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by Peter Moskos

November 18, 2015

Jury Duty

How do I talk about jury duty without sounding like I'm whining about jury duty?

(As to Cynthia Citizen on 1 Democracy Way in Queensville.... They can't fool me. I know the system. That's no Queens address.)

I don't want to whine, but I will mention the security line to get in the building in the morning takes 20 minutes. It makes airport TSA look incredibly efficient. Seriously.

There were 60 jurors in our pool. Add that to the cost of the drug war. It was a drug case. 60 people missing three days of work. If you figure $100 a day of missed wages (You get paid $40 if you don't get paid because of jury duty), that's $18,000 right there. And for what? I bet they're still dealing drugs in Jamaica, Queens.

I found something slightly amusing about people griping at the inefficiency of it all. Leaving aside it's not supposed to be efficient (but sure could be more efficient) I thought how this is a lot of peoples' first real dealing with the justice system. And if you think it's bad as a potential juror, just imagine how it works as a potential criminal! Still, I couldn't help but think, "The last time I was waiting around in court, at least I was getting paid time and a half." But except for getting up early for a commute that took an hour and a missed trip to DC, it wasn't a terrible inconvenience to me. It could have been worse. I don't have kids. I still get paid.

(Nothing says Queens County Court like a food truck with a lawyer's ad and a two-bit street take-your-wedding-picture-here operation.)

I like "civic duty." I actually wanted to serve. Given what I do professionally, I want to see the criminal justice system from the jurors' box. But whatdayaknow? My educated friend-are-cops professorial ass was voir dired right off an undercover police buy-and-bust cocaine trial.

But I had time to think. A lot of time to think. I was on telephone call from last Monday. Last week would have been a good time to serve. But I wasn't called into the Queens Courthouse till Friday. On Friday, we were told to come back on Monday.

On Monday, my afternoon class didn't get taught. We were told to come back at 2pm. Half the jury was sat. The rest of us were told to come back Tuesday. I had a train ticket and hotel in DC Monday night for police conference in DC. I didn't make it because of jury duty.

On Tuesday, the other half was sat. We were freed at 1pm. Can't be called for four years. I'm at least happy I was kicked off rather than simply sent home.

Every jury was asked his or her education, marital status, occupation, occupation of family and grown children, criminal conviction, and if they or loved ones were ever the victim of a crime. The judge, the good natured and pleasantly demeanored Hon. Barry Schwartz, asked everybody if they could be fair, if they convict based on beyond a reasonable doubt, and if we wouldn't demand more than beyond a reasonable doubt. This explaining takes a long time. Especially when it is done person by person. It was explained that most or all of the testimony would come from police, that the defendant, a black man about my age, didn't have to testify, and that the burden of proof lay entirely on the prosecution.

The prosecutor made it clear there was no DNA or fingerprints. This was not TV. Could we still convict based only on eyewitness testimony? Yes, I nodded.

The prosecutor raised silly examples about the chefs at a hypothetical "Cheesecake Factory" being an important part of your dining experience even though you can't see the chef. And annoyingly did this to each box of jurors, even though we were all in the courtroom. So we got to hear it twice. She used the Cheesecake Factory as a kind of everyman's restaurant. Something we would all know. ("What an stupid example," said my wife, "There are no Cheesecake Factories in New York City!" Good point. The only Cheesecake factory I've ever seen is in Chicago. I suspect the young prosecutor lived in suburban Long Island.

She also made a point about how you might be a teacher and students might say you're mean just because you told them to be quiet a bunch of times and they wouldn't listen. Just because students complain doesn't mean you really are mean. Right? This could happen. Yes. Yes. I get it. There are complaints against the cops.

I'm pretty sure I was nixed by the defense attorney, because it was he who was asking me a lot of questions about what exactly I taught. He also asked, "do you know what a buy-and-bust case is?" I said I did. I wanted to add the Ali G line, "I've done a few of them myself," but that wouldn't have been true. It never actually came up I was a cop. I guess they figured I was too educated for that. But they did confirm I have lots of cop friends. And it was the defense attorney who admitted to me in the jury box, that this is your basic undercover buy-and-bust case. I suspect he didn't want jurors to know how routine it was. The harder to cast reasonable doubt.

Too bad the defense attorney had no idea that this had the potential to be the jury-nullification non-violent drug case of my dreams! Sure, I think the defendant is guilty as sin. That doesn't mean I wouldn't put my money where my mouth is. Hell, I was probably the only hope he had.

My own personal highlights?

• The Muslim who discovered religion on Day Three when he said he couldn't possible convict based on just one person's testimony. "It is against my religion!" There's something in the Quran about needing three witnesses or something. He didn't mention any religious objection when asked the day before. He was not sat.

• The chatty older white "hard-working day laborer, your honor" who complained in the hall about losing $300 a day. A fair enough complaint. But then I didn't believe him when he said he couldn't possibly be a fair juror given that he had a family member who had been the victim of a crime. "I just don't like criminals." The judge reminded him he didn't have to like criminals. He was here to judge if this guy was a criminal. The laborer stuck to his guns, promising he couldn't be fair, logic be damned. He was not sat.

• I actually recognized and called out a Kinyarwanda name! That's never happened before. She was a very nice older woman, the wife of a retired African diplomat. We sat next to each other on the jury box and had a very pleasant conversation about life and politics during pauses in the action. Her favorite posting? Ottawa. Why? "We still have friends from there. It was the only place we became good friends with out neighbors!" Oh, Canada. Try to be nicer, why don't you?! She got sat.

• The young black woman who, the day before, tried to get out by saying she drove through the intersection we were to stay away from (where it went down) to get to work. The judge pointed out A) she wouldn't be working and B) she could drive an alternative route. She later asked a court cop what would happen if she didn't come back. She did come back. And then told the judge she couldn't be fair. I don't remember why. I don't think she got sat.

• The majority of the jurors had been or had close family members who had been mugged.

• The courthouse has a mail drop and phone booths. Alas, they were all sealed and non-functioning. Once we used to build grand things. Oh, the humanity.


john mosby said...

I love mail chutes! My building has one. Only thing better than a mail chute is a pneumatic tube....


Moskos said...

Don't get me started about pneumatic tubes! Who doesn't love them?!
Unlike mail chutes, pneumatic tubes are still made, maintained, and in active use. Mostly in hospitals, best I know, where they can be essential. I have not one but two friends who use them regularly. I have them regale me with stories (and they always have pneumatic tube stories, strangely.)

There used to be a pneumatic tube mail system running around much of Manhattan. Individual buildings have elements of it. But the system is long gone.

David Woycechowsky said...

off topic, but interesting:


Moskos said...

I saw that. I was surprised. But the judge has spoken.