Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Jury duty



     "Belts off, jackets off, pockets empty."
     In line at the Daley Center, last Thursday, 8:20 a.m., just another John Q. Citizen arriving early for his 8:30 summons .
     "Belts off, jackets off, pockets empty," a sheriff's deputy cries, to no one in particular, like a 19th century vender selling fruit off a cart.
     Juggling a cup of coffee, a briefcase, jacket and ID, I slide off my belt and coil it in a grey plastic bin, along with the fistful of change the letter told us to bring for vending machines.
     While most people to whom I mentioned my pending jury duty expressed sympathy, even pity, my mood is light. Anything that involves enforced idleness, reading and snacks can't be that bad.
    
"Belts off, jackets off, pockets empty."
    Putting my belt back on by a table past security, I try to make small talk with the guy arranging himself next to me.
    "Another indignity of the state," I venture.
    "I got better things to do," he mutters, darkly, and I almost ask, "Like what?"
     But that seemed impolite, perhaps even unwise. I'm at court. This guy might not be a juror, this guy might be here to go on trial for throttling some wisenheimer.
     I say no
thing.
     Up to the 17th floor, where we are assigned to groups -- I'm Panel 9, and given a slip of paper saying so. We're invited to sit in a sea of chairs. I pop a green tea mint, crack David Axelrod's "Believer"  (excellent, filled with trenchant insight and telling details). and begin to wait. 
    Forty minutes pass.
     At 9:10, a video. "Ladies and gentlemen, good morning, my name is Timothy C. Evans..."

    See, I know Tim.  I've dealt with him a dozen times. I'm certain they'll never pick me for a jury. A newspaper columnist married to a lawyer. Never. A couple hours of leisure and they'll send me on my way.
    Famous TV newsman Lester Holt pops up. We learn fun facts. "Circuit court is a state court, not a county court." Four hundred judges, eight divisions, with 2.4 million cases a year. Lester Holt appears. "Your name was picked at random. It is impossible to know how long a trial will last."
     Those of us going to trial. My wife agrees with me. Never in a thousand years.
    "If you are excused you must not take it personally.'
     Oh don't worry, Lester, I won't. 
    The music swells.
   "You are now ready to serve as a juror in the Circuit Court of Cook County!" 
    Or be dismissed from serving, as the case may be.
     Another ten minutes pass. Panel 3, is called Panel 5.  Panel 7...

     Just before 10, they call .. Panel 15. "Hey!" I think. "Unfair! Go in order." 
     About 10:15, we're called. Panel 9 escorted to a courtroom, where a judge tells us that the lawyers saw our faces and decided to settle.

       I half expect we'll be dismissed right then. Instead we begin an odyssey, the Wandering Jury.  Led to one courtroom, then another. No one is ready for us. Back to the 17th floor. Finally, about 11 a.m. we are escorted to a third courtroom, then told to take lunch. Come
back in two and a half hours. I Divvy to the office to do a bit of work and show off my JUROR sticker, my red badge of civic duty.
     At 1:30 we reassemble at a courtroom. Judge Jim Ryan welcomes us affably. We take seats in the jury box and he explains the case.
     A young woman driving an Acura was rear-ended by another driver on Grand Avenue. Her insurance company paid $4,400 for repair and a rental car, and now the company wants to collect from the guy who rear-ended her, an unshaven, handsome, vaguely menacing young man in a black v-necked sweater.
     For a moment, I wonder if we've begun the trial. No, this is "voir dire, " jury selection. We 
are asked if any of us have been in accidents. Any lost our license? Any have trouble with the idea of an insurance company recovering damages?
     "Mr. Steinberg..." one lawyer begins, reading from a form, and I sit up straight, smiling, ready for my moment in the spotlight. Time to be recognized, lauded, then dismissed. "...your wife is a lawyer. Will that affect your ability to view the case impartially?"
     "Umm, no," I say.
    There is a break. After five minutes, we are told six have been chosen. I'm among them. The other 12 are given their freedom.
     The case takes two hours, start to finish. It consists of lawyers quizzing two witnesses: the woman whose car wa
s hit, and the man who hit her. Nobody questions the facts. Two photos are introduced into evidence: one of the woman's crushed bumper; the other of the man's car stopped on the grass beside a building. 
     Back in the jury room, I'm elected foreman; I'm not sure why. One woman suggested it, everybody else went along and I accepted. 
     So what do people think? I poll the jury. Five find him negligent. One just can't.  "It could have happened to anyone," she says. For 40 minutes we go back and forth. The guy was obviously inattentive; I point out that he could barely pay attention during the two hour trial. Society demands drivers stop for cars making lefts. If you don't, you're negligent. Case closed.
    We argue with her, but  gently, respectfully. She seems fragile, about to cry, and goes into the bathroom for a long time and doesn't come out. When she does, I ask if there's any chance she'll change her mind. No.  I ask the others if there's any chance we'll come to her way of thinking. No. I have no interest in browbeating the woman, nor in drawing this out pointlessly. While I think he's liable and should pay, I'm not an agent of the insurance company. I send a note to the judge that we're deadlocked. We get certificates and checks for $25 and are out by 5 p.m.
     Two lessons. One, you never know what will happen when you go to law. Here I was certain I'd be dismissed, and end up jury foreman. Second, it's a flawed system—the guy was negligent— but one person can derail the whole thing. Still, it works, sort of. Everyone was exceedingly polite, and thanked us for us doing our civic duty. Compared to the bloody chaos in most of the world, our justice system is a gift.  


38 comments:

  1. The Ghost of Christmas PastSeptember 2, 2015 at 2:00 AM

    The one juror didn't "derail" anything. They voted what they thought. Me, in a criminal trial, I would vote not guilty and in a civil trial not liable as I am pro-defense and against punishing criminals or imposing liability.

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    1. You nicked your moniker from a story you apparently don't understand. Should have used the main character's name.

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    2. If you are ever the victim of a crime or wronged financially by someone who was negligent or otherwise legally liable, you better pray there's no one like you on the jury.

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  2. It works, sort of. What Churchill said about democracy applies exactly to litigation and the justice system -- it's the worst system there is, except for all the others.

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  3. NS- You should have said yes, that having a lawyer wife did affect you, then you could get home or back to work. Let those with nothing else better to do serve.

    A family member of ours doesn't serve cause they were involved in suing the police dept when a squad car ran into them through a light, though there was no emergency and the cop wasn't in pursuit or had lights flashing. Conflict of interest was stated in what the other cops were saying at scene of accident after getting there and the crashing cop was trying to save his butt so tried to countersue. No one was seriously injured but still, the cops or town wanted someone else to pay for the squad car. Kudos to State Farm who fought like the devil and the village dropped the case. They are worth their weight in gold. Stay clear of those cheapass insurances. No we don't work for SF. Police Depts. don't scare them. This was about 10 yrs back.
    Something like that or having letters from docs showing one is on anti anxiety meds( but you really have to be on them of course) helps too or if one has young children they can get out of it. There's other ways to do ones civic duty.

    Making racist comments on the paper questionnaire, even if one isn't racist, helps too. The court system here is bull anyway, it lets people get away with too much. Just look at O.J. or Drew Peterson at first.

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    1. I disagree utterly. People fight and die for our country; I can sit and read and sip coffee. I don't believe I had anything better to do. It's a shame that so many people are so lost in selfishness that they can't see that plainly. There's no counter argument that isn't utter bullshit.

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    2. If that's how you really feel, and behave, Slim Jim, don't complain when you get the jury you deserve when you have a case before the court.

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    3. Mr. Coey- One could wager you kiss your mirror often.

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    4. Blog Master

      One should not die for a nation when it is a case of protecting Oil Conglomerates or enriching war contractors Let the oil barons and warmongering politicos send their offspring.

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    5. Tsk Tsk says Coey- They be the "Teacher's Pet."

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    6. Slim Jim: I'm so happy to hear that State Farm treated you right. You must be one of their ten or so satisfied customers.

      Ten years ago my wife got into an accident at a parking lot. An octogenarian going 30+ MPH went the wrong way down a parking ramp and smashed into her. We were able to get the car fixed, but as far as my wife's medical bills - forget it. The other driver's insurance company made life miserable for us - including harassing us on the phone. Our insurance company said there wasn't much they could do.

      Our insurance company? State Farm. The other driver's insurance company? State Farm!

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    7. Usually I hear tell and know that they are very good.

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    8. Some insurance agents at the same company are better than others and that can make a difference.

      Neal, you think you be all that.

      Yazu

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    9. Peter, didn't you have your own medical insurance?

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    10. We do have health insurance, but there's the deductibles. Your auto insurance is supposed to cover those deductibles if it's the result of an auto accident, but SF's position was that even though my wife was hauled away in an ambulance, there was no proof that her injuries were caused by the accident.

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    11. Peter, You should have written to the CEO in Bloomington where that main office is located. I wouldn't let anyone get away with that. Have heard bad stories of just about any car insurance company. Write on their FB page and embarrass them too. I prefer Allstate myself.

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    12. State Farm isn't what it used to be.

      JP

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  4. Did any of the other jurors recognize you?

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    1. Nope, that's the subtext of the story. I expected the judge to make a brief speech in admiration, and my fellow jurors to applaud as I was dismissed. Nobody recognized me, nobody cared, the lawyers who read my jury form and knew I worked for the newspaper didn't find it significant, and maybe it's not.

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    2. Newspaper reporters/editors used to be explicitly exempt from jury duty in Illinois. Supposedly this was because their job required them to be objective and not make judgments, or some such nonsense. I think it was really because some miserly but influential publisher didn't want to spare his staff's time.

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  5. The stake here was $4,000 that the insurance company probably wasn't going to collect no matter how the case turned out. But what if the situation were exactly the same except that somebody had been killed or badly injured? Much less likely that a juror would say, "It could happen to anyone."

    john

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  6. How is it decided as to who should be the jury foreman?

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    1. That was odd. We had chatted. There was a nurse from Christ Hospital there, and we talked a lot about hospitals and operations and such. As soon as we got back in the room to deliberate, she suggested me. I looked around and everyone agreed, and that was it.

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    2. I think perhaps some did recognize you then but just didn't let on.

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    3. I'm met subscribers to the paper who genuinely have never read the column and have no idea who I am or what I do. Or so they say, but I believe them -- they only read the sports, for instance. My humility is well-earned.

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    4. Then they are idiots.

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  7. I would have picked you too. I go by the whole feel of a person, not just the usual things that would get you kicked. I have picked good jurors who I could tell were lying about being racists or prejudice or whatever. Their jaws drop, but I can tell they will step up and be responsible in the long run, and then they are when I comes to listening and at decision time, they pan out well.

    Besides, this is a 'throw away' case. Its not important to go thru the time and trouble of getting a 'perfect' juror. I imagine the dispute really wasn't about the clear rear-end, the defendant had to be arguing sudden stop or there was a dispute about the repairs, or rental or something, otherwise, it would have been paid long ago.

    To the poster above, that lady did derail the system and truly wasted everyone's time that day. The point isn't that it could happen to anyone, it is still wrong or negligent and the victim needs to be reimbursed. She used sympathy in her decision and the judge tells you outright, along w/ the lawyers I'm sure, sympathy has no place in the courtroom or in the decision.

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  8. P.S. I would have recognized you. I see you walking around all the time. ;-)

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  9. It be that crooked lawyer talking.

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  10. Jury duty can be interesting, I was a juror on a somewhat technical civil case back in May. The trial lasted five days, American Chartered Bank was suing Paul C. Burke, for defaulting on a million dollar loan they allege he guaranteed. Early in the trial a bank employee as witness was asked about compliance with Sarbanes–Oxley. I swear I saw her smirk, that set of alarm bells in my mind. Illinois passed a law that came into effect recently, that allows jurors to submit questions in writing, the judge can then ask the witnesses under oath. For one of the last witnesses, Paul Burke, I submitted a list of five questions. When Judge Eileen O'Neill Burke, held up my note the defense attorney showed a large grin for just a moment. the plaintiff attorney had a sour scowl. The judge read the questions like she was channeling Perry Mason. Deliberation was less then three hours, including lunch. Of course we found for the defendant. Afterwards Judge Burke commended us for paying attention, and not sleeping. She said she boasted to other Judges about how well the juror questions can work.

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    1. Oh, Bernie- What a wonder you are.

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  11. Interesting post and comments. In my experience and observation of the legal system "it's a flawed system" seems to outweigh the "it works, sort of." The Churchill quote applies nicely, it seems to me. I was on a jury for some penny-ante lawsuit. It was a 2 or 3-hour case like yours. At the end, I felt that we had no idea who was actually telling the truth, and no way to determine that. Nothing had been "proven", based on the type of rigorous fact-determination I had been expecting, which was of course wildly exaggerated for a case of this insignificance. But, taking the facts presented by the plaintiff at face value, I suppose they may have been convincing "beyond a reasonable doubt." Anyway, the jury ended up finding for the plaintiff, but somehow arrived at an award of a couple thousand dollars, which was somewhat more than half of what was sought. Just kind of splitting the difference so it wouldn't be too terrible for either side, I guess.

    My takeaway was a reinforcement of my goal to have as little to do with the legal system as possible. That being said, I definitely agree that one should serve on juries when called and if possible, and that the idea of leaving jury service to those "with nothing else better to do" is repugnant, unpatriotic and short-sighted.

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    1. Your post scares me...Had you been paying any attention you would have understood that the burden of proof in a civil case is "what is more probably true than not true." Only in a criminal case must a jury be convinced "beyond a reasonable doubt." Hopefully most jurors take their obligation a lot more seriously than you do.

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    2. Sorry to have scared you, there, Anonymous. Mea culpa. This happened quite a few years ago. If that was the instruction, you can rest assured that I was well aware of it at the time. As I said, the plaintiff won, regardless. I've had a lifetime of exposure to movies and books and news stories featuring criminal trials, and one instance where I sat on this jury. I would hope you can understand how I mistakenly referred to "beyond a reasonable doubt" in that comment, while I certainly did pay attention to whatever standard was required on the day of the trial.

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  12. No body be as perfect as the person with the reply at 12:08.

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  13. I had no idea that the juror pay was increased to the princely sum of $25. It used to be $17.50.
    Absolutely disgraceful that you must pay for snacks, pop & coffee. That should be free.
    Plus watching Tim Evans & his shit eating grin is a horror, matched only by the fact they must really think potential jurors are dumber than a box of rocks, by making us watch that moronic Lester Holt video. I've watched enough TV lawyer shows to know who does what in a courtroom!

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    1. Clark St.,
      In May it was still $17.50 a day. Donuts, sweet rolls, pop, and coffee were free, if you arrived early enough. I had the luxury of sitting near a real comedian with running commentary, when the video played. I lost control when he proclaimed Tim Evans looks like a porn star. That Lester Holt video looks like it was recorded in the early 80's, lost count of how often I've seen it.

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  14. From the sound of it, thank goodness I'm not in Crook County.

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