First off, a quick note: my letter on gentrification to Time Out New York was published in this week’s edition. And they didn’t edit all that much out, though they did leave out the sentence about poverty and neglect in Bushwick. Ah well, that they published it at all is somewhat surprising!
So – my jury duty experience lasted only one day, but I did get my wish. After lunch, the lawyers for the plaintiff and the defendant (it was a civil case, a lawsuit around an injury) picked three more people to interview at random. These three came off as being much less prejudiced, in the “having a prior opinion” sense of the word, than the three who went before lunch. They were three men, two white, all very quick and eager with the “right” answers that made them seem fair-minded and lacking prejudice. Part of me couldn’t help but suspect that they were giving what they knew to be the “right” answers without thinking very deeply about the questions being asked. They were also grilled a little less than the first three folks who were up there (two women, one white person.) I wonder what it was about them, or what they had on their juror survey ,that maybe reassured the lawyers. Anyhow, in the end, they were quickly chosen as the other three jurors; they’d picked the first three the day before.
I was a little disappointed until the lawyers said that they were then going to pick two alternate jurors, who would attend the entire trial just like the regular jurors and would fill in if one of the jurors became ill or otherwise unavailable. They picked two more people at random to interview for those seats, and I was one of them! I tried to avoid grinning too broadly as I took my place in the front row of office chairs that were crammed into our little empanelling room (as they are called.) It was me and another woman of color. They asked us way more questions than they asked the previous guys. There’s a section of the form that asks questions like, “Have you or anyone close to you ever been accused of a crime, convicted of a crime, victim of a crime, witness to a crime, filed suit against someone, been sued?” I checked almost all of them, so they got to ask me about the lawsuits; neither bore any resemblance to the lawsuit at hand. They asked about my technology work and about the other woman’s work as the principal of an elementary school in Harlem (she seemed like she’d be a good principal.)
They then asked if we’d be prejudiced against either of the parties in the lawsuit – ConEdison, or the policeman who claimed he was injured due to ConEd’s negligence. They specifically asked if it made a difference to us that the man was a police officer. That gave me a bit of pause, but in the end, I said that it wouldn’t sway me either way. Having heard the background of the case, I thought I’d be able to be balanced. After all, big corporations and the police are kind of on the same level of undesirability, aren’t they? Heh. I wonder how my personal preconceptions would have played out as I observed the trial. I mean, sure, I’d have attempted to be as impartial as possible, but come on, I don’t really believe in objectivity and I know that certain preconceptions would have lurked in the back of my head. Class issues (police officer vs big corporation), issues with the police, any other buttons that might’ve been pressed during the trial… anyhow, regardless of all that, I really thought I’d be able to be an impartial juror, and so said I.
Both the other woman and I were picked as alternate jurors! First, I was excited. Then, I felt a sense of dread at the possibility of having to spend five days at court. One day of jury duty is one thing, many days in a row is a whole other ballgame. But in the end, I wound up being excused – I’m going out of town next Friday, have a reservation made and everything, and they weren’t sure that the trial would definitely be over by then. So, they excused me, after which I waited around for around two more hours until I was finally discharged from jury duty. I’ve now fulfilled my civic responsibility (as they described it, my right and privilege) for the next six years, in Kings County, at least.
At the beginning of the day, when we were being instructed as to how to fill out our juror cards, a woman sitting near me asked me if I spoke Spanish and could help her with her card. I said yes, with the caveat that my Spanish kind of sucks. She was an older Mexicana woman who had somehow managed to not be called for jury duty in her 20-something years of citizenship. In my broken, half-assed Spanish, I helped her with her card, but also told her that she might not even need to serve because of her limited English comprehension. Indeed, after a while they asked folks who did not speak English to come up to the front to be excused. She went up, but came back not too long after – apparently she spoke just enough English to get to sit around in the main jury room all day, which she did. I saw her at lunch time and came to sit with her again when I was excused from my case. She was really nice and didn’t make me feel more ashamed than I already was about my Spanish. When she finally got called up for her jury discharge, she touched me on my shoulder as we said goodbye. That small gesture, combined with her departure, made me unexpectedly sad. I think I miss the presence of older Latina women in my life. Since my grandmother died almost three years ago now, I haven’t seen much of my family; I have my mother, but even she lives far away from me, and I only get to see her two or three times a year, tops. I think that Silvia reminded me that there’s something really special about older Latina women, something that I can’t really put into words; just a warmth, a familiarty that I miss.
Having jury duty got me to thinking. I know lots of folks around my age and of my general political persuasion who hate jury duty, or at least the idea of it, and would be happy to get out of it. I’ve heard some people talk about playing up their lefty tendencies in the hope that no jury would want them.
This strikes me as a bad attitude and a worse strategy. Yes, the tedious, immensely boring ordeal of court sucks. Yes, the (in)justice system in this country is majorly fucked in twenty million ways. But I think it’s important for folks like us to get ourselves on juries, especially in criminal cases. I do believe that it’s important for jurors to be as impartial as possible, but do I think that most jurors really leave their personal and societal prejudices at home? Hell no. Have many people (especially people of color and poor folks) been royally screwed by juries stacked with people almost guaranteed to look upon them unfavorably? Hell yeah. So, even though the whole carcereal system (as one friend so aptly put it today) probably needs to be done away with, it’s here now, and as long as it’s effecting people’s lives in a very real and often very harmful way, we social-justice-minded folks should try to participate as fully as possible. At least then, the juries might be more likely to be prejudiced towards true justice than against it.