Five angry men (and one woman)

The latest addition to my extensive palmares.

The latest addition to my extensive palmares.

I participated in small-d “democracy” yesterday, having been summoned to jury service in El Paso County’s Fourth Judicial District.

Now, I ain’t lyin’ to anyone here. I spoke very many bad words — and loudly, too — when I got the summons. I repeated them, albeit in different order, when I rang up the court Wednesday night and found out that yes, I was required to appear at 8:30 a.m. Thursday.

I walked downtown instead of cycling (you don’t have to lock up a pair of Sauconys, wear a helmet or carry a pump and spare tube). En route I saw a cat perched on a rooftop, a bathtub full of flowers and a bottle of Arrogant Bastard Ale perched upside down on a brick wall. When I walked into the jury room “There Must Be Some Misunderstanding” was playing. All omens, no doubt. Of what, I had no idea.

Three judges had cases on the white board, so I read a little Zen while cooling my heels (“A day of no work is a day of no eating,” said Huai-hai, first to establish a Zen monastery in China). A clerk erased first one case, then a second, and I was thinking I might get sprung in time to enjoy a nice long bike ride.

Nope. The third case was the charm, and our jury questionnaires went upstairs. After a bit half of us were cut loose and the rest of us paraded upstairs for a grilling by the judge, the prosecution and the defense.

We numbered 14 and the case (driving under restraint) only needed six jurors, so I figured my chances of liberation were still pretty good, seeing as I am a journalist of dubious repute and a renowned scofflaw with a long, well-documented history of traffic violations, all of which I cheerfully confessed.

Nope. Selected. Balls, I thought. The way this is going I’ll wind up foreman on the sonofabitch.

While some last-minute legal maneuvering took place, the six of us chatted in the jury room. Besides me, we had a Spanish teacher, two construction types (one unemployed and recovering from a workplace injury), a telephone-company retiree and a mortgage-loan person, our lone female). We discussed our jobs and the lack thereof, injury and recovery, TV shows, kids, spouses and pets, bicycling.

And then the judge popped in, doffed his robes and told us we were free to go. Seems the trooper who cited the defendant had made an audio recording of the traffic stop and neglected to mention it to the DA’s office. Judge, prosecution and defense all listened to it, the defense said it couldn’t proceed, and shazam: Continuance. Off you go.

Six hours after I walked into the courthouse I was walking home in 90-degree heat, thinking about what the judge had said. He told us that it’s easy to feel cynical about the state of the nation, to be discouraged at the incessant mudslinging that has replaced political action, to wonder when you vote whether it really makes any difference.

When you serve on a jury, he said — even if you don’t actually get to hear the case — you are participating in an act of patriotism, small-d democracy in its purest form, the sort envisioned by the Greeks. A group of strangers convenes on behalf of the common good, listens, decides and disperses. There is no question that your vote makes a difference, your voice is heard.

True, the process was cumbersome. A couple dozen folks had their schedules upended for an hour or two — or six — and driving under restraint is not exactly the stuff of a “Law and Order” episode. The defendant looked vaguely disreputable, the way I did not so long ago; ponytail, beard, sunglasses.

Still, it was a reminder that the the least of us can go toe to toe with The Man if he has the balls for it, and that the State is not infallible. Call it a six-hour civics refresher. I even got a diploma. They misspelled my name.

11 Responses to “Five angry men (and one woman)”

  1. Andy Bohlmann Says:

    Dear P. O.,

    I too, served on a jury about 5-6 years ago.

    A two day domestic abuse case with a Hispanic guy and a white trailer trash type “lady.”

    I kept notes so they made me the foreman. The defense attorney rode the velodrome but I didn’t know him.

    “Not guilty,” we said after about two hours of looking the “evidence” over.

    I made a few dollars and they spelled my name correctly on my “Certificate.” I hang it on a wall with my ’70’s era Schwinn Mechanics School dipolma and a “O’Grady” drawing from around 1996.

    Last Wednseday, May 19th, I spent most of the day in Denver giving a deposition in a bike “racing” lawsuit. The pay is better than jury duty.

    And, my wife’s maiden name is, “Jury.”

  2. chris Says:

    Way to go, Partick. You’re a true partiot!

  3. Larry T. Says:

    Jury duty is enlightening to say the least. I’ve not done it for many years but I still enjoy telling the story about the deliberations on a drunk-driving case. One fellow just couldn’t see the guy’s guilt, somehow he thought “the man” was just making it all up to mess with the defendant (exactly why he never would say) and we (the other jurors) went on and on trying to convince him. Finally the poor, misguided fellow screamed out, “Don’t tell me how to think!” and I couldn’t resist a snarky reply, “If you haven’t figured out how to think by now, I’m sure not going to try to teach you!” The case was dismissed since the jury could not agree. Interestingly I was back in the courthouse some years later with my own traffic issue and saw the same defendant (looked a lot like the old comic Foster Brooks) back in the courthouse with the same lawyer in tow.
    Another time I was dismissed almost instantly when the attorney asked me to define serious bodily injury. I explained as a former professional motorcycle racer, great bodily injury was when you weren’t able to climb into the ambulance under your own power! DISMISSED! couldn’t come out the guy’s mouth fast enough. I heard from another juror who sat on the case they awarded the guy $5K on a phony whiplash claim.

  4. Jeff in PetroMetro Says:

    Patrick: I’m glad you went with a pretty open mind about the whole thing. I’m really glad the judge said what he said about little d. He’s right. It’s not a perfect system, but it’s pretty good.

    I’ve only made it to voir dire twice in 25 years. One was a lady who wanted to sue the bejeebus out of a large grocery chain for a slip-and-fall on a grape. I’m pretty sure the plaintiff’s counsel didn’t want me because I worked for a Wall Street firm and was the only guy in the room with a suit and tie on (besides the lawyers). They looked at the answers to my questionnaire, looked at my suit, and told me I was free to go. I didn’t get to answer one question.

    The other was a kidnapping case. Here in PetroMetro, Harris County, Texas, the reputation is “Hang ‘Em High in Harris County.” Basically, if you’re on trial for a criminal offense, you probably did it and you’re going to get the maximum sentence. During voir dire, the judge spent 10 minutes trying to explain to the prospective jurors that defendants often times don’t speak at their own trials and the 5th amendment, a really important part of our Bill of Rights, allows for that. About 1/2 the prospective jurors told the judge that they didn’t really believe in “pleading the 5th” and that silence from the defendant meant that he was hiding something and was definitely guilty. Man, the judge was frustrated about that. I wish I’d made the jury for that one, but again–suit, tie, questionnaire, thankyouverymuch goodbye.

    That experience really bummed me out. I had no idea so many people in America don’t know the Bill of Rights or didn’t respect how it could be of benefit to them.

  5. John Levy Says:

    after having wasted two days on a jury trial about 12 years ago. I would like to applaud you for your dedication to the system. Me, I sat in a stuffy room for two days, missing riding time in then fall and then the suits made a deal to end our suffering. being self employed I got squat for service and not even the warm fuzzy feeling of hammering an insurance company for bad faith. But I did participate and will most definitely hesitate to so so again. But if called I will serve but will say almost anything to avoid service. Odd sounds like 1972 again.

  6. khal spencer Says:

    Good job, O’G.

    I once survived voir dire and ended up as jury foreman on a three day domestic abuse case. We agonized over the verdict and had to let the woman (yep, the woman) off due to lack of evidence, although virtually all of us wanted to take her out behind the courthouse and kick her in the ass personally. Judge thanked us for our service and told us she agreed with the verdict. She also told us afterwards that the woman had a previous conviction for busting a beer bottle over her hubby’s head, but that was not introduced as evidence due to its prejudicial nature. Sigh…

    Messy process, but certainly the closest I’ve come to real citizen participation.

  7. John Says:

    I made the final jury pool once here in ultra conservative Dysfunction Junction. Under questioning by the DA I mentioned (quite seriously) that just because a cop says something is the truth doesn’t make it so, especially in this town. It’s not only that I think the cops here are corrupt, I think they’re lazy too. The DA couldn’t throw me off the jury fast enough. He has no problem finding a hanging jury among the local population, no reason to take a chance on a “free thinker” like myself.

  8. Patrick O'Grady Says:

    Gents,

    It was indeed an interesting experience. The scariest thing was that almost every one of the prospective jurors quizzed said s/he would give more weight to the cop’s testimony than to the defendant’s — less than 10 minutes after the judge explained the State’s burden to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, adding that all admissible testimony should be given equal weight during deliberations.

    Hizzoner even went to far as to note that the defendant was wearing shades because of some optical disability connected to fluorescent lighting. I figured he was just ripped to the tits, sporting eyeballs that looked like like cherry tomatoes.

    But we sporting journos are masters of the inductive leap. Like George Carlin’s Biff Barf, we call ’em as we see ’em — and if we don’t see ’em, we make ’em up.

  9. James Says:

    I served on a jury for two weeks about 17 years ago. It was interesting, but definitely not something that I would like to repeat. Too little pay, and too much “the jury is instructed to disregard that last statement” for my taste. If you don’t want me to hear it, write it out of the script! Nevertheless maybe that is why I am know in the criminal justice business? Me thinks not…but the 10 days of hell were a good eye-opener.

  10. John Says:

    “The scariest thing was that almost every one of the prospective jurors quizzed said s/he would give more weight to the cop’s testimony than to the defendant’s”

    That’s precisely the attitude that I ran into here in Dysfunction Junction. And this in a town where the cops have been involved in some very strange and suspicious goings on.

    One extremely memorable incident occurred about a decade or so ago a “transient” supposedly “committed suicide” while handcuffed in the back of a police car. Hmmm. Making things stranger is that this guy was arrested outside of a very small rural community 20 miles from Grand Junction and 3000 feet higher. In winter. Double Hmmm. Yet the people in this town just take the cops at their word, never a question asked. And if you happen to be the one to ask a question out loud….well, what are you hiding?

    My personal experience with the local law enforcement has been more benign. I’ve found them to be merely unmotivated, lazy, to have a low morale and a counter productive attitude. Kind of like having the postal service as your neighborhood cop.

  11. Boz Says:

    I’ve never had the privilege of jury duty, but my brother seems to get his turn in barrel quite often. If they really knew him, I’m sure they would think twice. Maybe they already know me and just skip my name when it comes up. I can see it, “Oh, that ass-hat again”. Next!

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