Walking up the large, wide steps of 60 Centre St, I wasn’t thrilled about spending the day, the week or who knows, even the rest of winter in a civil court house, serving my jury duty time to the judicial court system. Not being that much of a morning person, I was looking forward to getting through it, especially not knowing how long this day would endure. I didn’t have any expectations to what jury duty looked like, or did I know how surprisingly exciting it could turn out to be.
The doors to the Civil Court house opened to a line of 20+ citizens, rushing inside from the cold. After a series of security checks, I proceeded to find the Juror Room on the 4th floor, being the first to arrive. A man sat down across from me, and laughed, saying, “I hope they have mercy on us, since we arrived first, hoping they will let us leave early.” I agreed and smiled, and went on to read my book. As 9am arrived, the doors flung open and a sea of about 100 or more, piled into a two-sided room, covered in story-telling murals of the NY judicial system history. The center of the room was station for a large oak clerk desk, wrapped in plastic, where the clerk spoke through a microphone to address both sides of the room. I sat on the left side first, then later in the day, shifted to the right, for a different perspective.
The first hour or so, was dedicated to a few repetitive orientation speeches by various workers, followed by an educational and kitschy styled video about the history of jury duty. It began with barbaric times, where they showed that the process of determining innocence or guilt could have been based on some primal selection process such as tying up an accused person, dumping them in water, and if they sunk they were innocent, but if they floated they were guilty. The video looked like a clip from Princess Bride. I know, funny, right?!
After the history tape ended, the clerk announced a change of plans in the schedule. She grasped her microphone and with authority stated, “The Criminal Court has requested that this civil juror case selection get redirected to Criminal Court immediately. You will now go through a selection for a murder trial. Please form a line, bring all your belongings, and I will escort you to the Criminal Court, where you will go up to the 15th floor. There a judge will go through a process to determine which of you jurors are qualified to be considered for a 6-8 week murder trial.” The crowd sounded slightly anxious, but operated in a jovial fashion.
Wow, I thought! This could get very interesting. I entered the line, and moving out of the Civil Court, caught occasional friendly grins from other jurors in the group, as if we were making bonds because we were in the same heard of sheep, and neither knew where the other was going, or whether her or I would get put on that murder trial?! Entering Criminal Court is a totally different feeling. The place is actually darker, light-level wise, and there were more exposed tattoos in the crowd, than over at Civil. We packed into the elevator like sardines and shot up to the designated floor, where we were asked to put away reading materials, turn off cell phones, and remove any hats unless they were being worn for religious purposes.
Walking into the court, the judge, prosecutor, defendant, his lawyer and transcriber were all in place, with a tired, “won’t take no for an answer” look on their faces. They seemed to examine each of us, like particles on a lab test slide. The judge explained the urgency of jury duty, and the value and importance of our time, willingness and service. He emphasized the commitment this trial, if selected would require, up to 8 weeks time and honing responsibility in determining the sentence for the defendant, a man that looked like he was in his 40’s, sitting on an innocent plea for insanity. I don’t know if he hurt anyone, whether he was crazy, or a fake, but there is no telling that sitting on a case like that would have been a once in a lifetime opportunity, for any juror.
I didn’t end up offering my time, due to the 8 week schedule requirement though, I was intrigued by the system. I was also fascinated by the idea of being sequestered, in a hotel somewhere near LaGuardia, with no cell phone, TV access; a great way to bang out a suspense novel. Eight weeks, sure — Why not?! One could walk out of an experience like that, with at least a half decent outline.
There was just shy of 40 volunteers from our group for the murder trial selection. One of the jurors, was the man that initially sat next to me in the morning, saying he hoped they would give mercy to us, and release us early. Then there he was signing up for a potential 8 week murder trial. Respect. Those excused from the murder trial selection, were asked to return to Civil Court after lunch break, to continue the juror selection process for a civil lawsuit of some kind. Not exactly as exciting.
After lunch, I sat on the other side of the 2-sided waiting room. I watched a band of 5 lawyers, all suited up, hovering over the clerk’s desk, all very keen on what she had to say. She kept very persistent on talking about who knows what, but it kept their attention firmly. Finally, after about 20 mins, they left the waiting room, and the clerk got on the mic again to address the room. She said, “Jurors, thank you for being so patient today. I know when you went over to Criminal Court, that that must have been an unnerving experience for some. To reward you, I’d like to give you the rest of the day off, since you are supposed to legally be here with me until 5pm. So, don’t get on the news until after 5!” she laughed, and the room applauded her announcement and authority in joy. “The reason I am letting you go, is because you have already been screened for a 8 week trial schedule, and therefore, you have been pre-screened already for this civil case, that happens to be an 8 week, law suit case, which you are now released from being under consideration for. That selection has been postponed till tomorrow, and will begin with a new set of jurors. I also want to give you the next 6 years exempt of your juror duties!” The crowd whistled and applauded, “Yeah!! Wooo!” I was relieved, but felt forever removed of the possibility to enter a judicial journey of justice as was presented to me that day.
As the clerk distributed our proof of service certificates, and all the cheerful jurors left the room, I couldn’t get the murder trial out of my head. I thought about asking to still be on it, fearing I made a mistake not to volunteer my time, but figured that wouldn’t be trivial, considering the process and the system.
Who was that defendant today, sitting in the room only 10 feet away from me, accused of 2nd degree murder?? What was his story? Was he a crazy man? A murderer?? Or was he innocent?
Baring the pulse of the justice system within me, I walked out of 60 Centre, and found a nice bench to ponder my day while I took some time to write. I felt good about fulfilling my reserves, as a NY state resident, and think I might not pass up the next time I get a summons, even with an exemption for the following 6 years.
Sometimes, a door opens. It can be a an office door, a car door, a bodega door or a court door, each with a unique story behind it, waiting to reveal itself to its chosen audience.