Jury Duty I: Summons

All my life I have wanted to do Jury Duty. As a teen I was addicted to Perry Mason novels and L.A. Law; in college I got a phenomenal score on a practice LSAT test I took for kicks; in Peace Corps I resolved to become an environmental lawyer upon my return to the States. In a sense, my interest in the law is a natural extension of my interest in games: after all, what is the law but a bajillion-paged rulebook, and what are councilors but those who play at a Grandmaster level?

And the easiest way to get involved in the judicial system, it seemed to me, was for someone to draw my name out of a hat and call me in to hear a case. Alas, this had only happened once so far, and I was working in Bolivia at the time. Meanwhile, my friends and family seemed to get roped in on a weekly basis. I could never understand why they dreaded the prospect, why those lucky enough to get picked would suddenly develop medical conditions or embark on mission-critical work-related projects when they were called to serve.

My wife had been picked for Jury Duty only two months prior. She was assigned to the municipal court, presumably to help sort out parking tickets and other such minutiae. But, as it turned out, she didn’t do a damned thing. She showed up Monday morning, her name was added to the roster, and she told her to return to work. If they needed her, they said they’d give her a ring — and that was the last she heard from them. So when my notice showed up a few weeks later, I assumed that that’s what I would be doing is well. In fact, it wasn’t until just two days before my summons date that I finally read the thing and discovered that I was destine for the King County Superior Court.

The King County Superior Courthouse is located in one of the Seattle’s worst neighborhoods. I suspect that many of those charged with assault and robbery don’t have to travel far to get from the scene of the crime to their trial. As instructed I arrived on the premises at 8:00, Monday morning, and upon entering I realized I had visited the building on a “Civil Law” fiel trip class I had taken in high school. I don’t recall if you had to run a gauntlet of security barriers to enter the joint back in 1988, but you certainly do now.

Once I walked through the metal detectors (which I managed to do with my keys in my pocket, to no alarm whatsoever) I found an intriguing mix of lawyers, criminals, defendants, witness, and hapless folks like me, citizens who can’t even figure out where they are supposed to go. It was odd to contemplate that the six people currently queued up in the lobby’s coffee shop to purchase muffins might conceivably, in an hour’s time, all be playing radically different roles in the same courtroom: some on trial, some defending or prosecuting, some sitting in judgment.

The Jury Waiting Room was on the seventh floor. Every window in sight was either frosted to the point of opaquity or covered up with boards (remnants of the 2001 Seattle Earthquake, I was told), making the place look like a casino hotel worried about suicide jumpers. The waiting room itself looked like an uncomfortably tiny airport boarding area, with chairs every bit as luxurious as those you’d find at Sea-Tac gate D-17. Everyone got a badge that had “JUROR” on it but no name. On Jury Duty you are more than just a number, you are also a bar code.

The first thing you do upon arrival to Jury Duty is nothing. Maybe they were waiting for all the stragglers to show up and check in, or maybe that “8:00″ show-up time is a ruse to get everyone in the house by the real time of 9:00. For whatever reason, we all had to sit there and stare at the wall for an hour. Well, many of us read, actually, but a remarkable number of people took the wall-staring route. On the bus I always wonder why so few people have books or magazines, but I suppose reading in vehicles makes some folks ill. These jokers had no excuse.

Some folks made half-hearted attempts to converse with their neighbors, but no one was really in the mood for chit-chat. Men were gently hitting on every attractive woman. Well, perhaps not “hitting on,” per se, but it’s universally understood that “may I use your clipboard” is little more than a conversation-opening gambit. The guy sitting directly across from me was wearing a very smart three-piece suit and reading The Wall Street Journal; the young man sitting next to him was wearing camouflage shorts and reading Harpers.

At 9:15 they showed us a video about the history of Trial by Jury. The bulk of the video was a generic “Yay, Judicial System!” bit, not unlike a training video you’d be forced to watch on your first day at Hotdog On a Stick. But prefacing this was an introduction by Raymond Burr, informing you, in a “I’m not a lawyer but I play one of TV” kind of way, that being on a jury is right up there with getting shot in a war in terms of service to your country. The core of the video was designed to be shown anywhere in the nation, but the filmmakers tried to “customize” this introduction by throwing in as many references to Washington State as they could. “The Judicial system is as majestic as the Olympic Mountains,” Burr said. “And as exciting as a Seahawk game.”

Then we sat around for a while longer. People became openly restless. A woman in the corner nearly completed a jigsaw puzzle. The guy to my right played game after game of Klondike on his PDA.

Finally, at 10:00, the first jury was called. “The following people are to report to Judge Gray,” boomed a voice over hidden speakers. “When I call your name, yell ‘here’ at the ceiling; we have microphones up there. David Ganther.”

“Here!”

“You are Juror number one. Diane Mayu.”

“Here!”

“You are Juror number two.”

Judge Gray got 50 Jurors in total. After the last name was called they were herded out of the room, not to be seen again. Not by me, anyhow, as I was not among them. Thirty minutes later a smaller set of Jurors was rounded up and sent to meet another judge. I was again unselected.

There were still a huge number of people in the waiting room with me — so many that, it occurred to me, not everyone could possibly wind up on a case. According to my sheet, those of us who were not on a case by the end of the second day would be dismissed. So I began to suspect that this would be my entire Jury Duty experience: sitting around in this astronomically dull room for two days, reading my book and drinking hot chocolate out of “Wild Card Poker” paper cups. I could feel my Jury Duty enthusiasm oozing out of me with frightening rapidity.

At 11:00 they started calling names for a third jury. “Matthew Baldwin.”

“Here!” I shouted at the ceiling.

“You are Juror number 16.”

I was finally on a case, and was again psyched to play a part in the judicial process of the United States.

The thrill would last for about 90 seconds.

Next: Voir Dire

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