Confessions of an Enthusiastic Philly Juror

Why I was thrilled to be picked for jury duty in Philadelphia.

When I remembered that I had jury duty, I was brushing my teeth.

I was expected at the Criminal Justice Center at 8:15 a.m. but there I was at 8:30, barely out of the shower and my Oral B buzzing in my hand.

Since receiving the summons a few months earlier, I’d gotten married, gone on a honeymoon and struggled through the brain reboot that accompanies those activities; as a result I had no earthly idea where the summons was.

Judging by the downturned faces one receives in response to uttering the words “jury duty,” I suspect many people in the same situation would either call and postpone or wait for the next summons.

Not I. I Googled “Philadelphia Jury Duty,” found the juror hotline and more or less said, “I have jury duty but I overslept and lost my summons so I don’t even know my juror number! Can I still come in?”

“Can you be here by 9:45?” replied the woman who’d answered the phone.

“No problem!” I said.

I’ve got a secret—one I think some of you share—I like jury duty.

Yeah, it’s a day out of the office (I’m lucky enough to have an employer who believes in the necessity of performing one’s civic duty). It’s also a day during which, even if you never get called from your seat in the selection room, one can catch up on reading (cuz who has time to do that anymore), do some primo people-watching, and meet people from parts of the city you might not generally get to meet.

But it’s also a field trip to the halls of power, a chance to see justice in action. Maybe I’m a weirdo. Like NewsRadio’s Lisa discovering C-SPAN, one of my fondest professional memories was sitting in on—and then poring over the transcripts of—City Council’s marathon budget hearings. I’ve been to court and to City Hall plenty for work, but not often enough as a citizen participant.

Usually just going to court is enough for me, and it’s had to be, because I’d never been picked for a jury. Maybe it’s because I’m a journalist, or because I was a wild and crazy single guy or something. But this time around, much to my surprise, like Nuke LaLoosh, I got the call.

It was a criminal case, a burglary in Southwest Philly. Maybe it was because I was juror No. 42 in a pool of 50 and the lawyers had used up all of their vetoes by the time they got to me, or maybe it’s because, as was suggested, I’m now married and therefore upstanding and responsible, but I was picked. Juror No. 11.

It was a short case. A day and a half for witnesses and statements and about an hour of deliberation before we found the defendant not guilty. The prosecution had a tough case to prove—no physical evidence and one eyewitness who saw the perpetrator for all of three seconds as he backed out of her window and then fled. The defense, to its credit, raised plenty of reasonable doubt.

As a case, it was pretty boring. But to see the wheels of justice in action, and then to actually be one of those wheels, well, that was kind of exhilarating. The jury deliberated, seriously scrutinizing both sides. Some felt the defendant probably did it but the proof wasn’t there. Some felt he was at work where he said he was and that his car, which is what loosely tied him to the crime, had fallen into someone else’s hands. Things got heated as people weighed the facts. It’s exactly the sort of considered deliberation I hope I’d get if I ever found myself on trial.

In the end, nobody felt there was enough evidence to prove anything, other than that somebody had cut the window screen, much less send him away.

I wonder if people who roll their eyes and say they hate jury duty have actually ever been on a jury. I get that if you have to miss work and lose pay, or arrange for child care, the $9 a day doesn’t begin to cover the hardship. But of the people to whom I’ve confessed my secret—that I do, indeed, like jury duty—most have used the opening to admit that they kinda like it too, or at least find it more interesting than they let on.

On the one hand, it’s heartening to learn that one of those standard tropes like airline food being lousy (is there even airline food anymore?) isn’t so hard and fast. On the other hand, it sucks that jury duty gets a bum rap. Like lots of other parts of our government that we complain about and take for granted (eg. elections, taxes that provide the infrastructure and programs that make civilized life possible), we’d be pretty screwed if it disappeared.