This year I decided it’d be fun to mix it up for the winter and start hanging out at my local court house instead of my usual ‘going to work.’ Oh wait, did I choose that? Sorry, I meant Kings County decided they wanted me, and I had little say in the matter. That’s right folks, jury duty came a knocking way back on January 15th, and, while you’d think that out of the hundreds of thousands of grown adults in this borough my chances of being one of ten chosen for the world’s longest trial would be nearly infinitesimal, I am just that lucky- picked first in fact! Ours was a case finally making it in front of a judge after seven years of drifting through various legal processes, and it was clear emotions were high for all parties involved now that their moment had arrived. Thankfully, what started as a case involving nine lawyers dwindled to four by the time the trial itself actually started (don’t even ask about all the nonsense that went down during jury selection.) I admittedly was initially massively bummed to learn I was destined to spend too many hours participating in our huge and bumbling justice system, but I did learn some things along the way.
For one, lawyers really can live up to their stereotypes. The two central figures in this case were both middle-aged Jewish guys (not an assumption, this somehow became a factor in the case. Again, don’t ask) with terrible taste in ties, and they were loud and abrupt and used every trick in the book to try and trip up witnesses and make stories come out in ways that suited their arguments. They argued with each other, with the judge, even with the court reporter actually on one occasion. But, they were also both clearly incredibly smart and passionate about their case, and I will forever be in awe at their ability to research and organize and magically summon the correct page and line of someone’s old deposition testimony.
And watching the lawyers at work makes me hope I’ll never be called as a witness for anything ever. There were times I couldn’t even watch, choosing instead to stare at my feet or the vague and boring quote about ‘reason being the foundation of the law’ that was engraved in the wall behind the judge’s head. People get so nervous, so defensive. Clearly they want to make their story understood the way they believe it to be, but lawyers doing their job are set on carving their own version of things from your words. It can be really hard to listen around what they want you to hear to what is actually being said. And court reporters get seriously cranky when people talk out of turn or mumble. Really, don’t mess with the court reporter.
All of this makes it sound like we spent a lot of time actually hearing testimony and looking at evidence, though. And we did do a lot of that, but a substantial chunk of our six weeks was spent sitting in the tiny jury room behind the court room waiting. Just waiting. Endless waiting. Hours and hours of being told to just sit tight. The lawyers would fight, we would wait. The judge would have doctor’s appointments, we would wait. The witnesses would get stuck in traffic and/or be stuck because of snow, we would wait. It would be Wednesday at 10 am, and we would wait because it’s always what we did. I read two books, did several dozen crossword puzzles, and wore out the battery on my phone texting random friends about my boredom. I understand that somethings just take time, but I can’t help but believe there are aspects of the system that could be streamlined a bit. Thank goodness for our fantastic court officer who took care of us and kept us all from going a little nutty with impatience with her insights into which lawyers looked like which muppets.
In the end, all six of us who needed to agree did agree on the outcome of the case. It’s crazy to think about, that all those highly educated lawyers can throw what they want at us for six weeks, and it still comes down to six random people (relatively speaking- they did spend a week combing through their options to find us!) off the streets of Brooklyn who decide who is right. What kind of insanity is that? No hospital would ever ask the six of us to diagnose someone if a doctor was present. And yet, this whole concept is one of the major tenants of our society. Craziness, I tell you.
Ultimately, it is nothing like TV. Everything takes way longer, and there is no ‘smoking gun’ that makes the whole case shake out clearly into right and wrong. We did have some gems worthy of a network court house drama though; there was petulant snarking about which side had control of the projector and so controlled the technology (‘put it on the screen Dan!’), there was the bizarre conspiracy theory that the defense kept trying to manufacture about an investigator working for the plaintiff’s firm (we never did learn what the deal was with him!), there were the witnesses who were disappeared to Puerto Rico or (sadly, though occasionally humorously) dead, and there was the ‘we’re definitely in New York’ parade of languages and accents, from heavy old-school Brooklyn vowels, to Polish, to Spanish, to precocious bilingual eight-year-olds. And there was the very last day of arguments, when I’m pretty sure the plaintiff vaguely threatened to go gun shopping (to kill the defense was the subtext?) and the defense tossed large car parts around the room. Democracy is wacky, dudes. May you all get to experience it, just hopefully in a much smaller and less disruptive to your everyday life dose than I did.