Fort Wayne Observed contributor Brian Stouder shares his first person account of recent jury duty:
So – I got one of those postcards from the county, which notified me that I was called to serve jury duty. I’ve gotten several over the past couple years, and always before, when I made the night-before check, the trial was called off. (Pam, on the other hand, has gone downtown twice in recent years, and been ‘in the pool’, and came home unpicked…so to speak)
I arrived downtown, and went into our strikingly beautiful, recently renovated Courthouse edifice, and – after getting my keys and wallet and book back from the security folks at the door – gawked at the murals and frescoes and colors and light residing inside the high dome. A little ways across the main floor – beyond the grand marble staircase – there were dozens of wooden chairs arranged in neat columns and rows, and there was a sign taped to one of the marble columns that said “JURY ASSEMBLY AREA”, so I headed for that, and checked in with the women who run the place; and then I selected a seat and began reading my book, and the grand surroundings momentarily disappeared.
Then, 8 or 10 pages later, a snappily-dressed older woman stepped to the front of the arrayed chairs and the various citizens milling around and seated (I was a little taken aback at how many people had massed, and how all the seats had been taken, in the short time that I had been reading), and began speaking with pleasant, firmly professional tone about how things were going to proceed. She informed us that our pool consisted of about 75 people, and that there were two trials that would require juries, and that one of the trials was expected
She indicated that she wasn’t supposed to say, but that it would at least be a two-day trial, and possibly a little longer. A barely perceptible sigh rippled across the crowd, and then she started an 18 minute video for us all to watch on the very large flat-screen digital tv that was rather incongruously looming before us; the volume was loud and it resonated somewhat unpleasantly off of the still-lifes and statues and the parquet marble mosaic floor.
After the orientation video finished, a fairly handsome young man in a suit and tie – who reminded me of Adam Levine, only shaved and without visible tattoos – stepped to the front of the crowd, and explained that he was going to read 30 numbers, and if we heard our number called, we would (eventually) proceed with him to the courtroom for Voir Dire; and if we did not hear our number called, then we would have completed our duty and could leave.
My number was the 4th number called. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I soon learned that if your number is in the first 12, you start out “in the box” – that is, the jury box. And another thing I didn’t realize was that, after the first round of Voir Dire questions, if you’re still in “the box”, then that’s it – you’re in the trial. (The rigidly sequential nature of how one learns things, in the courthouse, is a recurring theme). As I first settled into “the box”, and gazed across at the Defendant and his lawyer, I distinctly recall thinking something like “My God, this is really going to happen”.*
One of the Voir Dire questions was – have you ever been a crime victim? Several of us shook our heads yes, and the county prosecutor came to me and asked what the crime was, and I said 'our car was stolen'. This drew 4 or 5 more questions (How long ago? How did we feel about that? Was the crime prosecuted? I forthrightly told them it was probably 15 years ago, and when Pam - who was on a shopping trip in Merrillville with her friends - told me the news, we both laughed in disbelief that anyone would have wanted that car!) The person seated right next to me stated that s/he could not render a fair verdict; when asked why, s/he said "because of prejudice". I dropped my chin and consciously sat a little further from this individual. The judge asked what s/he meant by that, and s/he stammered just a little and said "Not racism - but prejudice". The round continued; a person had vacation travel plans set for the next day, and another had fairly serious health issues (bad back and lots of medication needed daily) but the individual nevertheless assured the judge that s/he was up for jury duty, 100%.
When the first round was finished, defense and prosecution huddled with the judge, and then 4 jurors were excused, including the ridiculous 'prejudiced-but-not-racist' person, and the vacation person, and the senior citizen who was game for the trial (as the prejudiced/not racist person rose from his/her chair and exited, s/he stage whispered something like 'why am I not surprised?', before disappearing into the miasma.)
Four more people joined us in "the box", and the questioning began anew. The prosecutor asked an open question about Indiana's "castle" (aka "stand your ground") gun law to the people in the box, and when the response was silence, he prodded further...and I piped up with "well, actually..." and he cut me off with a somewhat sarcastic "Well, actually - sir, you're already on the jury!"....
Wow. Really? Wow.
So then, I tuned out the Q&A, as more jurors were culled and added. I began to study the beautiful high ceilings and the hanging lights, and the grand 19th century woodwork that constituted "the box" that we, the jury, would be inhabiting, come what may, for who-knows-how-long. Our Beaux Arts judicial cathedral has the very pleasant ability to always give a person something else to look at and ponder, whether during a quiet moment in the courtroom, or when traversing the wide corridors or the more narrow hallways that snake around the courtrooms, or crossing the very large central area beneath the dome; or sitting outside during lunch break, and watching the pigeons pirouette in the sky, as they perch and then take wing again, around the circumference of the dome. (Maybe they were some other sort of bird, but they would fly out and curve back in - seemingly as if they knew what they were doing - and if they flew close enough you could hear them moving through the air, although they weren't squawking)
I found it more interesting to study the art and ornamentation, rather than pondering all the other cases that had come through this room; or (worse) looking across at the defendant, who was unfailingly always looking at us; or at the few people in the gallery, who I assumed were either family or close friends of the defendant, and who were as interested in my corner of the courtroom as I was in theirs.
The people who made the decision to really go for it - to design and build a genuinely idealized, optimistic, upward-looking cathedral of justice in Allen County, even as the expense for decoration exceeded what an entire (and plainly utilitarian) public building might cost - were precisely right. And indeed, the late 20th century people who appropriated the money to restore and renovate and preserve this temple were also right.
The administration of justice is essentially a filthy business; all sorts of the worst of humanity cycles through that place every week, no doubt. And people like me, who usually get to glide past the unpleasantness (that other citizens are busy dealing with) occasionally get pulled in, and asked to dirty our hands, too, and do something to preserve and maintain civil society. It took me awhile to appreciate the contrast between the grandeur of the place, and the unpleasantness of the work that transpires there. But of course - it is (at least) right and proper to enshrine the hopes and ideals of civil society. Moreover, it is refreshing for a John Q Public like me, who would just as soon leave the heavy lifting to someone else, to really SEE the ideals human society aspires to, even as we may have to deal with the depths that that same society is capable of.
By the way, after a particularly vexing day, as I was walking back into the Courthouse from the public green area, I noted the tablet above the entrance that said:
Consent makes the law
Yes. And occasionally, schmoes (like me) get charged with applying it.
*I was also thinking something like "For Goodness' sake it's cold in here!" The courtroom had to be 15 degrees cooler than anywhere else I was, in the building. Then I noticed that the lawyers and the judge and the bailiff all were wearing suits with jackets, and I made a mental note to wear a jacket the next day.
Photo credit: Photo at Courts.IN.gov - uncredited on that site.