The god of pain descended mid November to distribute summons throughout the state of Maryland. Letters for jury duty passed from door to door, a dark guardian of civic duty, binding citizens throughout the entire month of December to hours sitting, waiting. Last Monday I spent my morning at the courthouse, squeezed close to strangers, many of whom appeared irritable, sick, and in need of a Febreeze-ing. After an hour in traffic, I arrived at the courthouse 8:30 that morning, ready to serve my country in exchange for my life, liberty, and that pleasant painless feeling in the niche of my back, which sadly abandoned me an hour and a half past lunchtime: “See you later fool! I’m off to get some enchiladas.” I had hoped to find myself unfit for trial, donning a racially charged ‘Han shot first’ t-shirt and scuffed black shoes. Either the clerk or the lawyers did not notice, or failed to read the warning signs. Thus, trapped in a jury panel, I shuddered an hour past lunch, my stomach growling and my neighbor’s Old Spice, having expired over two hours ago, began entering the second-stage of rigor mortis.
Normally I don’t mind waiting. Though the body is trapped, the mind is free to drift through walls, across seas, and into the unknown. You merely need to uncover the right vehicle. A good book, a soft quiet place, and some iced tea or coffee and you can easily transcend any uncomfortable situation. Soar to Mars, hop a train to Sheboygan, or review old episodes of Duck Tales. Anything’s possible. Certainly, this philosophy proved the key to surviving long shopping excursions with Mom when I was a kid. While my mother tripled-checked sales prices, mulling over whether this sweater or the green one at Macy’s would ultimately save her an extra 45 cents, I burrowed through stacks of men’s slacks for private reading time. There in my nest, I’d wile away the hours until Mom finally gave into her wallet or the store closed.
In the jury room, waiting to be called for the court panel and voir dire (a legal process which aims to weed bias from the jury box), jurors can stretch out, sleep, read, eat, drink, relax. Yet if chosen, all such amenities are stripped away, separated from sight as they herd us into enclosed cells without windows, water or ample female presence. It was like high school all over again. There in the courtroom, we were interrogated. The judge and the lawyers ask a series of questions regarding the case. Mostly these matters are cleared in seconds (‘Do you know Lawyer A with oiled scalp? How about balding Lawyer B who reeks of garlic? No? Good.’); however, with more sensitive matters, jurors one by one will approach the bench, discuss issues and concerns for several minutes before returning to their seats.
It’s much like trading players in a game of fantasy football. The judge attempts to eliminate bias, while the consuls try to exclude unfavorable sympathies. In a murder trial, those jurors recently suffering from the loss of a loved one may favor the prosecution, allowing their grief to influence their verdict. Thus, the judge covered all possible ground: previous drug use, past exposure to crime, guns, time spent on previous trials, pedophilia, family eating habits, favorite Christmas carols, NRA membership, Bogart movies, Thursday’s CSI, red herrings, and who’s hotter Edward or Jacob. It took nearly three hours to sort through it all.
And in the meantime, we could not read, eat, drink, talk . . . simply sit there and stare at the room. After counting the blue squares on the checkerboard carpet for the third time, I was suddenly struck by the inclination to name them. “There’s Rob and Betty, their neighbor Carl who had a crush on Betty ever since high school but never got a chance to confess his feelings and so married a blond girl who resembled Betty slightly but only when the lights were dimmed. Carl’s cousin, Earl, who lives across the street eats roadkill . . . ” And so on, and so forth.
An older lady in blue sneezed loudly next to me as the court clerk began reading the names. My stomach growled loudly. I tried laughing it off but no one said anything, their attention focused on the clerk. Like a reverse lottery, groans issued from the chosen, sighs from those left behind. They had dodged the bullet. Another number, another mutter of disappointment. My heart beat fast, sounding in my throat and my legs. I tried to be stoic about my situation. Serving on a jury wouldn’t be so bad, an interesting experience. Great to talk about afterward, and escape the duty for another three to five years. Right? Then as if in answer, claustrophobia overwhelmed me. I needed to move, to breathe, to escape these four walls. I considered holding hostages with book in hand, threatening paper cuts and poetry recitals.
“Juror #154, come and sit in jury position #12.” A lady rose from the front row, wearing a plaid shirt and a purse the size of a small child. She did not seem pleased, and appeared in need of a smoke.
I had did it! I wasn’t chosen! Wahooo . . .
“Alternative juror #1 . . .”
Ah, crap! The alternates! How could I forget the basics of jury selection so quickly, culminated from years of reading John Grisham novels and Perry Mason reruns. The culling had only just begun! Moreover, by my estimation my number was next or at least approaching quickly. Nervously I stared at my shoes, all other sights having been excused already (#46 you know who you are . . .). The read off the first number. And then the second . . .
Outside the courthouse, I nearly sprinted through traffic to the parking garage, my stomach sounding louder than Baltimore traffic. Edmond Dantes himself could not have extricated himself faster from his prison. Though after twelve the day felt cold, bleak, yet cheery, the kind that pulls men close to fireplaces, warm stoves, and piping hot chocolate. God, was I hungry then. My throat felt sore and unused, a headache loomed to ruin the rest of my day (As well as the next two days. A parting gift from handkerchief-less juror #305).
My sentence in jury pool had not ended either. I had been slated to return any Monday this month for selection until chosen for a trial. My parole proved bittersweet and unless the state took pity on me during the holiday season — indeed if it took pity on anyone, at anytime — I could expect to suffer another trial in a week’s time. Still as I jumped into my Explorer, it felt good to move about again.
Hooking up my iPod, I deposited my book on the seat next to me and turned the dial to Transsiberian Orchestra. For the moment, a little Christmas cheer, guitar wails alternating between ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’ and ‘Carol of the Bells,’ was just what the doctor ordered. My car squealed from the parking lot and began weaving through the city traffic, flying back into the counties and the nearest Barnes and Nobel en route.