I haven’t posted much lately because, you see, this past week I was summoned to do my civic duty. Jury duty, that is. It’s over now, so I can talk about it. I had to report to the Lafayette Parish Court House at 10:00am on Monday. Sixth floor Jury Assembly Room. It was much more than I was expecting, going on the descriptions of the place by friends of mine who had been previously called. I was expecting a dark, purgatorial holding tank in which 200 wretched souls singing Amazing Grace stared at each other waiting to be sprung to salvation when a distant judge somewhere dropped the proper number of gold coins into the machine (isn’t that how the real Purgatory works?). On the contrary, the assembly room was a light, airy space with a drink machine and a junk food automat, as well as an enormous zillion-inch wide screen television. Chairs were arranged in rows with a central aisle.
First thing on the agenda: fill a profile form. Name, rank and serial number; Religion? Are you a felon? Boxers or briefs? Loafers or oxfords? Sports or under wire? We were to arrive by 10, however, this meant the show didn’t start till 10:30. I claimed my pew at 9:15, well before the prelude. The court apparently realized that not all people traveled according to the standard time zone, so Justitia set an early time as a psych-out to combat the snooze button. We were handed a nifty booklet that explained to us in simple, straight-forward terms what it meant to be a prospective juror and what all the jargon meant that we would soon be hearing, especially if we were selected to serve on an actual jury. We were sworn in by the gate keeper and issued our numbers. I would be for the next 48 hours or so, number 143. I would have preferred number 99, vintage “Get Smart” fan that I am. After the preliminaries, the instruction was hurry up and wait. No one I ever knew (except for a family friend back in Little Rock who had an insider connection and always seemed to be appearing in court as a juror...) had ever been picked from the assembly room, so I figured Fortuna would smile on me too: I’d just sit for a couple days, then go home. The only lottery I seemed to win repeatedly was the Nigerian one. I was safe. At 11:00am, dismissal for lunch. Two hours. I went to a café downtown (Café Bonjour, who name in English sounds silly, “café ‘hello’”), bought a club sandwich and a venti Americano and resumed what I had been doing in the assembly room. I took with me a novel I had purchased about a decade and a half ago but never read. The two criteria for my novel selection for jury duty: 1) long and 2) interesting. So, I chose the novel Sarum, which recounts the history of England from prehistoric times to the present. It fulfilled both criteria. I was immediately engrossed. The novel also provided a stable writing surface on which to fill my profile form, and its thickness (about 2.5 inches) was just right to serve as a filing cabinet for my jury member’s handbook and officious parking pass (to be used later upon exiting the city parking garage).
We were issued yellow clip-on badges that identified us as numbered jurors. Instead of the typical church potluck adhesive labels with the standard “Hello My Name Is” printed across the top under which the bearer should scribble his first name with a parish-owned sharpie pen, these were high-class name tags for serious, important work. They were laminated. When on the courthouse grounds, the badges not only helped jury workers identify us, they also served as our scarlet A’s. To maintain our anonymity and impartiality, random lawyers scampering about would know to turn tail if they detected a squad of yellow tags approaching. We weren’t offered carte blanche to explore the courthouse. Except for designated 15 minute “smoke breaks”, we were confined and forced into contentment singing “Summertime” in the easy living of our 5-star jury assembly lounge. All that was missing here was Community coffee on I.V. drip. We had to get up and walk the 2.5 miles to the far side of the room to pump a few draughts of viscous Mello Joy coffee into styro cups. The walk offered a perfect opportunity to stake out who else shared the same week’s schedule. No one I knew.
People-watching bonanza! We were all utterly random. More than likely some of the folks knew each other, but the majority, from our demeanors, didn’t have a clue who each other was: short, tall, portly, slim, slouchy, upright, butch, nelly, self-conscious, confident, white hair, black hair, brown, hair, pink hair, orange hair, jogging suit, t-shirt, jeans, shorts, brown plaid wool trousers, 100% cotton neatly ironed, starched and creased Land’s End button down, Ralph Lauren full-toe brogues, socks matching pants, belt matching shoes (that’s me, as if you hadn’t guessed). It was interesting looking up from my reading from time to time to survey the squad. What were they doing? How did the react to their having to wait. Who was prepared to wait? Those who brought a single magazine or who held nothing were not prepared. They obviously hadn’t questioned friends on what to expect. Some folks had cards. No poker games that I saw. Maybe there was another room somewhere else with a raucous high-stakes table, but this wasn’t it (I did hear something recently about Louisiana ethics reform – not sure if that meant it was now more ethical to store one’s stolen cash in the frig instead of in the freezer). We all had numbers. No names. So I’d imagine names for people as they glided along to the coffee table or bought a Hershey Bar. “That’s Flo”, I’d imagine. She’s 68 and has had the same high piled brown perm for the past 40 years. She’s from Dallas and smokes Saratoga 120’s, stogies as long as a pool cue. Flo drives a dooly. She’s a Baptist, but drinks Jack on Friday nights on the sly. Then there’s Judy. She’s a school teacher wasting her spring break in the palace of justice. She’s brought along her John Grisham novel tucked to her chest like Lady Liberty’s tablet. Judy has short salt and pepper hair and favors pants suits and mules. She teaches 5th grade science and has excellent diction. She’s a democrat and prefers Hillary Clinton. In the middle of the room is Larry. Interior designer, Buddhist. He dreams of the 1980’s, but tolerates the 21st century. Blond hair gelled and molded into a feathered coif, each wing meeting exactly in the middle of the back of his head. He’s in a blousy silk shirt, ironed jeans and high top converse chucks. Larry is now 39, divorced with a 5 year old daughter, is bored and tired of drinking coffee. He paces the floor. Monday ends. No dice. One group had been called early on, but most of them returned. Now, we all deposited our I.D. badges in the gatekeeper’s shoebox. Exiting the packed elevator cab, we waved bye to the Security X-ray and walked to the garage. “See you tomorrow”, the attendant there told me.
Next morning: replay. Judy was there, so was Larry. Flo was enjoying her mid-morning Hershey bar and dealing herself in. A quarter to eleven: lunch. Two hours. Club sandwich and venti Americano. Back. Read. Watch. Larry’s ticked off. Judy’s almost finished her Grisham. She reads fast. The rest of her teacher friends from the faculty lounge sipping mai-tais beachside. Judy’s reading about the beach in a jury room. That’s alright. Hillary will be elected soon. Announcement: 10 people. There had been a group called from the room in the morning. No one returned. Now we learn that this most recent jury had only 11. Two more were needed: number 12 and an alternate (the unseen ones had been picking a number of juries from panels drawn from the big pool, in which we all were seated). Number 143. Cool! Out in the hall to await further direction. Down two floors to the court room. Into the jury box. Who are you? How old are you? Married? Children? I kept being eyed by the lawyers while they questioned. Ok out into the hall. Back into the court room. One name was called and then….Mr. Pennington. The rest are dismissed. The two will remain. Next day, 9:00am. Jury room. Coffee and donuts will be provided, according to the judge. We were sprung from Purgatory and had arrived at the next level. Not only coffee, but donuts too. Beatific Vision.
Next morning. The side doors to the courtroom stood open. The Courthouse in Lafayette is a 1970’s explosion. From the interior décor, you expect to see flanks of citizens in peasant shirts and bell bottoms, loud polyester pants suits, wide ties and belted sport coats with broad lapels (this is where you cue the “Mary Tyler Moore” theme in you head). Creative wall treatments involving wooden slats. The jury room was nothing but flat wood paneling, floor to ceiling. Two ladies were already in the jury room when I arrived. No donuts. Damn it! The remaining jurors observed likewise: donuts? No. Paradise lost. We were to listen to testimony in an armed robbery case. We were ready to see video and hear arguments. No donuts. Community coffee though. The better coffee went along with the elevated status, I suppose. We exited and stood in the jury box. The swear-in. The dismissal. Back to the paneled conference room. An hour later, back into the box. The defendant entered his plea: guilty. No trial, no video, no testimony, no donuts. We were done.
When I explained I had been summoned for jury duty, the most frequent response was “Oh, man, you need to get out of that.” I didn’t mind. It was interesting to meet random people whom I would more than likely never have encountered otherwise, and then to be selected among the entire set of random people to be part of a group of 12 to collaborate on a task and to reach a consensus. Although it turned out that we didn’t need to do the collaboration part, we could have done if we needed to. By the end of the hour in the jury room as the defendant was pleading guilty, we all knew each other fairly well, and got a very good idea of the personalities in the room. By then, it wasn’t so much a group of random people but a group of friends. It’s fascinating to me how that happens.