It’s Day 4 of Jury Duty, and I’m sitting in a break room, waiting, at the Jefferson County Hall of Justice.
It’s what I’ve been doing for most of this week. I was called to participate in Voir Dire for one trial, breaking up the boredom for a few hours, listening to lawyers discuss the nuances of a rape/sodomy case.
On Day One, Jefferson Circuit Court Judge Charles Cunningham came to the jury pool, on the 2nd Floor, to give us all a pep talk about civic duty and the importance of having a fair and impartial jury.
Cunningham joked about his wife being called, and how she wanted his help getting out of it. He didn’t help her.
Cunningham admonishes jurors not to discuss cases with friends and family, tells us that chance meetings in the hallways are no occasion for small talk, that if you get on a jury, the judge and lawyers will ignore you in public in fear of being accused of tampering.
We’re also not to take it personally when we don’t get picked, a challenge for many potential jurors who desperately want to serve.
The administrators around here are polite, and even encouraged jurors to write to legislators suggesting a pay raise – we get $12.50 a day. Since parking is $6, and lunch is not provided, it’s a losing proposition financially even for those who don’t lose revenue from lost time at work.
The most interesting piece of news – this is the most-trafficked pair of buildings in the state, estimated at 14,000 folks a day passing through security. So there are plenty of rules about what you can and can’t do, where you can go and who to see to get out of jury duty.
But you’re not supposed to ask that question.
Barring a medical condition, you’re here. The only difference between jury duty and prison is that you get to leave the building for lunch.
Judges, lawyers, defendants, criminals, police officers, deputies and jurors create a melting pot of geographic, racial and economic diversity. A deputy leads a man in handcuffs across the street.
Well-dressed attorneys speak with disheveled clients. Too many people hang out near exits smoking. You see someone, you wonder what crime they committed.
Jurors pass the time with books, computers, by walking a corridor or just staring into space. The reading material provided by the courts is dated, a good place to catch up on what TIME was covering six months ago.
FINALLY, A CASE
Finally, my number is called, and I go to the 9th Floor, in Judge Susan Gibson’s courtroom. Given a speaking part, overly polite deputies instruct us how to line up in the courtroom. Deputy Gagel says we can remember him by thinking of the South End avenue by that name.
The judge welcomes the jury pool, going over basics. She makes sure that, if selected, we will be here all week. She tells us we won’t have to stay past six, especially on Thursday, because it’s Valentine’s Day. Then we hear the charges in this case – rape, sodomy, strangulation.
To my left, prosecuting attorney Erin McKenzie, a tiny, pleasant young woman in a dark business suit, sits with an assistant and a female police detective. In her opening remarks, McKenzie’s making an obvious effort to be liked, but also makes it clear the charges involve sex. Actually says the words “oral” and “anal.” I feel the discomfort among jurors.
She smiles a lot, while going over the basics of what’s expected of jurors. She wants to know if anyone has been involved in a court case, arrest or crime, or if we have close friends or family who have been arrested. Each person with a situation like that tells her the particulars. She asks each one if the incident will cloud their judgement here.
The defense attorney is David Mejia, a name I recognize from his stint defending those Trinity High students last year in the Savannah Dietrich case that brought national attention here. His assistant, a pleasant blonde, seems to be seeking eye contact with jurors.
The defendant is here. He’s a 30-ish African-American man who’s accused of rape, sodomy and choking his white girlfriend. He’s tall, thin, bald, bespectacled and attentive. He writes things down during the proceeding, occasionally looking up for a friendly face, but mostly trying to be invisible. He’s dressed professionally, a suit and tie, looking more like an attorney than a defendant.
As the jurors walk in, Ms. McKenzie eyes us carefully. Having watched the movie “Runaway Jury,” my mind races to figure out her strategy in selecting a jury.
She addresses us first, describing the charges, searching faces for looks of shock or outrage or queasiness at the mention of “anal sex.” Several jury members request private conferences with the attorneys and judge, who turns on some white noise to assure we all can’t hear what they’re discussing. My fraternity brother, Gary, got picked here with me, and he takes an excessive amount of time.
I know Gary doesn’t want to be selected.
He won’t be.
McKenzie wants to make sure everyone is capable of voting to convict the defendant, asking the what ifs – if a prove the facts beyond a reasonable doubt, will you vote guilty? Of course we will, we nod in agreement.
Mejia speaks with an accomplished lawyer’s cool, dropping his age (63) in the process of asking, politely, is anyone’s old enough to be racist to the extent he/she won’t give a black man accused or raping a white woman a chance.
He wants to know if anyone has a bias against lawyers, or cops. But no one admits to these feelings, if they have them. I sense both attorneys are studying body language for clues to attitude.
Mejia wants to know if anyone thinks that a rape can occur between married couples or those in a relationship. His client is accused of that crime – of raping a woman he was in a relationship with. Mejia prods and pokes, asking the same question in different ways, trying to get jurors to respond. Most don’t.
Each side gets about an hour of questioning the group. Both want a fair trial, but seek different results. I imagine what kind of jurors each attorney will strike, or accept. We’re dismissed for 30 minutes, asked to return to hear our fate.
As the six-digit numbers are called, I’m confident I won’t hear mine. One by one selected jurors stride to the jury box. The woman to my right, and the two men to my left, get picked. There’s a groan of disappointment and a gasp. In the end, there’s a mixture of race and gender on the final jury, and everyone seems satisfied with the process.
For those of us left out, we’re done for the day, but we go back into the pool tomorrow.
On my way home, crossing Fourth Street, I’m surprised to see the defendant, walking, destination unknown.