Every six years, like it or not, New Yorkers get that distinctive red and white notice in the mail: Jury Duty! Sure, you can postpone it a couple of times, but your day of reckoning must come, and mine was Monday, December 3rd.
A jury duty veteran, I bring two newspapers and a new play I’m working on to wile away the dreary hours. One guy whips out his cellphone and is warned: not in this room.
“Special exemptions” were lifted a while ago, and a real cross section of NYC sits with me in the jury room, from doctors and TV producers to the unemployed, doing their civic duty. We are assured that most of us will probably serve just two days, and I settle in. But surprise–within 10 minutes of orientation I’m called up on a murder case!
The prosecutor starts us off with a hypothetical: “Let’s say there’s a robbery, and let’s say one guy holds a gun on the victim while the accomplice rifles the cash drawer and goes through the victim’s pockets. Ok, now let’s say the victim resists and the first guy blows his brains out.”
Let’s say what? “Ok, do any of you have a problem with that fact that the accomplice is also arrested for 2nd degree murder if that’s the law?”
Mr. Cellphone does.
“I watch a lot of TV,” he explains. “I watch all the CSI’s, Law and Orders, Criminal Minds, and on all these shows the accomplice seems to be treated much more leniently.”
The pained prosecutor forces a smile. “Yes, but that’s TV fiction. This is real life.” Mr Cellphone stares at him blankly. “Could you go by the judges instructions and follow the law?” pleads the prosecutor.
Mr Cellphone ponders the question as the rest of us squirm in the jury box. “I think I can,” he finally offers, quite unconvincingly. Is he just playing dumb to get off this case, which the judge told us could last for weeks? I sneak a peek over at him. He’s either the finest actor since Lawrence Olivier or a total nitwit. My gut says the latter.
And he’s not done.
“But why would they allow them to do that on TV if-”
And my chances of being selected suddenly rise. They ask me what I do. I say playwright. Did someone at the prosecution table just twitch?
They keep four of our group, and I’m not one of them. After the highlight of my day (a hearty lunch at Wonton Gardens in nearby Chinatown) I return to the main jury room. Soon a surprise announcement: two big cases were settled while we were at lunch, and we are released!
Sure, I was relieved. But I also felt a tinge of regret. I actually like serving on a jury, because for all its flaws, our system of being judged by a jury of one’s peers makes me proud.
And when someone tells me with a smirk on their face how they dodged jury duty with some clever lie, it makes me sick to my stomach and I never look at them the same way. Because as imperfect as our jury system can be, it sure beats the alternative.
Are you aware that in the good old days, a suspected thief had molten metal poured onto his hand, and if the wound healed, it was God’s way of declaring the suspect innocent, and if not, guilty? And that barbarism is not just in the past. Last week in Gaza, Hamas took a man accused by his neighbor of spying and dragged him to his death by tying him to the back of a motorcycle. Trial? You’re not serious, right?
And if you think we can’t retreat to a similar age of superstition and savagery ourselves, you’re not paying enough attention. Millions of religious fanatics in our nation would love to apply their own version of Sharia law to the female and gay “sinners” residing on our shores. And yes, they’re dead serious.
So next time you get your jury duty notice, show up. It will make you– and me– feel much better.