Monday, July 17, 2006

Jury Duty

Downtown where the courts are the doors are tall. I saw iron gates and columns, and steps and steps and steps. Of extraordinary breadth. Steps whose breadth will make you comatose. Whose breadth suggests the world is without purpose. And that the world is flat. That you'll fall off it one fine day.

We crowded into the juror's waiting room and awaited further instruction. Finally we were instructed to wait.

I was trying to read the New Yorker with my head propped on my hand, my elbow on the arm of the chair. I felt melatonin seep gently into my brain.

Before you knew it there was some kind of announcement regarding lunch.

I explored the strangely timewarped environs of the court. I walked east, I think, yes, east. No – west. I walked west. Toward Broadway and everything. All the stores were old stores, discount stores with corrugated faces, cigar shops, luncheonettes. The very streetlights and lamps took on the aspect of mid-20th-century modernity, the days we all said wow.

I had a solitary lunch at a bar with a friendly bartender, she seemed to be from something like Wisconsin. She recommended the California Cab and who was I to refuse.

Back in court we waited. I drifted off to sleep on crooked elbow. They emptied the room in sets of three dozen or so throughout the course of that drowsy afternoon, sending them all up there to their fates as dispensers of justice. And then they said: Come back tomorrow.

We sat for what seemed like hours in the deep mahogany pews of some courtroom on the what was it, sixth floor. Like schoolkids on detention.

We were each assigned a number and urged in the strongest possible terms to memorize it.

"You will be handed a card. Memorize the number on your card."

I received a card and memorized the number.

"Do not forget the number on your card. This number is your number. The number on your card."

I thought about my number. I liked my number. I thought about the number on my card.

My number was 17.

Vaguely I worried: What if that was not the number on my card?

What if the card said 19?

I pried the card out of my pocket, a card just like some business card. Of someone you met at a party or a bar.

It said 17.

I was 17.

We were told we would be moving. To another courtroom. The two officers in charge occasionally excused themselves to ascertain the preparedness of this next stage; of its judge, its officers, God knows what. They'd leave and say, Don't leave. They inspired in us solemn and unquestioning consent.

Finally we filed out into what, an antechamber. We piled into elevators in disordered, deferential sets.

When we had to wait we waited.

When we arrived on the 23rd floor the courtroom was, strangely, still not ready. We hovered in the lobby next to windows to the north. The windows looked upon Canal Street, Chinatown, Little Italy, the Lower East Side, the East Village, Chelsea and, looming in the midst, the Empire State Building.

For Christ's sake.

They opened the door and we filed in processional. Tomb quiet. Maybe fifty of us in all.

It was startlingly, remarkably cold in the courtroom. Colder than the moment you were born.

The court clerk, a young black woman with a languid posture, told us instructions. Sit in these rows. We will be calling your name, your number. We will call you to sit in the box.

A door somewhere opened and a black-gowned figure floated in.

All rise.

His honor So-and-So.

He welcomed us in the sternest possible manner. Yet I could perceive in him a trace of hard-won benevolence, a real thing, not put on nor imagined, that sustained him through these trials with their evidence of repeated, fateful failings of our kind.

I liked him.

During the course of his preamble the judge said: This case is a racketeering case. It is a case, you will hear talk of the Mafia. You will hear talk, la Cosa Nostra. The defendant's name is Gregory DePalma. Here he is now, sitting before you. He is an elderly man. He is in very poor health. He is an ailing man.

And he recited the charges against this man, a garish hodgepodge of loan sharking, bookmaking, assault, intimidation, embezzlement, payola.

And more.

His candor had a rhythmic, mesmerizing effect, as of some litany or chant.

Mafia. Cosa Nostra. DePalma.

Bookmaking. Loan sharking.

He duly introduced the prosecution and defense.

Then, one at a time our numbers were selected by the languid black girl from some ancient, hallowed tumbler. It was six-sided, I think, all nicely wood.

Number 27 please. Take the first seat in the box.

I was the third juror.

There began the litany of excuses.

I have a house reserved in the Hamptons. It's quite expensive.

My son is graduating and I can't miss his graduation. He's graduating.

My wife requires medical attention and I am afraid no one will look after her.

Some tearful.

I for one saw no reason to reject my duty though I felt as though I were sliding inexorably toward something strange and new. Bewildering.

When the first phase of laborious and faltering rationalizations, supplications and concessions ended we were dismissed for lunch. A period not to exceed one hour and one half.

We tromped out of the box and out the stately door.

The defendant, froglike, sunken in his chair and neck, examined us with jaundice.

If ever he leaves I bet he takes the back door out.

I went to an Italian restaurant outside of space and time. Giant potted plants, and tablecloths, and napkins. An easel with a chalkboard, specials written in pink chalk.

I heaved myself up to the bar like a shipwrecked man to shore.

I ate pasta and meat sauce, drank Chianti. I listened to some rich old lady prattle on. To her husband and their friends. The put-upon bartender, who wore red.

She wore a long coat and a scarf.

Back at the courtroom for another round of excuses. The prosecutors with their manila folders with rows of sticky notes representing each of us. Some covered in handwriting and some not. The court clerk wrapped up in her shawl, looking bored. The defendant glum, head swiveling almost imperceptibly to cast his glare upon the room.

Then the judge asked, has anyone here ever committed a crime, been the victim of a crime, known anyone who's been convicted or known anyone who's been a victim? If so, stand up and form two lines.

I thought, this is my chance to get out of this trial. But curiously my back was pinned to the chair. I don't know why. Maybe I thought I was fated to be on this jury and I didn't want to impede fate. But I was compelled to after a few minutes. I once plead guilty and I have a friend in jail. So I, too, got up and got in line.

When I got to the front the clerk said what number are you and I said 17 and she said 17 to the judge and the counsel assembled in a sort of familial huddle at the sidebar. I approached them, walking in the direction of the judge. Making eye contact.

"What number are you?" he said.


"And what do you have to tell me?" He eyed me in a kindly, attentive manner. The very picture of a judge.

"I once plead guilty to filing a false report," I said.

"Tell me what happened."

"I had an accident in my car and left the scene and reported it stolen."

"What was your sentence?"

"50 hours of community service."

He smiled. "Do you think this experience would impair your ability to be a fair and impartial juror in this case?" He asked the way you ask when you already know the answer and just asking is a kind of joke.

"No," I answered, smiling too.

One of the prosecutors, standing beside the judge, was examining me with wide, alert eyes. He whispered something urgently into the judge's ear then turned to me again with his wide-eyed stare. It occurred to me that only the judge was allowed to address me and with the handicap of silence the others' senses grew more keen. He was speaking to me with his eyes.

The judge said, "There is an issue in this case of perhaps false reports of some sort or other. Being filed and whatnot." Serious now. "Are you sure you would be able to be fair?"

"Yes," I said. I felt a desire to elaborate, I'm not sure why. Maybe I thought it would please him. Maybe I wanted to prolong this odd ritual, to decorate it with more words. "My feeling is that the issue I was involved in was relatively trivial, and I suspect that the issues in this case might not be as trivial, and I'm quite sure I could evaluate them fairly."

A beat of pause.

"So you think you would have no problem accepting my instruction as to the law in this case?"

"I believe I would not."

"Anything else?"

"A friend of mine is in jail for drug trafficking. And resisting arrest."

No immediate reaction from the judge. I took this as an indication I should continue. Perhaps even that he was underwhelmed and I should find a way to supplement my declaration.

"And I have some other friends who have gone to jail for drugs."

"These other friends, are they still in jail?"

His question struck me as slightly irrelevant and this intrigued me.

"I believe they are no longer in jail."

"But the one friend, he's still in jail?"

"Yes, I believe so."

"And what is your view of what happened to your friend?"

"I believe he was arrested unjustly. I believe he shouldn't be in jail."


"I disagree with the drug laws. I don't think anyone should go to jail for growing and selling pot."

The judge nodded without a trace of surprise or reproach. He turned to the prosecutor beside him. "There are no drug charges in this case right?"

"No your honor I don't believe there are."

Long pause. Judge eyeing me over.

"I'm going to let you sit. Thank you."

As I walked back to my seat I felt, unexpectedly, a faint elation. Like I'd done well on some level. Or, a great wheel had been creakily set in motion and I was powerless to stop it, and for this I was glad.

There was a prolonged conference at the sidebar, the entire courtroom still. The people in line had all gone up and now there was no one left in line and we were all back in our assigned seats and waiting.

"Number 17," the judge looked up and barked. The clerk repeated, "17?"

I got up and walked back to that crowded, shadowed corner.

"There's been some concern expressed," the judge declared. "You told me things such as your case was trivial, this case is not. You are using terms that indicate. That indicate to me that you are forming ideas and prejudices regarding the particulars of this case before you've seen evidence. In the case."

"I understand."

"Will you be able to put those ideas out of your mind, this is important. Ideas such as this is important, such and such is trivial?"

"I do believe I would."

"So are you certain that you would be able to judge fairly in this case?"

"Yes, I do."

A bit warily the judge said for me to go and sit. I had not walked halfway to the box when they called my number again.

"17 again. Please."

I turned on my heels and dutifully returned.

"There are some things you said, I have to ask," the judge stated. "About your friend in jail. The drugs."


"There are no drug charges in this case per se but there is the issue of the illegal interstate transport of prescription drugs."


"Is this an issue where you feel, your ideas about drug laws. Is this a situation where you would have a problem in terms of evaluating fairly?"

"I don't believe so. My feeling about what happened to my friend concerns the fact that he was growing pot and I believe that's relatively innocuous and should not be illegal."

"So other drugs, prescription drugs, you would accept my instructions and – "


"Be fair and impartial?

"I believe I would."

Silence. And then: "I think I'm going to let you sit. Thank you."

I walked away once more, and just as I sat down the judge lifted his head and mouthed something to the clerk.

"17," she said. "Number 17."

Again I walked that familiar path, in the cool glare of every other juror and Gregory DePalma.

"I have a concern in terms of your willingness to accept my instructions," began the judge this time. "Things like relatively, this or that is worse and this is trivial and what have you. That's not for you to say. Your decision must be based on my instructions as to the law. So. Do you feel that you would be able to set aside your ideas about the law and accept my instructions in this case?"

"I believe I would, given that this case does not involve an aspect of the law I would have a disagreement with." This I heard myself say. And somehow I knew in this wordy equivocation I was precipitating my demise. Or engineering my escape, perhaps unconsciously. Something seemed to tighten in the judge.

"Are you saying that it might be possible under different circumstances, you might ignore my instructions?"

I followed the lead, like it was too late to turn back now.

"If this were my friend's trial, I believe I would be – "

"Never mind your friend's trial, if this – "

"If this were a case similar to my friend's," I corrected, knowing exactly where he was going and wanting to prove it for some reason, "I would be quite tempted" – I don't know why I chose that phrase but it seemed to strike some balance between obeisance toward the system and my own convictions – "to disregard your instructions if it meant keeping my friend out of jail."

"Not your friend."

"Keeping the accused out of jail. For a similar crime."

The judge examined me with what frankly seemed to be a trace of disappointment.

"I'm going to let you go. You're free to go."

And the judge hung his head to confer with the others as I stepped to the clerk's desk and she gave me a little card and she said give it to them downstairs, you're free to go, and she looked past me as I turned and left. And I don't mind saying that at that moment I felt not free but lost.