I don't get inspired by life events too much anymore to pick up the pen and scribe a column for the "Cheap Seats" but I can't let my Monday past go without comment. It was a day (morning, actually) of irritation, resignation, conflicting feelings, awe, pride and wonderment. It was my day in court.
The story starts about six weeks ago when I received an envelope in the mail from the United States District Court, District of Vermont, with JUROR SUMMONS showing through the window. Ah, shit, I thought to myself, here we go again. I had been called for county court four times back in New Jersey, but never actually sat on a jury. By contrast, my wife has never been called. Why me?
So I opened the envelope to read the news, starting with the report date of December 19, 2016, through December 23. Yagottafrigginbekiddinme. The week before Christmas? Furthermore, I was to report to the courthouse in Rutland, an hour's drive away. Huh? The county court is four miles away. I didn't quite get the US District vs County thing at first.
I did a little research and found that the county courts are for civil lawsuits and criminal trials for violations of state and local laws, whereas US District Court is The Feds, the big guns. Violations of Federal law. Hijacking, tax evasion, counterfeiting, bank robbery, conspiracy to distribute across state lines, kidnapping, and of course damaging or destroying public mailboxes.
Somewhat under protest, I cleared my calendar of mostly catching up on some video and podcast editing and wrapping gifts, and off I went to Rutland.
I thought I had left with plenty of time for the 8:45 reporting time, but found myself running a little late in unfamiliar territory. The Court is on the second floor of the massive columned Post Office building, so I hustled into the lobby only to find a security line reminiscent of many airport experiences -- only slower. At least my few minutes of tardiness would not subject me to a contempt citation.
After running my jacket with keys, wallet etc through the x-ray machine (I knew enough not to bring a cellphone), one of the three blue-blazered security guys (all obviously retired cops) flagged me down. "Uh, sir, what's in this pocket of your jacket?" Keys. "No, I mean this little thing right HERE." Oh, that's my little 2" Swiss Army knife for those Times When You Need It. "Nuh-uh," he said, shaking his finger. Suddenly remembering the no-weapons-in-court thing, in a flush of embarrassment I muttered "honest mistake." He checked in my keys so I could pick them up later. "You'll need them to go home anyway," he said. Duh. But he was very nice and polite about it. This is Vermont, of course, where the a-hole factor is pretty low.
Oh, that's my little 2" Swiss Army knife for those Times When You Need It. "Nuh-uh," he said, shaking his finger...
Turns out there were 70 prospective jurors milling about upstairs, outside the closed doors of the courtroom. 70. A lot of people...
We were soon shepherded into the cavernous, intentionally intimidating courtroom and told to sit anywhere for our video instruction and initial comments from the judge, who entered ceremoniously 30 minutes later as we All Rose. Seemed like a nice guy, someone I could have a few beers with under different circumstances.
During his 20-minute instruction to us, he told of the gravity and solemnity of our duty as jurors, one of "the two civic responsibilities as citizens of this great country... the other being military service, which we won't get into today." Titter runs through the courtroom. (I always found that saying odd, for some reason. The visual is a little weird.)
As the titter was running, I was tempted to jump to my feet and holler "Objection! What about voting?" Upon further thought, I realized that maybe he was simply acknowledging that voting isn't what it used to be.
As the titter was running, I was tempted to jump to my feet and holler "Objection!..."
All joking aside, the judge's chat with us was inspiring. His explanation of the oft-heard terms "innocent until proven guilty" and "beyond a reasonable doubt" as the foundations of our legal system added to the gravitas and inspired an unexpected sense of pride in simply being an American citizen.
Shortly thereafter two dark-suited US Attorneys and a grey-suited FBI agent entered and took their seats at the prosecutors table. Whoa. Two defense attorneys sat either side of an empty chair at the defendant's table.
I was sitting directly behind the prosector's table. A clerk rolled in front of me four double-stacked carts full of binders, folders and miscellaneous paper and positioned them within reach of the prosecutors and FBI guy. Four carts. My internal calculator started whirring.
Let's see, Federal judge and clerk, two US Attorneys, Court Clerk and staff, FBI guy, two defense attorneys, stenographer, four carts of documents, the three blue-blazered security guys who were now upstairs, and 70 prospective jurors. Whatever this case was, the trial was already costing a ton of money on top of the tons already spent developing the case.
We were all ushered back into the hallway as the attorneys and judge had a five-minute conference, then back into the courtroom. There was a slight African American guy sitting in the defendant's seat, puffy white shirt obviously just taken out of it's packaging, dark necktie, close cut hair, black-rimmed glasses. He put me immediately in mind of Steve Urkel of the old sitcom Family Matters. Not exactly your typical intimidating criminal.
He was the only person of color in the entire room. No great surprise, Vermont being least diverse state in the country.
Twenty-four people, randomly selected from among the 70, were called to sit in the (expanded by temporary seats) jury box for interviewing by the judge and attorneys. I was not among them.
The judge addressed them and indicated that the defendant was charged with conspiracy to distribute heroin across state lines and other attendant Federal misdeeds. Can't say I was surprised by that either. He introduced the defendant, the attorneys, the FBI guy and then read a list of about 25 or 30 witnesses that may be called. This list included more FBI and DEA agents, local and state police who had been involved, and plea-bargained turncoats among others. The judge asked if any of the prospective jurors knew or had personal knowledge of any of them. He asked about any criminal records (even within immediate family) and a litany of other things, taking notes from the jurors' responses and occasionally asking for clarification.
He introduced the defendant, the attorneys, the FBI guy and then read a list of about 25 or 30 witnesses that may be called...
All of the prospective jurors had to previously submit a brief questionnaire which the attorneys used to flag items of potential conflict with their client's best interests. Prosecutors and defense attorneys both rose to address individual jurors to inquire about specific issues from either the questionnaire or their responses to the judge's questions.
Eleven of the 24 were then excused for unspecified reasons, leaving 13, one short of the required 12 plus two alternates to fill a criminal case jury. The judge asked the clerk to call up three additional prospective jurors to be subjected to the same. I escaped this round as well. Then the judge said to make it four, no, five from which to select to fill out the jury box.
I gulped and swallowed hard, fully expecting to be the last one called up. That would be just my luck, but not to be.
I was among the remaining non-called, for which I was surprisingly conflicted. While the biggest chunk of me was gleeful to be "rejected" of sorts and get the balance of my pre-Christmas week back, there was a tiny part that was disappointed to not fully experience the entire process and procedure. Approaching noon by that point, the judge adjourned for lunch and the rejects like me were dismissed. The trial was to start immediately after lunch.
I checked the court calendar this morning (Thursday) and the trial is still in process.
As it turns out, I haven't completely escaped this call to duty. Before we were dismissed from court that day, we were told that we are still in the "winter pool" of potential jurors and may be called again through March.
Oh joy. But at least it won't be the week before Christmas. And now I can return to my video and podcast editing, and wrapping gifts.