I have jury duty today. If anyone reading this is at the New York State Supreme Court in Brooklyn, come say hello, I'm sitting in the back row.
So far I can't complain. The staff has been polite and helpful. I'm a little bummed they made me check my cameras but that's not the end of the world. If I don't get picked for a trial, this will be my only day of service and I won't have to come back for 8 years. Last time I had to do this it took a few days and came around every 4 years. Last time I did this they also knew pretty early in the day whether they'd need us or not, but it sounds like this one is going to take all day.
Meanwhile, there's free wifi so depending on how voir dire goes I may be able to get something done after all.
UPDATE: So far so good. I'm not on a jury but I was part of a larger group from which jury members are being picked, which means I get to sit in the audience and watch and listen to everyone tell their personal stories of court experiences and personal connections to law enforcement and other things having to do with the trial (an armed robbery). You know I'm the kind of person who like to look at the MySpace pages of people in the news so take that into consideration when I tell you this is really entertaining. I don't know how open this is to the public but someone with writing aspirations would do well to sit in on this just for the character ideas.
With regard to the comment below about Brookly being nicer than Chicago and only having to go every 8 years, apparently Brooklyn courts took a new philosophy of making the whole thing as pleasant as possible but also making sure no one weasels out very easily. That means there's a huge population to draw from so they cycle is much longer than it used to be.
I gotta go, I'm due in court. ;)
FINAL UPDATE: I'm not a juror. I came really close. I got all the way into "the box" but the judge dismissed me at the 11th hour for not believing in witnesses.
I know, that sounds ridiculous. Even the judge was a little incredulous, explaining to me that witness testimony has been acceptable evidence since the dawn of time. That's not a quote; I think he said, "...since the Magna Carta" or something like that, but as a fallible witness I can't testify to his exact words - and that was basically my point.
I had already tried to explain to the judge that I wasn't sure I'd be able to keep my personal experiences with cops and lawyers and the legal system out of my perception of the trial's events. I wasn't trying to be weasely but I'd been thinking about it through the lunch break: if I apply what I know about cops from the cops I know to an officer testifying in a trial, am I being unfair to the officer or just using my good sense as a human? Ultimately I allowed him to convince me that bringing a personal point of view was all part of being a juror and that wasn't the same as not being able to render a fair judgment.
But the prosecutor asked a question about whether we as jurors would have trouble with the testimony of only a single witness in the case. We couldn't know anything about the witness, just that there was only one. Again I had to speak up. I can't view one witness's testimony with the same regard as other evidence.
A few years ago the cable folks conducted an experiment in which a production assistant ran through the set and stole something off the anchor desk and then ran away - all live on the air. The challenge was obviously to test whether viewers could reliably describe the production assistant. You already know the outcome because we've seen a million of these studies with the same results. Eyewitnesses aren't reliable and if there's only one, I can't put as much stock in that testimony as I would in, say, a fingerprint.
But I don't base my view on hokey cable news experiments. Am I crazy for thinking that everyone knows by now that witnesses don't always see what they think they see?
And that's not to mention all the links we've clicked here in this blog that trick you into seeing what you're not really seeing or trick you into not seeing what you really are. Remember this video that made fools of us all?
I'm not saying no one can ever get anything right. Naturally everything comes with a context, but when you're answering questions in the abstract in the jury box you aren't afforded the luxury of context.
Adding to my bias is my own experience of having been mugged at gunpoint and being required to testify before the grand jury about it. The cops were great in my case. They caught my muggers very quickly and were very helpful over all. But they also helped me remember some of the details of my attackers, something I believe nearly all cops do for victims of crime. For reasons too lengthy to describe here, I'm confident I identified my muggers correctly, but sitting in the jury box today and having to answer in absolute that no part of my brain would suspect that a single witness had been helped to remember certain details that could not be corroborated by another witness was farther than I could make myself go.
What actually got me dismissed was when the judge asked what I would do if his instructions explicitly said that I should treat the witness testimony with the same weight as the rest of the evidence. I don't know if I understood him correctly but all I heard was that he wanted me to think what I don't think simply because he told me to. I don't remember if I answered with a flat "no" but I clearly wasn't giving the right answers so he cut me loose.
I don't know why I feel bad about being dismissed. One woman told the judge it was against her religion to judge other people, that was God's job. She was dismissed. Another woman told the judge she had trouble paying attention in general. Yes, it made school and work hard. OK, off you go. Did those women go home puzzling the meaning of fairness? Did they have to DVR Heroes and Tin Man while they wrestled with the nature of their faith in democracy?
What troubled me most as I left the courthouse was the realization that maybe I don't have as much confidence in the justice system as I thought I did. I know the system produces the occasional unfair result but on the whole I've always had a good feeling about juries. Could I still believe in the system without buying into one of its most basic evidentiary tenets? Worse, does it make me a leech on society to enjoy America's law and order but sorry, I can't actually participate because I don't really buy into that whole "witness" thing? At the very least I felt bad for copping out on the question of this particular guy's guilt or innocence. He may be an armed robber or maybe he isn't. Good luck figuring that out for the rest of us while I sit here and ponder whether the shape of my navel is fair.
In the end I'm sure I looked like a classic media dink - some annoyingly pedantic blowhard who has to make the whole thing about him and can't get with the program. By the time I got home from the courthouse my thoughts had drifted from the question of eye witness reliability to the possibility that my time in the media really has twisted my sense of the world. Has my immersion in conspiracy theories, counterpoint arguments and taser videos corrupted my sense of reality? Has the online celebration of the counterintuitive and the contradictory caused me to see the world through a backward lens in which people don't really see what they see and the only way to be fair is to strip away bias to a degree that only exists in the rantings of righteous pundit bloggers? Should there be a big NOTE: at the top of Clicked: warning, may cause a warped perception of the world that could hinder your ability to objectively participate in the duties and responsibilities required of citizens of a democracy.