May 15, 2009
The Pillar of American Democracy…at 40 Bucks a Day
Just finished a day-long stint of jury duty. After deferring four times in two years, I finally decided to suck it up and go. Part of it had to with my sincere belief in the trial-by-jury system. I find it in nothing less than incredible that American citizen has the right to have his case heard by not one, but 12, fellow citizens, not one of whom, but all 12 of whom, have to agree he’s guilty before he can be punished. That said, jury duty is an enormous pain in the ass - which brings me to the other reason I finally decided to serve: to get the jury duty people off my back. It’s kind of like my sophomore year of high school, when I liked this girl - let’s call her Chritstie - and for a couple weeks straight I called her every night, and pestered her friends about how I could get her to go out with me, until, finally, she let me take her for ice cream - and the whole date, she just sat there, didn’t order a thing, pretty much ignored me the entire time, for no other reason to get me off her back. And it worked. I never called her again.
That’s what jury duty is: the pimply underclassman you go out with once to shut him up.
What struck me most about jury duty was how from the minute we were ushered into the waiting room, all anyone could talk about was how to get out of it. We traded excuses, asked one another for advice, shared past stories about avoiding jury service. It didn’t help that we were only getting paid $40 a day. If you’re gonna call it a pillar of our democracy (as they did on the summons), you’ve got to pay people more than 40 bucks a day, and provide a snack.
But the moment I was called into the courtroom, and I saw the defendant sitting there with his lawyer, it all changed. It occurred to me that as annoying as jury duty was for us normal people, for the defendant, this was the biggest day of his life.
First, the judge the charges. I won’t go into details, but it was pretty sick. I’d done jury duty once before, in my hometown of Chicago - that time, the case was a traffic accident with minor injuries and a nothing but money at stake. The charges in my current case, though, could send him to prison for life. Just thinking I might be the one making that decision turned my stomach.
Almost as disturbing as the charges was the length of the case. The judge said he expected the trial to last 6-8 weeks. So I told him the truth: that I had a couple business engagements out of town between now and mid-July, and that if I missed those, I’d have no income whatsoever until August and be forced to file for unemployment. The judge excused me on the spot.
As I walked out of the courtroom, I felt a mixture of glee and disappointment. On the one hand, I was thrilled it had been that easy. Now the jury people would leave me alone for five years.
But at the same time, a small piece of me was disappointed. Something tells me I’d just missed out on an incredible adventure. And you can’t put a price tag on adventure - though in this case, the price tag was 40 dollars a day.