Friday, March 25, 2011

Jury Duty

I was first called for jury duty in the fall of 1980 and ended up sitting on a grand jury that met every Wednesday for about eight months. During that time, we heard testimony and were presented evidence regarding a number of cases and we handed down quite a few indictments. And while driving to the courthouse in Mineola during rush hour was not my favorite thing to do, it did provide a break from my daily train-and-subway commute to Manhattan.

That stint apparently got me some brownie points because it was more than a decade before I was called again. There were three summonses during the '90s and one in 2004: Three more to Mineola and one to Federal Court in Brooklyn. Only one resulted in my getting picked for a jury -- a civil case that was settled "out of court" while we were sitting the jury room on the day the trial was supposed to begin.


After you've been called for jury duty, you now get a six-year "pass" in Nassau County, so, since I'd last been there in 2004, it was not so surprising that I received a summons to appear this week. The way it works, you are assigned a number and you call each evening to see if you have to show up the following day. I was not needed on Monday, but my number came up for Tuesday.

I drove to Mineola and joined about 400 other folks in the main jury room. We first were shown a video (the same one they showed in 2004 and, possibly, earlier) with Ed Bradley and Diane Sawyer extolling the importance of our judicial system. The video includes a reenactment of a 12th century "trial by endurance" in which an accused man is bound and tossed in the river. If he floats to the surface, he is guilty; if he sinks, he is innocent. Happily for the accused and his family, he sank like a stone and was judged innocent before he drowned.

After the video, one of the judges came in and welcomed us. He reminded us of the importance of our presence and said that even if we were just sitting and waiting, we were providing an important service to the judicial system. When he meets with attorneys on the various cases assigned to him, he is often able to persuade them to come to a settlement simply by pointing out that there are juries waiting if they cannot.

Unlike 2004, when I spent most of the morning waiting to hear my name, I was the third person called for the first jury pool. Thirty-five of us were called and sent to a small room nearby. There, after attendance was taken, we were told that we were being bussed to one of the other buildings. With our "Juror" name tags now hanging around our necks, we boarded a bus and were driven... across the parking lot! (One can only presume using the bus is necessary to make sure we did not lose any slow walkers along the way.)

In the second building, the thirty-five of us were ushered into a room with a table and twelve chairs and the heat cranked up to "bake bread." The court officer who escorted us told us we would be there for only a couple of minutes, but since he had to close the door, we might want to open the window. In legal parlance, I guess "twenty-five" is considered "a couple" because that is how many minutes we were in there.

After we heard someone in the hall say, "Where are the other 35 jurors?" the door finally opened and we were told that we would be taken upstairs to a courtroom. Turned out that after we had arrived, a second group of thirty-five potential jurors had also been drawn, put into an identical room next door, and now all seventy of us were the pool for a case.

Unlike the courtrooms you see on TV and in movies which appear to have seating for a few hundred people, the one we were escorted to was long and narrow and, by the way, did not even have enough seats for seventy potential jurors. With some of us again standing, the judge introduced himself and the attorneys and gave us a quick overview of the case. Then, the first fourteen names were called and those people went to sit in the jury box. However, before anything else could happen, the judge and attorneys had an unrelated matter to deal with, so we all had to leave the courtroom and go back downstairs to the waiting room for "a few" minutes. Thankfully, the court officer decided that we did not have to be closed into the oven-room, so most of us milled around in the hallway instead.

It turns out that "a few" and "a couple" are interchangeable terms because it was another twenty-five minutes that we waited till we went back upstairs. With fourteen people now seated in the jury box, there were enough seats in the courtroom for the rest of us. The judge asked each of the jurors a few questions about prior jury service, involvement with law enforcement, and possible employment or personal conflicts since the case was scheduled to begin next week. As a result of these questions and with the agreement of both attorneys, four of the potential jurors were released and sent back to the main jury room where they would again wait for their names to be called for another pool. Four more of our original seventy were selected to replace them.

The assistant district attorney introduced herself, explained a little about the case, and then began questioning jurors. When she finished, the defense attorney took his turn, but, since he did not think he could finish before the lunch break at 12:30, we adjourned. We were told that we had to be back by 2:00 -- once again to the waiting room downstairs -- and then would be brought back up to the courtroom.

I had brought my lunch with me, so I walked back to the car and sat and ate it, reading the newspaper. It doesn't take me an hour and a half to eat lunch (or read the paper), so I strolled over to the main jury room and had a cup of coffee in the cafeteria. I called Laurie and the office. I went outside and watched the grass grow. At 1:50, I went back to the waiting room, joining the rest of the group.

It was "a few" (or maybe "a couple") of minutes before we were brought back to the courtroom. The defense attorney finished asking his questions of the fourteen folks in the box. Then the judge told us that we all had to go stand in the hall while he and the attorneys had a discussion. When we came back in, the judge reminded everyone that not being selected for the jury was not a reflection on their character, merely a decision reached by the attorneys as they tried to assemble a group that would be best for their case.

Of the fourteen people, three were chosen for the jury. The rest were sent home. The trio were sworn in and told they had to return next Monday at 10:00. Another fourteen names were chosen. Among them was a woman who was not fluent in English; neither attorney nor the judge felt she would be an appropriate juror, so they sent her home. (This after she had been there for six and a half hours.)

We had a rerun of the first round of questioning, with a couple more people being excused and replaced by the judge. Both attorneys had their time and we were again sent out in the hall. After another "couple/few" minutes, we were called back. This time, eight of the fourteen were selected.

Still needing one more juror and two alternates, they started the procedure for the third time. Fourteen more people. Fourteen more sets of questions by the judge and the attorneys. Another "couple/few" minutes in the hallway. When we returned to the courtroom, the dozen of us who had not yet had our names called were thankful that they'd managed to agree on their last three jurors so that we did not have to go through a fourth round.

By now it was almost 4:30, so we all had to go back to the main jury room to be officially dismissed. There a clerk collected our juror cards and scanned them into the computer and printed out our "thanks for coming" certificates. I went out to my car and drove home.

And that is how I did my part for our judicial system. I'm sure they'll be calling me again in 2017.


  1. I know the feeling. I went through the same thing in Rensselaer County a few months ago. I didn't get picked, and the trial ended a few days later. Haven't tried a case yet after 4 summonses in 25+ years.

  2. "...we were told that we were being bussed to one of the other buildings."

    Come on, Bob! You as a writer should know the difference between bussed and bused. Either that, or there was a good reason the bus trip was needed to go across the parking lot, what with all that government-sanctioned kissing going on.

  3. I as a writer am well aware that either spelling is correct when speaking about riding on a bus. Had I been bussed while I was being bussed (or bused, if you prefer), I would certainly have made mention of it, as the topic was not covered in the "What to expect as a juror" handbook.