Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Trial by Jury

Just as surely as Christmas, Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July roll around once a year, so does my summons for jury duty.
Remarkably, those in charge of such things manage to pinpoint the most inconvenient time to pull me in. But inconvenience is rarely an excuse so off I go to do my duty at $15 a day.
In the last 10 years, I've heard criminal, civil and federal matters in locations throughout the county.
I've seen everything from shoplifters to drug runners, victims of everything from fender benders to plane crashes.
And almost every time, I've not only been selected for trial but I've been chosen foreman. I used to think it was because I wore a tie but even dressing down didn't work.
So it was pretty much business as usual when I trudged off to court in downtown Los Angeles one recent week.
But a couple of things made this particular term of service unusual. One was a confrontation in the jury assembly room. The other was a case that said a lot about the society we live in.
Those who would know Los Angeles need only to visit a jury assembly room. There, dozens of strangers from every conceivable ethnic and socio-economic background huddle together like unhappy passengers waiting for some long-delayed airplane.
The drill is simple. Bring something to read, sit down, shut up and wait to see if you are called for a trial. There is one other rule: If you need to use your cell phone, take it outside in the hall.
One guy didn't get the cell phone message. One who did took umbrage with the one who didn't.
The conversation went something like this:
"Would you please have some respect for others and take your cell phone outside."
"I took it outside and it didn't work there." "Well, my cell phone worked outside." "Let me borrow yours then."
"That's not the point, just don't use it in here." "OK, that's fine, let me use yours."
At this point, testosterone was beginning to best civility and a couple of clerks had to intervene.
As jury assembly room drama goes, it was edge-of-the-seat excitement.
One of the combatants was white, the other black. Just another example of how cell phones bring our worlds together.
Eventually, I was selected to be a potential juror in a domestic abuse case. Sitting in the jury box, the attorneys and judge sorted through us like clothes at a garage sale in an attempt to select a panel.
Where did we work? Were we married? Kids? Do you know a cop? Ever been a victim of domestic violence?
That's when the rubber met the road. In a panel of 20, 10 were women. Of those 10, five indicated they had been victims of domestic abuse. Several others said they knew someone who was. A couple of women were quite adament that they could not deliver an unbiased verdict in the case.
Were they telling the truth? The five abuse victims met with the judge and both attorneys in chambers. We will never know what was said but all five were eventually dismissed from the panel on challenges from the defense attorney. As were several other women.
At the conclusion of the first day, the jury as constituted was nearly all male.
As I drove to the courthouse the next morning, I was thinking that jury selection could continue for days while they sought what to me was an elusive commodity: Women with no strong feelings about domestic abuse.
After all, a Harris poll released last month found that large percentages of adults say that they have some familiarity with domestic violence, with 79 percent recalling "seeing or hearing something" about domestic violence in the last year. Fifty-three percent admit they have heard of the National Domestic Violence Hotline, however this number rose substantially to 71 percent among those who admit they have been victims of domestic violence.
California law enforcement officials answer nearly 200,000 abuse calls a year. Those are the ones who call. Several of the women on my panel said their abuse was never reported to authorities.
When I arrived at court, I found that the matter had been decided without a trial and we were dismissed.
A waste of time? For some perhaps, but every experience is an education and this one taught me how domestic abuse is all around us.
I can only hope justice was served.

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