I, the Jury
How I shirked my civic duty.

New York Press, Wednesday, December 8, 1999

The American criminal justice system is based on a set of lofty ideals, the belief in which becomes harder to sustain the closer one gets to that system.

Yeah, you guessed it--the jury-duty guys finally caught up with me. After dodging summonses for two years, I presented myself at the New York Criminal Court for what, mercifully, turned out to be a mere two days of service.

For me at least, the presumption of innocence was an early casualty of the jury-selection process. I was a prospective juror in the trial of a young man who was charged with assault and kidnapping. He and one or more accomplices had allegedly robbed a limousine driver at knifepoint, stabbed him and stuffed him in the trunk of his vehicle. The defendant looked sharp in a button-down shirt and necktie; I began imagining his lawyer coaching him on how to dress for court. His effort to appear respectable served only to make him look guilty.

The judge began by instructing us, quite rightly, on the paramountcy of the presumption of innocence: "It should go into deliberations with you like a 13th juror." But when he questioned me individually, he assured me that the trial would be wrapped up by the following Wednesday, whereupon the jury would deliberate for a day at most. How could the judge be so sure the jury would decide the case quickly? If the defendant's guilt or innocence really were in doubt, I reasoned, the judge would have been prepared for Twelve Angry Men.

Still, I tried to keep an open mind. But when the defense lawyer started questioning prospective jurors, my presumption of innocence went by the board. His client had been charged with "acting in concert." If the prosecutors proved this element of their case beyond a reasonable doubt, the defendant would share the guilt for his accomplices' actions.

The defense lawyer seemed to foreshadow his strategy, asking: Haven't we all been in a situation in which we were with other people and things happened that were beyond our control? To me this meant: The crime happened, my client was involved, but he somehow wasn't responsible. I didn't buy it. To be sure, we all do things we regret, but at the end of the day we're responsible for our actions. If this was the defense, I'd vote to convict. And the trial hadn't even started yet. I was hopelessly prejudiced.

Fortunately for the defendant, I was kicked off the jury. I must take partial credit for this triumph of justice, for I had entered the courtroom eager not to serve. To that end, I answered the jury questionnaire as truthfully--and as completely--as possible. I had plenty of baggage, and I was all too happy to unpack it in open court: I have twice been the victim of street crime--a robbery at gunpoint, an attempted pickpocketing. I count among my friends judges, lawyers, prosecutors, an FBI agent. I told the lawyers all this and more.

My life was an open book, and I wore my heart on my sleeve. When the defense lawyer presaged his argument, I used body language to let him know what I thought of it. I smirked; I rolled my eyes. I got excused. Success! I spent the next day in agonizing boredom, sitting in the jury room waiting to be called again. I wasn't, and at the end of the day all the remaining jurors were discharged. I'm free until 2003. Though I arrived at the courthouse with a cynical attitude and left no more idealistic, I must admit that the system worked. I was obviously not qualified to sit in judgment of this defendant, and I didn't.

It's harder than it used to be to avoid jury service in New York. Thanks to reforms instituted a few years ago, the jury pool has been expanded and most exemptions have been eliminated. The good news is that with more potential jurors available, no one gets called more than once every four years.

Here's a suggestion for further reform. Although no one can be required to serve more than once every four years, a citizen may volunteer to serve as often as every two years. Why not allow someone whose four years are up to escape service by paying someone who served two years ago to take his place? Those who serve twice could charge whatever the market will bear, and employers could offer to pay replacement jurors so as not to lose the service of key employees.

The obvious objection to this scheme is that by allowing those who can afford it to shirk their duty, it would undermine the ideal of equal citizenship. About this ideal, though, is it possible not to be cynical? Put it this way: Next time O.J. Simpson is charged with murder, let him take his chances with a lawyer from the public defender's office. If he does, next time I'm called, I'll provide jury service with a smile.

Next article: Extra! Extra! Journalists Gaze at Own Navels! (12/31/99)

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