New York Stories: Jury Duty

March 1999

I can ride the subway in NYC and observe greater diversity than I have encountered in any other megalopolis in the world—in my albeit limited travels. But participating in the “voir dire” phase of jury selection in three courtrooms has allowed me see more detailed profiles of residents from Manhattan (predominantly from Harlem) and the Bronx.

In the first courtroom—on day one—during the preliminary sorting-out process, four "contestants" raised their hands in response to the Judge Judy look-alike who asked the question, "And are there any present in the courtroom today that 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, in an officious demeanor with a Brooklyn accent. "Twenty-two years, your Honor," was the shortest length of time reported by any of these desperate "immigrants." SIT DOWN!" she firmly instructed the New York foreigners.

I was astonished at the number of people who were excused for possible prejudice because they had been mugged. One woman had been approached by a man with a knife—in the daytime—when she walked down a vacant corridor to transfer from one subway line to another. A homeless (looking) person, lying on the ground, came to her rescue. He was an undercover policeman.

Another gal pleaded to be excused because this case—an alleged robbery at knifepoint—was estimated to run until the following Monday, with the possibility of sequestration in a hotel Monday night. The woman has a very elderly dog that needs periodic medication injections. Again, "SIT DOWN!"

Whenever I am asked, in the course of everyday conversation, "What do you do?" I usually answer, "Writer/lecturer," thereby circumventing an otherwise very predictable—and sometimes exceedingly tedious— conversation. This response, most often, serves me well. That is because people usually truly do not care to know how I make a living and usually, really are not listening.

In the rare instances where people are truly interested in pursuing a conversation or have a personal interest—for one reason or another—in knowing more about my profession, I might offer, "I am an intuitive," although that response usually elicits additional queries as to why I didn't say, "…psychic."

So, when seated among the sixteen others in the jury box—yet to be deemed fair and impartial—and the assistant DA turned to me to ask this problematic question, I opted for, "writer/lecturer." I should have known that her next question would undoubtedly be, "And what do you write about?" This woman certainly had more of a need to know, than someone simply engaging me in idle, polite conversation.

Eventually we made our way from "intuitive" to "psychic," at which point she stopped and thought for a moment. "Whoa!” said she, suddenly. "Now I feel a bit unCOMfortable!" I look at her, hearing giggles in the courtroom "audience." Then the judge chirped, "Maybe she can tell you why!" Polite chuckles became loud guffaws.

Perhaps I was projecting unfair assumptions from past reactions to the mention of my occupation, but the accused and his attorney looked very uncomfortable. It was so very tempting to wink (in a knowing way) at the alleged robber, as I walked by him with other dismissed non-jurors. I refrained.

As a rule, the most educated and alert of us potential jurors tended to be dismissed first. Later, I reflected that maybe I should not take the "psychic" stigma too personally…

In the second courtroom/s on the second day, once again, my name was picked from the spinning little barrel on the court clerk's desk. "Louise...H...H...Hack?" And once again, seated with the sixteen other perspective jurors, the judge asked my name, birthplace, location of residence, and finally, the inevitable, "What do you do?"

"I'm a PSYCHIC!" I offered loudly, with no more patience for a verbal labyrinth. Maybe this time we could cut to the chase, I might get dismissed and go home early. The judge, a good-looking African American gentleman, grinned. He said, "Then maybe you can tell me what my next question is going to be!" Once again, more laughter, but this time, louder and longer. I smiled and chuckled along with everyone; trying to react as though this were the very first time I had ever heard that tiresome retort.

The second day, the fifty-sixty of us prospective jurors seemed more relaxed and communicative with the probing assistant DAs and defense attorneys. This case involved the alleged sexual abuse of a ten year-old by her girlfriend's father. After careful self-scrutiny, I was surprised to conclude that I could not be an impartial witness. To imagine the young girl testifying in the witness box, was to stir up too many potentially prejudicing issues. Apparently, this was true for several others who opted to divulge details, but only in the judge's confidence.

A psychiatrist from Morocco took his questioning period as an opportunity to speak out against children being forced to testify and recount painful, personal experiences. A sociologist—Ph.D.—from the Philippines had seen too much at the child abuse center, where she consulted in Manhattan. A young Puerto Rican father of two daughters from Harlem said that he would kill anyone who would do such a thing.

An older woman from Greece blurted, "A man like that is a very evil person and ought to be punished!" The judge reminded her firmly that the accused was to be presumed innocent. The same woman took some time to compose herself, when asked the customary, "Are you married?" "No," she began to sob, "My husband is dead four years now, a very unfortunate thing, for him to be dead that I can tell you is not an easy thing even now, to talk about!"

The Sergeant-At-Arms, a woman with straw-ish blond-ish hair—gun belt draped below her belly—looked as if in sudden in physical pain at this widow's response. She approached the bench, stood on tippy-toes to reach across the judge's desk and retrieved a box of Kleenex. This sympathetic police officer handed a tissue to the grieving widow, urging her, "Ga-wan! Take anudda!"

There were two areas where we sat for long periods before we were actually called into courtrooms. The first was in the main jury room where we were corralled, once our names were called. We were directed to sit on long benches in the hallways outside each designated courtroom. I discovered a secret find, just to the right of the announcer’s desk in the main jury room. It was a small room with desk cubicles, facing the wall. Some of us lucky ones read the NY Times and Wall Street Journal—legs stretched out and in private—and others of us tried to get to paperwork that we had otherwise have to make up in our precious leisure time.

One woman took this time to fill out her income tax forms. Out loud. Every item. At least half of this privileged group shuffled papers loudly to demonstrate their exasperation at this noisy recitation. Two of the disturbed actually left the room after the woman walked up to the back of a professional looking woman—busy at her laptop—and yelled, "YOU WOULDN'T HAPPEN TO HAVE A STAPLER, WOULD YOU? I FIGURED THAT, SINCE YOU HAVE A COM-PU-TER..."

The last day, I was seated and waiting outside the last jury room, eye-strained from reading my purse paperback. I took a break and struck up a conversation with a most eccentric looking fellow, sitting next to me. I had seen him—peripherally—the first morning, and put him in the "character" column of my mental people-watching file. Questioned in one of the courtrooms, I had heard him announce his occupation as "Cat Catcher."

This fellow was tall and thin, wore three earrings (two and one) with a forced (shaved) receding hairline mid-head, well-worn jacket and jeans, and viciously scratched suede boots, laced up to just below his knees We had barely exchanged greetings when he once again announced 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 borders.

"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 know one, except to one 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 towards each other, but maybe not quite "friends." We cheered at the news. One overheard the musician on the phone, reporting in 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 did consciously remind myself of the honor and privilege to be called to serve among twelve of my peers, rather than to witness a public caning in Singapore or public amputation or stoning in Afghanistan. The judicial process enlightened me. It was the diversity of my peers that intrigued me.