Wednesday, August 14, 2013

My day in court

I was on jury duty today. They treat jurors right in Newark. The free coffee is good, the wireless is good, the chairs don't kill you. There's even a small landscaped area outside the front doors, where I spent a pleasant hour during lunch, bending my laptop into the shade. The orientation video was effective (and followed by a short video pitch for volunteers to serve as Court Appointed Special Advocates for foster children that made me cry a little). The master of ceremonies for jurors was jovial and funny ("the intercoms reach everywhere, including the bathroom. So -- Jurors! If you're in the bathroom, and you hear your name called, cut it short"). The judge during voir dire was respectful, friendly, almost courtly to the jurors. All this was as it should be.

And yet, after reading a rash of articles recently about the depravities of criminal justice in the U.S. -- the mass incarceration, the inane mandatory minimum sentencing, the grotesque overuse of solitary confinement, the ubiquity of rape, the law-shaping clout of the private prison industry, the mass deportations, the faux forensic "science" deployed by prosecutors -- I couldn't help but reflect that I was being shown the civil public face of brutal penal system.

Serving on a jury is essentially voluntary, as one can disqualify oneself via virtually every question on the juror questionnaire. I've always wanted to be on a jury but haven't made it so far (I was once empaneled pretty deep into the process before getting struck by the prosecution). As a self-employed solo practitioner, my rule of thumb has always been that I would try to make myself acceptable to both sides for trials estimated to last under a week (the majority for which I've been called to voir dire), but that I would get myself tossed* from trials longer than that.

At this point, though, if I didn't hold back on certain thoughts, I would be guaranteed never to serve on a jury. One question is, "Do you believe our justice system is fair?" or words to that effect. What I would have liked to answer, if asked (I wasn't empaneled today) was, "potentially."  That is, I think it possible that a particular defendant, tried in a particular court, might get a fair trial. But no, I do not think that the system as a whole is fair.  And in any case, that answer would get you booted by the prosecution faster than you could say "voir dire."

*I was struck once after responding truthfully, when asked whether there were any bumper stickers on my car, that we had one from the ACLU (a Bush-era anomaly -- we've almost never had bumper stickers). That was after a judge would not excuse me simply because I told him I was self-employed and couldn't afford 2-3 weeks, a plea that worked in a prior case. 

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