In March of 1999, I was called for jury duty in Manhattan. I sat for two days in a windowless room where prospective jurors were corralled until called into various jury rooms. My name was drawn three times, and then, each time, a small herd of us were instructed to go with other jurors down long hallways to our respective jury rooms.
My first case involved an alleged robbery at knifepoint. The presiding female judge resembled television's Judge Judy and spoke with that distinctive Brooklyn accent. She began the preliminary 'voir dire' selection process by asking, "Are there any present in the courtroom today who would have a problem understanding the English language?"
Two men and two women raised their hands. "How long have you lived in America?" she asked. The first answered, "Twenty-two years, Your Honor." (This was the shortest length of residency I heard reported by any of these 'immigrants.') "SIT DOWN," she replied.
The process continued, attorneys questioning jurors to determine their suitability with regards to bias and competency. Each attorney can exercise a limited number of 'peremptory' challenges for which no reason is needed. A large number were excused for possible prejudice because they'd been the victims of mugging incidents.
One woman had been approached in the daytime by a man with a knife as she walked down a vacant subway corridor to transfer from one subway line to another. A homeless (looking) person who was lying on the ground came to her rescue. He turned out to be an undercover cop.
Another gal pleaded to be excused because this case was estimated to run until the following Monday with possible sequestration in a hotel that same night. One woman begged for sympathy for her elderly dog needing periodic medication injections. Again, the judge's response — "SIT DOWN!" As the process moved forward, my name was drawn, and I was asked to take the stand for questioning.
Over the years, I've found that whenever I'm asked, "What do you do?" it's far simpler to reply that I'm a writer, lecturer, or life coach. People usually don't question me further since most don't honestly care how I make a living or aren't listening for an answer. However, when I sense a sincere interest or curiosity about what I do, I might respond that I'm an intuitive. Some ask why I don't simply say that I'm a psychic. In my mind, the answer should be pretty obvious, given typical associations made regarding the profession, conjuring images of carnival shysters and gypsy fortunetellers.
When I found myself seated among the sixteen others in the jury box, yet to be deemed fair and impartial, the assistant DA turned to me to ask this problematic question. I answered, "I'm a writer/lecturer." I should have anticipated the next predictable question: "And what do you write about?"
The conversation progressed from the mention of the words' intuitive' to 'psychic,' at which juncture she stopped and thought for a moment. 'Whoa!" she said. "Now I feel a bit unCOMfortable!" I looked at her as giggling erupted around the courtroom. The judge joined in, chirping, "Maybe she can tell you why!" Polite chuckles became loud guffaws. I looked over at the accused and his attorney, who were exchanging glances, both looking uncomfortable.
It seemed as though the most educated and alert prospective jurors were the first to be the first dismissed. Later, I reflected that perhaps I shouldn't take the 'psychic' stigma too personally.
In the second courtroom on the second day, my name was again drawn from the spinning barrel on the court clerk's desk. "Louise...H...H...Hack?" Once again, seated with sixteen other prospective jurors, I was asked to give my name, birthplace, location of residence, and finally, the inevitable — "What do you do?"
"I'm a PSYCHIC!" I proclaimed, tired of pussyfooting around. Perhaps this time, we might cut to the chase, and I might get dismissed and go home early. The judge, a good-looking African-American gentleman, grinned. He said, "Then perhaps you can tell me what my next question is going to be!" Once again, more laughter, but louder and longer. I smiled and chuckled along with everyone as if this was the very first time I'd heard this tiresome retort. Once again, I was dismissed.
Later in the day, fifty-sixty of us prospective jurors seemed more relaxed and communicative with the probing assistant DAs and defense attorneys. The case involved the alleged sexual abuse of a ten-year-old by her girlfriend's father. Following some careful self-scrutiny, I was surprised to conclude that I could not be an impartial witness. Imagining a young girl testifying in the witness box would stir up too many of my own potentially prejudicial associations. Apparently, this was true for several others who opted to divulge details but only in private conference with the judge.
One prospective juror was a psychiatrist from Morocco who had the opportunity to speak out against children who are forced to testify and recount painful personal experiences. A Ph.D. sociologist from the Philippines said she'd seen too much at the child abuse center where she consulted in Manhattan. A young Puerto Rican father of two daughters from Harlem said he would kill anyone who would do such a thing.
An older woman from Greece exclaimed, "A man like that is a very evil person and ought to be punished!" The judge firmly reminded her that the accused was presumed innocent until found guilty. The woman took time to compose herself when the DA then asked, "Are you married?" "No," she replied and then began to sob. "My husband is dead four years now, a most unfortunate thing for him to be dead, and I can tell you is not an easy thing even now, to talk about!"
As if on cue, the woman's deceased husband came into my awareness and began transmitting a message of comfort and support for his wife. "I'm so sorry," I telepathized back to this soul, "This really isn't the time nor the place for me to do this…."
The Sergeant-At-Arms, a woman with straw-looking blond-ish hair, wearing a gun belt draped below her belly, looked suddenly pained by the widow's response. She approached the bench and then stood on tippy-toes to reach across the judge's desk for a box of Kleenex. She handed a tissue to the grieving widow. "Ga-wan! Take anudda," she said, giving her the box.
On the last day, I sat with others outside the jury room, where we'd been rounded up before being shown to our final courtroom. I struck up a conversation with the eccentric-looking young man who sat beside me. I'd glanced at him my first morning and sized him up as quite a character. When questioned in one of the courtrooms, I heard him say that his occupation was 'cat catcher.'
He was tall and thin and wore three earrings (two and one) with a hairline shaved to mid-head. He wore a well-worn jacket and jeans. His suede boots laced up to just below his knees, looking as though they'd been scratched by something vicious. We'd barely exchanged greetings when he again mentioned his occupation. I motioned towards his boots, "Cat scratches?"
"Yup," he nodded, settling in to tell me more.
"Why, during the last freeze, (I) rescued a cat that had been hit by a car, landed on the ice and froze his testicles and penis, took him to my vet who amputated both and had to cut a slit so he could pee!"
"My!" I replied, contemplating a way to steer the conversation away from such specifics.
"So, do you catch cats who run from their owners…and return them?"
"Nope. I take home strays. Sorry, no vacancy at this time!" His current tally was forty feline boarders.
"How do you feed them all?" I asked. The thought of retrieving my stored paperback book had increasing appeal with each new question and detailed answer.
"Sixty pounds of dry food and litter every week!" he enumerated.
Across the aisle was the musician who spoke to no one, except to a judge with whom he pleaded to be excused because of a recording commitment.
Our last afternoon of duty, a handful of us who had been shuttled along the same path for three days—in and out of the same courtrooms—gathered 'round to hear the good news announcement of early release. We had become friendly toward each other, but maybe not quite 'friends.' We cheered at the news. One overheard the musician on the phone, reporting to his wife. "I've been surrounded with a bunch of imbeciles for THREE DAYS!"
I felt grateful for a perspective in life that challenges (and gifts me) with the ability to seek out 'that which connects us all' in any given situation. An introductory video had reminded us that in medieval times, jurors whose verdicts contradicted a ruler's opinion were imprisoned and sometimes put to death.
For three days, I intentionally reminded myself of the honor and privilege to be called to serve among twelve of my peers. The judicial process enlightened me. It was the diversity of my peers that intrigued me.