Like many others before me, the thought of serving Jury Duty was ranked in the company of things like root canal surgery when it came to experiences you’d prefer to avoid as long as humanly possible.
But strangely, once that document with the red line arrived in my mailbox, a slight sense of relief came over me.
I think it had something to do with my fear of being arrested for avoiding it for as long as I had. There was genuine concern that someone would find me and put me in a holding cell for not performing my civic duty.
So here I was, slightly annoyed, relieved, frightened and intrigued by the idea of serving.
The intrigue was to be blamed on Dick Wolf.
He’s the man who brought all 700 versions of “Law & Order” to the television-watching masses. He and his crafty bunch of writers made the idea of sitting in a courtroom witnessing someone break down and confess to grisly crimes at the behest of sharp cross-examining tactics seem like a crazy way to spend the day.
Surely, if you can withstand getting sucked into a week-long, nonstop marathon of L&W episodes on basic cable, then this should be a cake-walk, right?
Well… truth is… it’s not the same.
The gut check of being thrust into a real-life jury duty experience is similar to finding out your parents are Santa and the Tooth Fairy.
Once you’ve gotten past the not exactly unpleasant hump of being in a room with other people utilizing the downtime to catch up on books and get some uninterrupted work accomplished, you get selected and sent like cattle to slaughter into a courtroom that reveals the reality; the one where cops don’t look like Chris Noth and Jeremy Sisto, nor do they have the personality of Richard Belzer. And lawyers could only aspire to have Angie Harmon or Elizabeth Rohm’s hair.
It quickly becomes clear that the depictions you logged hours of your life absorbing may perhaps be slightly glorified.
Beyond the slick physical presentation and delivery of various laws and “objections”, the courtroom itself is portrayed as a magical place where justice — or at least high drama — is served.
What it really is, is a quiet place that feels cold and almost soul draining; that consumes you in a sea of sullen faces, dozing court officers and audience members who spend five minutes opening a very loud candy wrapper (everything is noticeably pronounced when you’re sitting in perpetual silence for hours). It’s a room where you can feel as if you are on trial, given the number and personal nature of the questions asked before you are either selected for or excused from deciding the fate of another human being.
It was in a room like this that myself and eleven other strangers spent several days getting acquainted with laws, lackluster attorneys and a feisty female judge. It was in a room like this where I realized that not everything is an open and shut case, and the truth doesn’t always reconcile with the law.
…It is in that room where I now understood why some of the most controversial verdicts in history were made.
In a case where the most excitement occurred when a defense attorney got into a brief shouting match with a police officer he was cross-examining (finally… drama!), there was very little mystery (or evidence) that would permit any of us to have bragging rights or a profound anecdote as takeaways from the experience.
What we did get… unexpectedly of course… was much more.
Upon reaching a unanimous — and speedy — verdict of “not guilty”, twelve strangers piled into a courthouse elevator for the last time to go home. This time, we were joined by a man we set free. Almost conditionally, we reacted with slight panic and hesitation, because here… next to us… was still a man who had been charged with a crime. As we nervously sought each other’s eyes to validate our decision and seek to feel at ease, this man — who had only moments before been portrayed as a heartless thug — turned to us, thanked us, and then proceeded to cry.
And just like that… with men giving him assuring pats on the back, and women wiping away tears of their own, we disbursed into the unseasonably warm and sunny afternoon and watched a man begin his new life and bask in his freedom.
So while I didn’t witness any grand speeches and mind-blowing arguments or reveals on the level of Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson in “A Few Good Men”, or even Reese Witherspoon in”Legally Blonde” (a movie that I do believe may have influenced the career choice of one of our jurists), witnessing the system at work was indeed something to behold.
But any longer than a week, and you might end up on the other side of the law for harming a fellow juror.