It’s the piece of mail that we all dread receiving. You have been called for jury duty.
And, like a tax audit or another bill from your auto insurance company, you can’t avoid it. Unless you have a bulletproof excuse, you have to show up for jury duty. But here’s the thing; Guys’ Guys show up. After being summoned for a second time after twenty years, in the end I was glad I stepped up and served. At the time I didn’t realize the scope of the case I was assigned to and the ramifications on the life of the accused. It was a big deal and the alleged perpetrator’s life hung the balance. Afterwards I felt more in touch with my sense of citizenship and my humanity. Here’s what happened and what I learned. After all, Guy’s Guy’s are all about new experiences.
After I graduated from college I briefly moved back home to New Jersey. One summer I got called for jury duty in Hackensack. I showed up, filled out some forms, sat and waited for twenty minutes, and was told to go home. I thought nothing of it and was glad they let me go. They let me be for the next two decades. Flash forward twenty years when my official residency changed to New York. After registering to vote, I was almost immediately summoned for jury duty. On a freezing, overcast January day I showed up at the big courthouse in downtown Manhattan. I stood outside in line in the bitter cold with a few hundred sad-looking New Yorkers waiting to be processed. Expecting lots of waiting time, I kept my phone and a book on hand. Once inside we were matriculated and shuttled into a huge room where we sat waiting and waiting. Finally we were told that the lot of us was under consideration for a major federal conspiracy case. There was a collective groan across the dank, drab holding room as our files were reviewed.
After two hours there was an announcement. They had selected a few dozen candidates that would be reviewed by the judge and the respective attorneys. Since I have never won Lotto or even a major prize at a golf outing, I assumed I would not be selected. But mine was the second name called. This precipitated a few days of interviews, instructions, forms and questionnaires to fill out, and more hours of waiting in the dank confines of the backrooms of the courthouse. As the process transpired, I realized that I had no excuse that would get me out of this dilemma. And sure enough, I was selected for the case, and it was a doozy. It lasted two weeks and featured long dissertations on firearms, ammunition, drugs, fistfuls of illegal cash, hidden videotapes, snitches, undercover cops and more. It was a wild ride that delved into areas of criminal behavior and jargon that I had never known. Who knew bullets were called “food”? Each day we broke whenever the attorneys had a disagreement about a witness, detail or a procedure. They paid us a few bucks a day. At lunch we fanned out and took separate paths into Chinatown.
While observing the proceedings I realized that the accused perpetrator’s future hung in the balance and I would be one of twelve who would decide on his fate. If convicted, this guy was facing decades behind bars. This was a big responsibility us jurors. Fortunately, our group was an astute, fair-minded crew. We paid attention, kept an open mind and followed the judge’s instructions—including refraining from reading the newspaper or watching the news during the trial. I did not know until afterwards that there had been constant news coverage of the case.
Two weeks later, after day after day of numerous meticulous, highly procedural presentations of the evidence followed by the defense rebuttal; the jury was asked for a decision. After we presented our findings (I’m thankful that I was not the foreman) we went out for drinks at a pub behind the courthouse. We had all kept our distance during the trial, so in the next two hours I got to know my fellow jurors more than I had during the past two weeks. There was a strange, unique bond that had taken place and a feeling of mutual respect among peers. I am proud our paths briefly crossed briefly in what had been a very human experience where the fate of certain individuals was placed in our hands. When I left the pub the snow began falling as if on cue. It was a quiet, gentle snow that covered the ground like a blanket, burying the experience in a soft white hue under a darkened winter sky. I knew I would never see any of these people again. Meeting them and sharing this experience had been enough.
Forgive me if I sound sanctimonious, but this two-week odyssey gave me a new slant on jury duty. Now I know why it is important to be responsible and take it seriously. Being called to serve is not punishment. It’s an honor. Sure, you might get assigned to a small-time civil case, a business beef or something equally mundane, but that’s the luck of the draw. The important thing is to show up and represent, and that’s worth keeping in mind as we march through life.
Have you been called for jury duty?
This week’s Guys’ Guys of the Week are all the attorneys who are forced to deal with painstaking procedures that even with all its flaws still makes our legal system the best in the world.