And Justice For All

by Jim Washburn

Call me a sap; I don’t care if I’m dripping it: I’m glad I’m an American. Sure, we’re a militaristic empire that doesn’t mind blowing up innocent children if we get a few bad guys, too; and our democratic process has been so commercialized and dumbed-down that the World Wrestling Federation could learn some pointers from it; and the “job creators” have bled us dry and are seeking fresh blood on other shores; and we’re such an astonishingly Un-Christian “Christian nation” that anchor-baby Jesus would probably be impaled on an electric fence this time.

Yeah but, I still love the place. Love and compassion still have a fighting chance here, and, my goodness, life is serendipitous. As I was just writing this, a Randy Newman song came on the CD player, off his Harps and Angels album from 2008, which I’m only getting around to hearing now because I found it used at a swap meet at a price I could afford, and so here I am loving the USA, and he comes in intoning, “A few words in defense of our country” which, I see now is the title of the song as well. While his tongue is clearly in his cheek, it’s obvious he’s got some apple pie in there as well.

He recorded it in the Bush years, though not a lot has changed. A couple of the verses make me laugh out loud, such as:

You know, it kind of pisses me off,
That this Supreme Court is going to outlive me,
A couple of young Italian fellas and a brother on the court now, too,
But I defy you, anywhere in the world,
To find me two Italians as tight-assed as the two Italians we got,
And as for the brother, well,
Pluto’s not a planet anymore, either

It’s about the end of our time in the sun, and it could make me weep, too:

Just a few words in defense of our country,
Whose time at the top,
Could be coming to an end,
We don’t want your love,
And respect at this point is pretty much out of the question,
But times like these,
We sure could use a friend

Guys like Randy Newman are one reason why I love America. For all our faults, we’ve produced some great and wonderful people, and no other nation has yet come up with a Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker or Jimi Hendrix. And we occasionally get stuff right and make the world a better place. It’s like Winston Churchill said, “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing, after they’ve tried everything else.”

One of the things I’m thankful for when I tuck into my turkey is that we have a legal machinery—tilted, cracked and all that, sure—in which justice stands a pretty good chance of prevailing.

I’ve known people over the years who told me that whenever they received a jury summons in the mail, they’d throw it in the trash, end of story. No one ever prosecuted them, or even contacted them. I’ve known others who wouldn’t register to vote because jury summons lists were culled from the roster of registered voters (California now also draws from DMV records), and they simply couldn’t be bothered.

Me? I serve, for the same reason I worked as a poll worker for several elections: Every once in a while you’ve gotta do something to make your country work. I never trudged through foreign streets in 108-degree heat while people I’d never met tried to kill me with hand-made explosives. I’ve never put myself forward in politics to be shot at by assassins. I’ve rarely even attended city council meetings.

So, skipping all that, I figure it’s the least I can do to tend to some of the basic, simple grunt work of keeping a society moving.

I’m pretty sure I could have gotten out of serving this time. I’m self-employed, and in these times it takes daily frigging diligence to stay current with the rent and health insurance bills. I don’t have spare weeks to hearken to the lulling sounds of corporations suing each other. But there are also people and situations in desperate need of justice. One thought I keep in mind when I get the summons is how much I’d hate to have to be judged by a jury of people who weren’t smart enough to get out of it.

I had another reason. The summons day was also my wife’s birthday, and it got me out of taking her to Disneyland. She only likes to go on her birthday, because then they give her a special birthday badge to wear, making her feel like queen for a day, because every single Disney “cast member” we pass has to desperately smile and wish her a happy birthday. If they don’t, the park has them stripped and they’re forced to use their thighs to thaw Walt’s cryogenically frozen head.

That all seems a trifle demeaning to me, though avoiding it was small solace for a day wasted at Santa Ana’s Central Justice Center, where the Justice League of America meets on Wednesday nights to play snooker, and also where the California Superior Court holds sway during the day.

It’s a day wasted because I’m a journalist, and it’s an unwritten rule that journalists don’t get seated on juries. The very things that would make us excellent jurors—inquisitiveness, attention to detail, speedy note-taking—make us lousy jurors in the eyes of both prosecuting and defense attorneys, who seem to prefer jurors they can lead to the conclusion of their choice.

Most folks never get called from the waiting room, but other times I’ve spent two or three days in the jury box during selection, knowing that one side or the other was going to dump me before the trial commenced.

In some instances being on call for a jury has become easier in recent years. If it’s a local court, very often you don’t even have to go in, just be on standby via the phone. For Superior Court, though, they like to draw from a wide pool, so folks from all over the county get to spend the day in a huge waiting room.

On my day this week, I was one of about 350 people in the room—we were told during orientation that 43,000 prospective jurors are called in annually—and maybe 60 were called to a trial. The rest of us just sat—reading, coughing or watching Lucy episodes with the sound nearly off—from 7:45 a.m. til 4 p.m.

We were thanked, and told how crucial we are to the workings of the American justice system. That’s sure how I felt when I found they made us park our cars only in the nosebleed levels of a parking structure situated numerous football fields away from the courthouse. As if to rub that in, you actually have to walk past a football field on the way.

The average NFL football quarterback’s salary, by the way, is $1,970,982 a year, or $123,000 and change for every day he plays a game. A juror is paid $15 a day, except for the first day you’re called in, when you get nothing. You can be deciding a case that could send another human to the death chamber, or one that might determine whether a corporation is allowed to poison our environment, and some guy is getting paid 8,212 times as much as you are to throw a ball. I’m not saying that’s wrong, but it does help explain why you don’t see many quarterbacks on juries. Their job is crucial to society. Yours isn’t.

There was an occasion when I did actually get placed on a jury. It figures it was the one time I desperately didn’t want to be. It was the 1980s, I was the rock critic at the OC Register, and we were headed into a busy concert season. The paper had already arranged to send me to Denver for the opening night of a Springsteen tour. I was pretty blasé about Bruce, but I’d never seen Denver and was anxious to go. Plus the Register wasn’t the most civic-minded of employers, and I wasn’t going to get paid for my time on jury duty unless I worked around it to get most of my workload in.

I live in Costa Mesa. The court was in north Fullerton, and the drive each way was during rush hour, which could take over an hour some days. The Register was about halfway in-between, and I’d stop there before and/or after work to get my articles done. Our lunchtimes during the trial were usually two hours or more, and during a lot of those, I’d drive down to the paper to get an hour of work in.

This went on for nearly five weeks, after I’d done everything short of carving a swastika in my forehead to avoid it. I tried explaining to the judge that I was indispensible to my employer, that no one else was capable of placing a Springsteen performance in its proper socio-cultural perspective. No go.

12 Angry Men
12 Angry Men

The defendant and his attorney were black, and this being 1980s Orange County, they had cause to quiz potential jurors about bias. I told them that a recent girlfriend had been molested in her youth by a jazz trumpeter--which was true--and how I’d like to think that wouldn’t color my judgment, but, gee, it had been preying on my mind, which was not quite so true, but I figured what defense attorney on earth would seat me after saying something like that?

This guy did.

 The defendant was charged with rape, attempted murder and sundry other crimes against a young woman. From the prosecution’s vantage, it was a cut and dried case: The defendant had spotted the woman walking at night, had parked his car on a side-street, hidden in the bushes and abducted her at knifepoint. They drove to a deserted section of a parking structure of a hospital in South Central where he worked at as a janitor, and raped her repeatedly. He then told her not to worry, that he’d drive her home. On a freeway onramp, he slowed, shot her, opened the passenger door and pushed her from the vehicle. This latter bit—the gut-shot woman being ejected from the defendant’s car—had been witnessed by two nuns in an approaching vehicle.

The defendant told a far different story: He’d known the girl for years; she used to come to South Central to buy marijuana from him. After a long time of not hearing from her, she’d called and asked if he could purloin some ether from the hospital to sell to her so she could make rock cocaine, because she was that sort of girl. The sex was consensual and part of the deal. Driving her home, she’d found his gun in the glove compartment and pulled it on him to rob him. They struggled and somehow in the tussle, the gun became pointed back at her and she’d pulled the trigger, just as she’d opened the door with her other hand, and that’s what the nuns saw. Happens all the time.

I hit particularly bad traffic the day jury deliberations began and was 15 minutes late. As punishment, in my absence the other 11 jurors voted to make me foreman. I’m not fond of leadership positions—it interferes with my weed intake—but I took the job seriously and found I had to lead some of my fellows to the just conclusion: The guy was guilty as hell.

Along with its general implausibility, there were huge holes in the defendant’s story, some of them noted yet some also missed by the young prosecutor, who was not the sharpest knife in the drawer; maybe not even the sharpest spoon. For one thing, adding up the defendant’s tale of his doings, there was no way the victim could have had his phone number to call him about the ether, as he’d claimed.

Being the youngest juror, I had to explain to my fellows that, if a young woman in Buena Park wanted to score some marijuana, it was not incumbent upon her to drive to South Central to do so.

Another interesting twist: the defendant had somehow placed himself beyond prosecution for something like six or seven years since the evening in question, and some things had changed in that time. At the time of the trial, ether was a controlled chemical, but I knew from scientist friends that hadn’t been the case at the time of the crime, when unlimited amounts of it could be had cheap from any chemical supply house, making it rather unnecessary to go out of county to pay and screw a guy to steal it from a hospital.

It also goes against custom that if you have agreeable sex with someone, it takes somewhat more than some horseplay with a gun for you to be unconcerned with that person’s welfare when she or he goes flying from your vehicle with a gunshot wound. Even if you’re scared and drive off, you’d at least call an ambulance or send a carrot cake, neither of which this gentleman did.

If the defense had been attempting to confuse jurors, they did a pretty good job. “I don’t know, a girl who was making and selling cocaine, why should we believe her story?” was the position a couple of them took, though there was nothing other than the defendant’s self-interested say-so that he knew her previous to that night or that she had anything whatever to do with drugs. One juror opined that the defendant didn’t seem smart enough to concoct such a story. I argued otherwise. He also had very savvy representation via his prominent attorney in ostrich-skin boots.

The deliberations went on for days, and the holdouts eventually moved towards a guilty verdict. Finally, there was just one woman unconvinced of his guilt. A couple of the jurors began leaning on her to decide. There was a big sporting event they didn’t want to miss. I had to remind them a person’s future was at stake here, and it was our job to convince our fellow juror, not browbeat her.

When we finally agreed he was guilty on all counts, one sweet little old lady wondered if we might let him slide on one count—theft, for taking the victim’s purse, after kidnapping, raping and shooting her—because the woman worried the defendant would feel so disappointed if he was found guilty of everything.

One of the least fun things about being jury foreman was that I was the one who had to read off the guilty verdict on each count as the defendant glared daggers at me. We hadn’t been permitted in court to hear anything of his criminal record or how he’d evaded prosecution for so long. After the trial, the court clerk approached some of us in the parking lot and assured us that if we’d seen even a quarter of the guy’s record that he had we’d know we’d done the right thing. I just hoped the guy was being put away long enough to forget my name.

separator

If I was on a five-week trial now, there’s a good chance our rent check would have bounced before the trial was over. Things are that tenuous for a lot of folks, and I wonder how that’s going to shape the nature of justice in this country. If you can prove that it’s a serious hardship to serve, you can usually get out of it. But if the only people able to serve are the well off or the comfortably retired, that might result in verdicts that favor the well off and comfortable. If working people do end up on juries and are faced with the choice between deliberating until a just verdict is reached or keeping their kids fed and their mortgage paid, justice will probably get the short end of it.

One of the things we were told over the PA in the jury waiting room this time was that if we got picked for a long trial, we’d have Nov. 24 and 25 off in which to catch up on our everyday work, like it’s just normal that we should expect to work on Thanksgiving now.

Jim Washburn has written for the Los Angeles Times, the Orange County Register, the OC Weekly, various MSN sites and just about anybody else willing to trade a paycheck for a pulse.
jim@fourstory.org

Comments

Atta boy,Jim. I love Rand Newman, too.

2011-11-21 by Evy Cole

Making the case once again for professional jurors, a great idea that, of course,  will never be considered.

2011-11-21 by Matt Q

As a city employee, I am called for jury duty regularly. As the mother of frequently convicted felon, I am never chosen to sit on a jury. I miss the Fess Parker movie.

2011-11-21 by Robin Ott

wow.  and i thought i had an intense experience in the jury box.  it will be a long time before i get that one out of my head.

and i love randy newman, too.

2011-11-22 by Donna Schoenkopf

Wham bam thank you, ma’am, my questions are aneswred!

2011-11-30 by Caelii

Comments closed.

Archives

Features | Blog