Wednesday, May 26, 2010


Welcome to "The Gods Are Bored!" We'll dispense with the hook today and get right to the little acronym up top.

My daughter The Spare and I coined the acronym YKMR for use at the thrift store. When she tries on something totally inappropriate, I say, "YKMR?" When I try to fit my fanny into an itty bitty size, she says, "YKMR?"

YKMR stands for "You're kidding me, right?"

Now, actually this little piece of information is a hook into one of our great "Gods Are Bored" columns of free advice! Read on, and learn how to avoid being placed on a jury for a grisly criminal homicide case!

All three of my readers know that I live in a New Jersey county renowned for more than just being the burial place for Walt Whitman. My county, lying just a mere spit from Philadelphia, has residents of each and every socio-economic level, from the richest of the rich to the poorest of the poor. I teach at a school that serves the poorer of the poor, meaning that my students, while sharing Walt Whitman's city, also are mostly from the upwardly-mobile immigrant class.

Today I reported for jury duty in Walt's city at the County Court.

Three years ago when I had jury duty, I went in and sat in a chair all day, alternately watching CNN and reading an improving piece of literature. I figured it would mostly be the same today.

BAMP! Wrong.

Precisely on the stroke of 8:30 a.m. the court official announced that they were going to start calling numbers for a criminal trial. There were 500 people in the room. The court called 80 potential jurors. I was one of them. And when you're one of 80 potential jurors in this specific city, knowing you're going in for a criminal case, you know immediately it's going to be serious business.

Sure enough, upon entering the courtroom, we were handed a lengthy questionnaire. It had the usual stuff in it, like, "Do you recognize any of these names as people you know?" and "Have you ever served on a jury before?" But then it took a sinister twist:

"Are you able to look at autopsy photos without averting your eyes?"

"Would you be able to render a just verdict if you knew the victim was homosexual?"

"Would you be able to render a just verdict if you knew that drug sales and/or drug abuse was involved in the case?"

Then the trial attorneys and the defendant came into the courtroom. Prosecutor: young, crisply-dressed Hispanic woman. Defendant: young African American male. Defense attorney: elderly, avuncular African American male.

I think this was when the first YKMR hit.

The judge gave us a brief overview of the allegations against the defendant, and let me just tell you -- whether he is guilty or not, I sure wanted to avoid those autopsy photos. And for a long time it looked like I was in the clear. By noon the judge had sat 12 jurors and three alternates, with only one juror unsure of his employment situation. About seven potential jurors had gotten off (albeit with stern scolding from the judge) for various employment issues. Me, I'm a first-year school teacher with 16 days left in the school year, but the judge had already made clear that he would not excuse anyone who wasn't self-employed and could prove financial hardship.

At lunch break, all I could think of was, "It's a lottery, and you still have about a 1-in-50 chance of dodging this."

After lunch, everything changed.

The juror who had employment issues was dismissed. Then the prosecution and defense began picking off jurors they didn't like. A few people who got excused were no-brainers, like the tanned redneck construction worker and the retired machinist who still held a grudge about being burgled 40 years after the fact. But other jurors went as well, and every time one of them was excused, the court aide rose and called another number.

Readers, it was agony.

Then a pattern emerged. More and more of the people called up were clearly trying to plead their way out of being on the jury. Finally the judge, in exasperation, told us that there was another homicide trial for which jurors were being called, and a medical malpractice suit that could take six weeks.

It was reassuring to know that any way I turned, grisly autopsy photos or sickening medical malpractice photos loomed.

And then they called my number.

I'll bet I looked like a deer in the headlights walking up there. My heart was doing the Jitterbug.

Here's where the free advice kicks in. Always be truthful, and if truthful means babbling like an idiot and saying, "I don't know what you mean," then do it!

I truthfully told the judge that I could render an impartial verdict. When he asked where I worked, I truthfully told him a high school that serves students from the city.

The defense attorney asked me how I thought the students in my "school community" would react if they knew I was serving on this jury.

I babbled. Truthfully, I don't know. I wouldn't tell my students what kind of trial I was serving on anyway. The only thing I clearly remember telling the judge, defense, and prosecution was that my students often speak of the criminal justice system, never in a flattering way, but that I understood that I was always only hearing their side of the story.

The prosecutor asked me how I felt about guns. I think that's where I said, "I don't know what you mean." That's when she clarified: How did I feel about gun violence? Duh. Babble. Does anyone think gun violence is a good thing?

Then she asked me if I thought people who grew up in difficult circumstances deserved consideration for their difficult upbringings. I didn't babble on that one. I just said, "No." Can you let someone get away with homicide because they had it tough growing up?

Before I could say, "I need a bathroom break," I was sent to the jury box to the empty seat.

Anne Johnson, Juror #1 in a criminal homicide case involving handguns, drugs, and homosexuality.

That's when the YKMRs began.

You're kidding me, right? You're kidding me, right? YOU ARE KIDDING ME, RIGHT? I'm no lawyer, but I would never seat a kindly school teacher of disadvantaged kids on a jury to try a disadvantaged kid for a criminal offense.

Yes. They were kidding. After about 10 minutes of me sitting there looking like a stuffed and mounted deer in the headlights, the prosecutor turned around and said, "I ask to excuse Juror #1."

Back to the free advice. Before the lunch break, I was planning to tell judge I could never look at autopsy photos, it would make me physically ill and traumatized (entirely true). Instead, with that crutch being removed, I fell back on the truth, which sounded so incomprehensible -- even to me -- that I'm sure the defense attorney wanted me off the jury too.

I descended back into the jury holding area, drowning in a ball of sweat. But then the day got better very quickly.

I had sent Mr. Bigwand an email about having to miss class. I had my Netbook with me and had checked my emails a few times. He hadn't replied. So I called his cell phone, told him where I was, and told him I would be late for class. And apologized, because tonight was the night I was supposed to present some drivel or another. He gave me a free pass and said I'd done enough for the day!

Free advice: Everyone pities you when you get jury duty. Use that to your advantage as you can.

The prayer that unites all Druids calls for us to have a knowledge of justice and a love of it. But justice is a slippery thing. None of us comes into a jury box without preconceived notions. My preconceived notion in this case is that the culture of poverty predisposes some young people to become violent. Would this have swayed me in a criminal case with a clean packet of evidence? No. But if there was a shadow of a doubt, I'd be like a weeping willow.

I guess the prosecutor figured that out.

One final note in this ultra-long sermon. There were 80 people from all races, ages, and walks of life called into a room to judge an extremely serious case. Almost all of these people could have cared less about what they heard. During breaks they laughed and joked around like they were at some ice cream social. One young moron loudly declared, "I'm a racist, and I'll tell the judge that right to his face! They'll never put me on that jury!" A young man's life was about to be decided for him, and his potential jurors only wondered if they could re-book their rentals at the Shore.

The irony of all of this is that next week I will be teaching my students a play called "Twelve Angry Men." If you haven't heard of it, look it up. I'm glad that when I act it out, it will be in a classroom and not a courtroom.

As always, our "Gods Are Bored" advice is free. Until August, when I start begging for books again.


THE Michael said...

Sigh.....with this kind of love of civic responsibility, I wonder how anyone in this country gets a fair trial for any offense. No wonder the plea-bargain is so "popular".

Debra She Who Seeks said...

They do pay people for their time serving on a jury, but it's pretty basic. If jury duty were very well paid, people would be breaking down the court house doors to serve. Justice is expensive already, so why not?

Kimberly Bowers said...

I love Twelve Angry Men. Each time I watch it I notice something new in the faces/body language/ tones of voice of those jurors.

I was called for Federal Jury Duty a few months ago and was so very excited- and a bit scared.

A defendants freedom rests in the hands of teir jury.

Needless to say I was not called. Who wants a 4th generation law enforcement person to sit in on a drug trafficing change?

Phooey on the Defense Attny.

Pitch313 said...

My experience of being in a jury pool or serving on a jury--folks prefer NOT to support the judicial system, such as it is, by spending much time making it happen. Jury duty does take up your days, often with stuff that you never had any concern with or interest in.

My last jury duty--two weeks--included several 8 hour days of instruction in the details of gravel mining and rock crushing. Frankly, I was amazed at how much of it was going on, what a foundation gravel and rock provide for our daily lives, and how much money it generates in aggregate. ;-)


12 angry men is terrific..but ....can you imagine what a great movie that would have been if it had been all women?
glad you escaped the trial.
the word verication is OUSKI

Lavanah said...

I sat on a jury once, the charge was burglary. Not one of us on the jury wanted to be chosen for it, but I am pleased and proud to say that once we were seated, every one of us took our responsibility seriously. Of course, it was only 3 days, we were not sequestered, and there were no autopsy photographs.

(I also found the whole thing fascinating, but then I wasn't at risk of losing my job, nor my home due to the time spent in court.)

If everyone truly had to serve, I suspect the role of juror would be more highly respected. Too many professions are automatically dismissed by attorneys because of the fear of highly educated independant thinkers, who might not be so easily swayed by the lawyers; or whom might actually know more than the lawyers.

Dinah Bee Menil said...

You know, you can find San Francisco criminal attorney here

The Traveler said...

12 angry men is one of my favorites. There is a lot to be learned from each of the characters.

Intense Guy said...

Our "Justice System" could be improved just by replacing it with a computer flipping electronic quarters.

Given Whitman was born Brooklyn and lived in Camden, NJ (now there is a place that makes some of Philly look good)... I read this and thought, ugh, jury duty in Camden... ugh!!!