They found me.
Holding the envelope and reading in bold “Jury Summons,” I flipped it over and over in the hopes of discovering it to be a weird advertisement flyer. It was legit. Cheers to citizenship.
I packed my Kindle, my folders from work, and an insufficient supply of snacks to the Los Angeles court house in downtown LA.
My fellow citizens and I were herded into a giant room stocked with uncomfortable chairs to wait for our name to be called. After hours of nothingness my mind simply warped into a strange funk. It was akin to waiting for a delayed flight at the airport but without Starbucks and Book Stores…or a flight.
Could this be purgatory? Am I in a dream? Maybe no one knows that I’m actually here. Could that be a fortuitous oversight?
But then it happened. I heard my name over the loud speaker instructing me to report. It was 3:30 pm and I had been sitting there since 9:00 am.
Nearly fifty of us shuffled into the court room, shoulders slumped, because the possibility of jury duty inevitably compromises one’s posture. However, the real injustice was the sign at the door forbidding drinks.
Twelve people were called to sit in the jury box, and my inner voice “hooray-ed” that I wasn’t on the list. Perhaps I could go home now?
No such luck. The judge informed us that we must return the following day. He also alerted us to the nature of the case, a criminal trial involving a convicted sex offender. A collective audible groan escaped from the potential jurors.
I started in on bargaining mode with God:
Dear God, I’ll stop teaching Hume and Bertrand Russell if you get me out of this and I’ll finish all of my grading on time…for life!
I’ll return student emails in a timely fashion.
I’ll stop stealing pens from the office.
I’ll consider your existence a possibility.
The next two days I navigated through city traffic, bad coffee from the cafeteria, and general grumpiness that could rival PMS. I’d never pined over my day job more. On the bright side, I had yet to be called into the jury box.
By the end of day three, my luck ran out. My friend texted me the following sage advice:
When my turn to be questioned arrived, the lawyer noted my background in philosophy and he said: “Philosophy. Big ideas. Deep thinking. Could you simply apply the law given the evidence presented?”
Defensively I huffed: “Yes!”
Oops. I sealed the deal. In retrospect I should have answered “What is law?”
The case, it turns out, was over a technical question. Part of the conditions of the defendant’s parole for being a convicted sex offender was that he needed to register his address whenever it changed. The defendant claimed to have become homeless and that was why he failed to register. We needed to determine if he knew that being homeless did not mean he could shirk this responsibility. The prosecution held up evidence of a series of forms the defendant had signed that clearly stated he acknowledged he must always let the police know his location even if he became transient.
Listening to this testimony made me wonder if this was Karma for every time I’ve bored my students.
One of the more depressing aspects of the trial occurred during the testimony of the officers in charge of registering sex offenders. There are a whopping two people in charge! Those two officers are responsible for approximately 600 registered offenders. When asked how often they verify if the offender lives where he/she says they live, the officers said “Maybe 5-10 a month.” In other words, the majority of offenders register addresses and there is not enough time or resources to see if the addresses are real.
How did the defendant get caught? Well, he claimed that he sometimes stayed at his in-laws and that was the address listed on his driver’s license. Another part of the LAPD served him a warrant at that DMV address. When the sex offender registration officers noticed the address of the arrest had not been listed as required, they brought the defendant in for questioning. Here is the other point at which the ball was dropped: the interview was not recorded.
Jury deliberations, a.k.a. an introvert’s hell, opened the door to another rather deflating reality. The twelve of us needed to agree. Only eleven of us did think the prosecution proved the defendant knew of his obligation to register, and one juror believed the defendant simply didn’t know. After two days we could not change her mind.
“So, we’re going to let him go because he signed these documents, consulted with a parole officer, but says he didn’t know,” one juror angrily said.
“You don’t know what you don’t know, and I believed him when he said he didn’t know,” the dissenter replied.
It was an exercise in futility. We agreed to tell the judge we had a hung jury. All of us prayed it would be accepted because after almost two weeks, no one wanted to discuss it further. I was surprised to find my own sentiments at such a degree of frustration. In the beginning, I didn’t want to be there, but once I recognized the gravity of the responsibility, I wanted to fulfill my duty. The defendant was guilty. After hearing testimony about the lack of resources for registering sex offenders and the failure to record an interview, we as a jury were the last bit of the justice system and we were also, I felt, letting the proverbial ball drop.
When the judge excused us and thanked us for our service I initially thought, Wait? Did I have a choice? Then I drove home ruminating on the entire ordeal (L.A. traffic gives one plenty of time for thinking between periodic horn beeping).
I am so disappointed that I participated in something that, from what I gathered by the evidence, amounted to a futile exercise. My only hope is that the verdict initiates change and/or reflection on the departments in charge and the organization of evidence by the prosecution. I don’t think I’ll serve on a jury again if called. I never want this….dirty feeling of having been part of something that seems a bit of a ruse.
Next time I’m asked if I could apply the law, I may go into philosopher speak and start up a lecture on Aristotle.