I have mentioned before how frequently I get called in for jury duty. It happened again this week, and I thought this time, maybe I’ll actually make it onto a jury and get to see the legal system close-up! Alas, it was not to be.
Among the 65 or so people gathered at the Wiley W. Manuel Courthouse in Oakland was a dude with straggly-looking gray hair who loudly bragged that he never gets jury duty because he always manages to get himself booted out of the jury pool. What a jerk, I thought. There was also a very friendly man accompanied by a Black Lab named Largo which he had gotten from Guide Dogs for the Blind, a charity I have donated to in the past. Witnessing his partnership with the dog was perhaps the only joyful part of the whole experience. He was also glad to discuss the dog with anybody who asked—he was truly a wonderful ambassador for this valuable program. (The man opted to leave on the second day of jury selection, but I’m grateful he stuck around as long as he did.)
The case, as best as I could piece together, involved a man who had assaulted a neighbor during a dispute. He was pleading not guilty, and was represented by an attorney from the Alameda County Public Defender’s Office. A deputy district attorney was representing the State of California, so he sat alone at a desk. On the first day, the defendant was nicely dressed in a button-down shirt; after that, he wore a white T-shirt and ill-fitting faded jeans. Anyone who’s watched “Law & Order” knows that defendants should try to look decent. Would it kill you to dress up a little two days in a row?
If you’ve never been through a voir dire process, basically, it involves the opposing attorneys questioning you to attempt to find if you have any prejudices that might cause you to be partial to one side or the other. The last time I went through voir dire, it was for a case that involved an employee suing his employer; I could understand why I was quickly eliminated from the jury pool, since I’m a business owner (not that I have any employees, of course) and might be more partial to employers. This time, I thought I might actually make it onto the jury, and the trial was only supposed to take about five days, so it wouldn’t have been a massive hardship. Hey, I’ve read tons of legal thrillers and watched hundreds of hours of “Law & Order”—it would be an interesting experience, right?
The guy I mentioned earlier, the one who was sure he could escape jury service, was—surprise—the first person the D.A. kicked out of the pool. His strategy appeared to be something along the lines of, “be as obnoxious as possible.” When the judge asked if any of the prospective jurors were not sure they could be impartial, for instance, or if anyone wasn’t sure they understood the concept of beyond a reasonable doubt, his hand shot up. He never used the phrase he’d mentioned out in the hall (“Say the defendant just looks guilty!”) but he was certainly contrary.
The jury pool was also studded with a handful of “down with the man!” Berkeleyites who brought up their distrust of the justice system or their experience getting arrested in political protests during questioning. These guys & gals all got booted by the D.A. as well. There was also a mild-mannered dude whose occupation involved putting on puppet shows for kindergarteners; I don’t know why he was targeted for elimination, but he, too, was let go.
The deputy D.A.—fairly new to the profession; I looked up his LinkedIn profile, and he earned his law degree in 2014—was striking people left and right. Meanwhile, the defendant’s attorney kept repeating, “The defense is pleased with this jury” when it was her turn.
Finally, it was my turn in the spotlight. I had to answer a list of mostly anodyne questions (do I own or rent my home? Am I married, and if so, what is my spouse’s profession?). One of the questions asked was whether or not I knew any attorneys. Well, I know tons of attorneys. There’s a (freshly-retired) lawyer in my book group, Joe serves on boards with attorneys, I have clients who are former attorneys (after all, inside every lawyer is a legal-thriller writer waiting to get out). My brother is married to one (albeit not currently practicing).
Did the fact that I hobnob with members of the legal profession on a regular basis doom me in the eyes of the public defender? I don’t know, but as soon as I was seated in the jury box, she declared, “The defense thanks and dismisses Ms. Trowbridge.” And that was it for me. I would love to know how long it took them to finally settle on 14 people (12 jurors, two alternates), but I had to surrender my badge and leave the courtroom immediately.
I found an interesting article about the voir dire process, which suggests that attorneys check out what prospective jurors are reading. (“Murder mystery readers are naturally going to be looking at some minuscule piece of evidence to hang their hat on in their decision.”) I don’t think the lawyers were slinking around the jury room checking out our reading material, but I had brought with me Chris Shelton’s Scientology: A to Xenu. Shelton is a former member of Scientology’s Sea Org turned critic of the church; I like to think that the book shows me to be skeptical and inquisitive. Just who you’d want on a jury, right? If only I didn’t know so many lawyers.