Last December, our Mike Seely enumerated six ways to get off jury duty. All pretty funny, but maybe not so ethical. Having just dodged the bullet of a five-week criminal trial in King County Superior Court, I can add a half-dozen more disqualifiers, based on two days' involvement in the judicial process.
Where many are called, few citizens actually want to serve.
But before the new list, a few preliminary observations from the bowels of Superior Court. Did you know there's a jury duty Web site? It's true! And full of fun facts like "swords, sabers, daggers, and dirks" being prohibited from the courthouse. (How many gang-bangers carry dirks these days?) And celebrity endorsements! After navigating my way through the security check--like those TSA guys at SeaTac, only less friendly--to the jury waiting room (now with WiFi!), I found posters of former Mariner Edgar Martinez, former hydroplane racer Chip Hanauer, former Sonic Al Hairston, and former governor Gary Locke, all of them extolling the virtues of jury duty. Because when Gary Locke says it's exciting, you know it's exciting.
So how do 150 randomly selected King County voters behave when cooped up together....?The jury waiting room is a relatively pleasant purgatory with kitchen, vending machines, clean bathrooms, WiFi, and many laptop outlets. The place is full of TV monitors from which the clerks' instructions are broadcast. Curiously, these screens are left on most of the time, hooked up to a camera aimed at the clerks' empty podium, providing a live, in-house broadcast of those people quietly typing and reading in the background. Every direction you look, it's the same guy pecking away at his computer, seemingly oblivious that he's being watched. It's like an Andy Warhol movie being shot in real time. (From the director of Sleep and Empire--Jury Duty!)
Since the clerks make relatively few announcements, the effect is like being interminably trapped in an airport waiting lounge without flight-departure signs or even windows to judge when you might be leaving. Short breaks permit trips outside to the sidewalk to smoke (meaning you've got to brave security again) or to the in-house deli, where prices are surprisingly reasonable ($1.25 for a drip coffee). Hours pass by in the waiting room, and many strangers start congregating in clusters to socialize. It's actually rather heartening to see those from different walks of life breaking down the Seattle Nice code of silence. It's like being trapped in a elevator, without the same level of panic and desperation. Meanwhile, the workaholics keep typing on their laptops. Others are lost in novels or knitting, but a gentle conversational buzz makes the room bearable, not quite a prison.
After almost one full day of waiting, 31 other prospective jurors and I were subjected to the selection process in the matter of State of Washington v. Tyson Spring, former proprietor of an upscale used-car consignment shop called Auto Gallery, once located near First and Denny (P-I account, PSBJ profile). The defendant's nearly 20 charges of theft date back to 2005 and 2006. Basically, Spring is charged with selling other people's cars for them, but keeping the proceeds and, in some cases, forging their signatures on the titles.
In their questioning of the panel, the defense and prosecution were essentially rehearsing their arguments, looking for the mavericks and oddballs among us who might go rogue during a five-week trial. We'd already filled out questionnaires indicating our age, education, and profession. Now came the culling process, with questions like "Does anybody hate cops?" or "Does declaring bankruptcy make you a bad person?"
Here, the random selection of registered King County voters was fascinating. Down in the basement, they'd been politely chatting about kids and commutes. Up in the courtroom of the endlessly patient Judge Richard D. Eadie, there were first-person accounts of bankruptcies, divorce, losing their homes, debt, having family members incarcerated, and of doing jail time themselves. The contrast in some jurors' views was striking: One woman heaped scorn on people so reckless and irresponsible as to get themselves into debt and bankruptcy. Another guy, with obvious medical disabilities, movingly spoke of his parents' divorce and bankruptcy, how he moved to Seattle to start a new life, and was here driven into bankruptcy himself. Another woman laughed way too loud, and way too often, at everything the defense attorney said. (It's his job to ingratiate, but still.) Another fellow declared he was philosophically opposed to borrowing money, ever, for any reason. A nice young guy told how his parents were losing their home because of a Nigerian Internet scam. A scientist explained why, in his field, 95 percent certainty was considered proof. But, the defense counsel asked, in a courtroom? All of which would've led to some lively conversations in a bar that night. (The only problem being, of course, that jurors aren't supposed to discuss their case until it's resolved.) Quite apart from the defendant's tale, it was a room full of drama. I wanted to take notes, but didn't.
In an age of reality TV shows and Facebook, it shouldn't be surprising that the prospective jurors love to talk about themselves. And yet it was alarming, particularly to the politely smiling prosecutors, how much of their precious screening time was being wasted by juror oversharing. When asked, for example, "Have you ever run a business?," almost every hand in the room shot up--as if participating in a capitalist society in any capacity were tantamount to operating a used-car dealership. Each small question from the attorneys could lead to a 15-minute account of bad marriages, ungrateful children, and failed businesses. Everyone's life became the mini-narrative of a country song. The more these people talked, I thought to myself, the more likely they were to be disqualified. And yet still they kept babbling on. Few of us likely wanted to endure five weeks confined to a courtroom; and perhaps, deviously, some were trying to knock themselves off the jury via theatrics. (We'd all previously filled out a form detailing any financial or medical hardships that might prevent us from serving.) Meanwhile, no more selfish or altruistic than anyone else, in good conscience, I kept my hand down in response to most questions and kept my mouth shut.
So, to reach a final panel of 12 plus four alternates, who got booted and why? Here are six more strategies for getting knocked off a jury panel (not that I'm endorsing them).
1. Be the Crazy Person Laugh too much, laugh too loud, answer questions when they're not even directed at you. It also helps, when in the break room, to do your stretching exercises on the floor.
2. When in Doubt, Overshare Your cheatin' ex? Your backstabbing former BFF? That time you got really drunk in college and ended up in jail? Tell the courtroom all about it, in detail. Then interrupt someone else later to add still more detail you'd forgotten. The judge will love it.
3. Blatantly Side With Defense or Prosecution It's not necessary to actually say, for instance, "I hate cops" or "All defense lawyers twist words." Just snort derisively or twist your face when answering such questions. They'll get the idea which team you're on.
4. Be Sanctimonious Why should the judge be the only judge in the courtroom? Don't be shy about expressing your rigid notions of right and wrong, who's virtuous and who's irredeemable.
5. Vent Your Pet Peeves Got a problem with jaywalkers, scofflaws, racial profiling, banks, litter, habeas corpus, or notions of absolute truth? Tell the court all about it.
6. Be a Journalist Gentle reader, I was prepared to do my part in serving our judicial system. Five weeks? Okay, the courthouse is close to our office, so I could do most of my writing and editing on breaks, lunch hours, evenings, and weekends. I vote and pay taxes. I support school levies. I believe in good citizenship. And I was prepared to give my time in support of a system that, despite its minor irritants, is the envy of the world. And yet, having uttered perhaps one sentence in two days, I was the prosecution's third peremptory challenge, dinged after a crazy woman and someone who'd had a bad criminal-justice experience. And why? I have to blame my profession. Or rather, in the eyes of the prosecutors, my profession evidently makes me a bleeding-heart hippie communist opposed to the state. (Unless it's my hair, as my buddy Brendan Kiley once suggested.) And though, if selected for the jury, I certainly wouldn't have written about the trial until after a verdict was reached, being disqualified frees me to blog about the preliminaries. I don't count the last two days as being wasted, but I do count myself disappointed with their outcome.