I had jury duty this past week, and it looked just like this. Everything was in black and white, and we all wore ties. Did you know that women could not serve on all juries in the United States until 1975? Sometimes I am stunned by how backward we really are.
Although my name was never called, I was sweating it. You see, we have our first vacation in years next week. David and I paid our portion out of our tax return last February, which is the only spare money we’ve had all year. Our ferry reservation to the Outer Banks is for 7:00 Saturday morning, and if we’re not there by 6:30, we lose our reservation. So when the judge said that the trial should go no longer than the middle of next week, I panicked. He asked if anyone needed to be deferred, and I stood up. Of course, I felt pretty lame pleading my case after the single mom who was pleading financial hardship, since she has two kids, is the sole breadwinner, and works hourly, so she won’t be paid for the days she is doing jury duty. He didn’t excuse her, so I figured I had no chance. I didn’t. It did take two days to seat thirteen people—twelve jurors and a spare—but at the end of it all, I was excused and don’t have to go back for at least two years.
I had never been to jury duty before, and I learned all sorts of disappointing facts about my fellow citizens. For example, when the judge asked if any of the original twelve jurors had any convictions, almost half of them raised their hands. They’d all had DWI convictions. Call me naïve, but half? The prosecuting attorney spoke in the long, languorous tones of North Carolina, and the defense attorney was a short guy with a big bow tie. Why are short men the main users of bow ties? It is not a good fashion choice. The two bailiffs, who maintain order and security in the courtroom, did not appear to be up to the task. From the looks of them, I’d say the bailiff position is your reward for a job well done for many years. They sipped from cups all day, hitched up their pants quite often, and basically lounged. The word “intimidating” did not come to mind; more like “Grandpa.”
Each juror was asked an extensive list of questions, and we all had to sit there and listen to them over and over. After more than an hour of trying to find twelve people who could pass all of the tests, they called up a young man who admitted that he had been convicted of possession of marijuana. Since the case in question was assault and resisting arrest, that would have been alright if he’d completed the sentence and probation, which he had. However, the prosecuting attorney tapped away on his tablet for a minute, and then said, “Mr. Brown, is it true that you’ve also been convicted of resisting arrest?” Mr. Brown was gobsmacked. He had forgotten all about that! Sure enough, he had been convicted of resisting arrest, just like the current defendant! How many crimes do you have to commit for you to forget one of them? Is there an app. for that? “Hang on, your honor, let me check on iDidit to see if I’ve ever been convicted of breaking and entering. I just can’t recall.”
The most unsettling part of jury duty is that you can’t get out of it. Oh, sure, there’s the whole civic pride thing, doing your part to maintain justice in this great country, yada yada, but at the end of the day, if you get a summons, you have no choice. I could have tried the Bartleby the Scrivener route and told them, “I would prefer not to,” but the Judicial System of North Carolina is not really big on Bartleby. Once you sign in, you can’t leave without one of the adorable bailiffs seeing you to the bathroom and back. What if I left and didn’t come back? I suppose I’d be arrested for contempt of court. As Robert Kiyosaki (Rich Dad) says, if you think you really own your own property, try not paying taxes on it. Losing control of my life or even my basic freedom makes me anxious. I am always voting for and supporting those who believe in the greatest amount of individual liberty, but when it comes right down to it, you are only free within limits, and you’re not the one setting the limits. Many younger people today have never known a military draft, but I remember my brother’s number coming up in the Vietnam War when I was a child. It’s not that it’s a bad thing to take freedom from dangerous people so that the rest of us can have freedom from fear, but taking freedom from everyone is shocking when you think about it, so we don’t usually think about it. Courtrooms aren’t fearful places for innocent people, but no matter how charming the judge may be or how many bow ties are worn, it’s remarkable to me that here in the land of the free and the home of the brave, a complete stranger can tell me where I need to be and how long I need to stay, even if I prefer not to.