Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Democracy Exercised

My god, what an unpleasant two days of jury duty. I shouldn't complain too much--here it is Tuesday, and I am all done. Considering some other jurors were assigned to a thirty day civil trial, I should count myself lucky.

But it was definitely a big hassle. I showed up at a downtown LA courthouse at 7:30 am, ready for duty. Sat around for a bit, and it quickly became clear that there weren't many trials going on, which seemed like a good sign. A bunch of jurors were reassigned to a courthouse in Burbank, where there was a more pressing need for warm bodies, and I was thankful not to be one of them! But then, of course, at 11:00 am, when I had visions of being sent home at lunch time, the last twenty of us there were reassigned to a superior court in Inglewood.

What a pain! Luckily I had driven, I can't imagine what bus people did. So I show up in Inglewood at 1:30. Now, the downtown courthouse was nothing fancy, but it was well-appointed, and even though downtown LA is not exactly thriving, it nevertheless has plenty of restaurants and attractions. Inglewood, not so much. The courthouse was a parody of poor modernist urban planning: the classic featureless box looming imperialistically over the landscape, with a "plaza" in front that was not only barren and soul-less, but was elevated a story above street level. The picture to the right is the entrance to the plaza. Nothing like welcoming the public to this pinnacle of democracy!

Anyways, the trial. The first day was spent waiting around doing nothing. Luckily, part of my job is reading books for a living, and I was able to read an entire book I needed to get through for teaching next week--Jeff Chang's excellent history of hip-hop. Finally at 4:30pm, all 75 of us in the prospective juror pool were called into the court room, where the judge introduced herself, the prosecutor, and the defendants, and read the charges. It is hard to figure out exactly what happened simply from the list of charges, but involved robbery, intimidation, guns, and at least one person shot. Juicy stuff. But the real juicy part was that the defendants were representing themselves, which explained why everything had been taking so long.

One thing that amazed me was the initial juror screening. The judge asked if there was anyone who had a bias or prejudice against the defendants--two black men. Now, I wanted to get out of jury duty as much as the next, but at least a dozen jurors were willing to stand up in court and claim that they were racist to get out of the trial!

Actual jury selection didn't get started before quitting time, so we had to come back at 8:30 am the next morning. We were all dutifully there, but once again, the day dragged on with no progress or information. At 9:30 we were told we weren't needed until 11:00 am, and then at 11, we were told to come back at 1:30pm. Finally, we were called into the court room, and selection was about to start. First, though, the judge asked if any of us had discussed the trial with one another. A few people raised their hands. Then she asked if any of us had discussed with one another the issue of the defendants representing themselves. Nearly thirty people raised their hands at that moment. So the judge sighed, asked the rest of us to exit, and began interviewing the troublesome jurors one by one. She must have made it through about ten of them when she called us all back in, and informed us that the juror pool was irrevocably tainted, and she was going to start over with a new group.

Gotta say, I was thrilled! The trial was going to be held in the afternoons, so I actually could have taught and served at the same time. But two days of sitting around waiting and waiting, in a poorly-air-conditioned room, in the middle of a burnt-out section of Inglewood, was about all I could take. So, democracy served, of a sort, and back to normal life!

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