Wednesday, September 2, 2015
"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 nothing.
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 was 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.