking out of his sagging pants as he snores, loudly. There’s the woman with the Charlie Brown Christmas sweatshirt in the front, and then in my row, there’s a man wearing an oversized generic sports jersey who’s been cursing the entire time.
“This is bullshit,” he says. “I don’t have time for this. I’m missing work and they aren’t paying me.”
“Me, too,” says the woman next to him, wearing a bright red handkerchief on her head. “I can’t afford this.” She looks young, but after talking to her for a bit, I find that she has five grandchildren (“And one’s on the way,” she tells me). She lives with some of her own children, and some of the grandchildren, in a small place on the border of Upper Darby.
“I tried to get out of this,” she says, waving a letter from the court in my face, “But they denied me.”
Then, the two lawyers are introduced: The defense attorney looks a cross between Ally McBeal and an undergraduate cheerleader, while the prosecuting attorney looks like he’s 15, save for his receding hairline.
A clerk announces that the interview process for jurors would begin and he asks how many people in the room would consider it a hardship if they had to serve on the jury. Almost every person, with the exception of about six, raises a hand, including the five-time grandmother: Every day they serve on a jury is a day they don’t get paid. It’s a matter of meeting the rent, of eating, of paying utility bills in the middle of the summer.
As he is about to leave the room, the clerk turns around.
“Oh, and this is really important: absolutely no cells. At all. They need to be turned off.”
As soon as he walks out, everyone turns on their phones. I can still hear Mr. Oversized Jersey complaining.
“I’m gonna tell them that I don’t give a shit about any of this and that I don’t care about the case and I don’t care who wins or doesn’t win.”
The woman with the tattoos from earlier is in the row next to him. She turns around: “You do realize that if you say that, you might get picked? That’s exactly the attitude they are looking for: that you don’t care who wins.” He rolls his eyes and starts playing a song on his phone.
The judge enters the courtroom after about an hour and explains the trial timeline.
“And if you are a juror, on Thursday, we will treat you to lunch …”
“Excuse me,” someone shouts out. “We haven’t been to lunch yet today and it’s 2 o’clock. You gonna buy us lunch now?”
“Miss, this is a very serious process,” the judge replies. “I don’t stand for any clowns in this court. If you’re a clown, I’m going to make sure that you aren’t selected to serve on this jury.”
(No offense, your Honor, but I think that would be an overwhelming joy for everyone in the room.)
Finally, after about two hours of waiting, I’m called back for my interview. I’m sweating, starving, and nervous as all hell.
“So,” the prosecutor says, “I see you’re a journalist and a professor and that you feel like you’d have a hard time being partial in a case.”
“That’s true,” I reply with a smile. “Most likely, I’ll end up writing something about you.”
“Oh,” he says with a totally uncomfortable grin. “Hopefully, um, you’ll change my name.”
“To be frank, I don’t even remember it now.”
“We really need someone reliable,” the defense attorney says. “Don’t you think you could be objective about this case for, like, two days?”
“You’re that hard up for a jury?” I respond.
They weren’t amused.
Another 45 minutes goes by before the clerk emerges to announce the jury selection. He calls 12 numbers: Mister Sagging Underwear? He’s one of them (he fell asleep again so someone had to wake him up). Charlie Brown Christmas sweatshirt? She’s up there. There’s a woman up in the box who is crying because she’s so upset she has to serve.
And then there’s Mister Oversized Jersey: Yup, he’s on the jury, too.
The rest of us are escorted back over to get our compensation for the day: $9. As the court clerk distributes the checks, she makes an announcement:
“It’s very important that you do not cash this check today. If you do, it will bounce. Wait until tomorrow.”
As we are waiting for our names to be called for our checks, there’s a ruckus from the lobby. A guy gets up and looks to see what’s going on.
“Oh, it’s him,” he says.
Now, I can hear the voice more clearly: It’s Oversized Jersey Dude.
“I don’t have time for this shit! Get me the head judge! Get me a supervisor!” he screams. “I don’t want to be here and I don’t want to do this!”
Alas, it’s a jury of our peers. Court is indeed in session.
Follow @BryanB82 on Twitter.