“…and justice for all”

 In Challenging The Status Quo, SHIFT

His hands gripped the sides of the cold gray chair. Her eyes grew wide as panic set in. This could be the dreaded moment. Why now? For almost two weeks they had escaped the grasp of the whirring machine.

Neither one allowed any detectable motion. These two strangers who had only just introduced themselves on this the tenth day of their confinement might not ever see each other again once the machine’s “will” had been broadcast.

It is amazing that they had met at all. Out of a sea of 250 faces elbow to elbow in the two main rooms, people spoke just to those who shared their mutual, immediate space. There was a doomsday mentality that prompted some to divulge heretofore guarded thoughts to these strangers while others created a barricade of isolation by escaping into books, ipods, newspapers or just sleep itself.

For all there was a sense of no tomorrow.

The person next to them may not ever return once the roll call began: “Ralph Adams… Edna Ball… John Moore… Tham Nguyen… Roland Niers… Shanelle Williams… Melinda Zamora.” As the names broke the silence the inmates not yet called were once again alone, isolated in individual personal dread at hearing his or her own name read off.

Those called this time were to report to the mezzanine on hold, waiting. As the latest selections gathered their meager belongings, an almost audible sigh relaxed the faces of those left behind and each settled back into the sameness until the next call.

In one corner a ripple of laughter escaped an intense group huddled over a card game as a woman raked in her winnings of toothpicks. The petite young beauty had assured everyone she had never played poker before. She giggles, insisting again for credulity.

Across the room a heavy-set knitter is wedged between two readers sporting headphones. Another leans in a corner working over some kind of papers. A fourth grade teacher convinces the inhabitants of her corner to grade papers that might one day be returned to her students. A 30-some divorcee leans in confidence toward the swarthy pony-tailed hunk in the leather jacket. A slender, self-sufficient inmate slips her flask of spring water out of a travel bag and sips at regular intervals while a personable youth worked to entertain himself in the absence of his beloved stereo.

They come from every walk of life because that is the law. Every few years each citizen enters the Jury Room for a two-week stint, awaiting placement on a jury panel. It is not that it is bad to serve on a panel, but the process is taxing. Plus there is no guarantee that the service will only be for two weeks. Prospective jurors can have their names called off in the last hours of their last day of service and be called up for a trial that may last weeks or even months. Then there is no guarantee that a person will get to serve at all.

During that two-week time, names are pulled from the computer to be read out by a clerk informing jurors to show up in courtrooms. Once there, these candidates can be put through invasive questioning as prosecutors and defense attorneys search for that perfect group of 12 that will lean toward their own opposite point of view.

Finding that balance is almost as chancy as a game of roulette. One trial can exhaust a pool of 50 prospective jurors as the attorneys “excuse” one after another. As the process continues, they will use up all their rights of refusal and will have to end up with whoever remains. Those of us who have sat through this process over and over wonder at their reasoning as they dismiss one after another following minimal questioning. They must be trusting in instinct based on occupation and appearance.

Getting selected to be on a panel can almost take on a game-show atmosphere. Even those who aren’t eager to serve, can be offended when they hear one of the lawyers or the judge begin with, ”Thank you, Mrs. Jones, but…” The selected few parade the halls with badges heralding their fresh status as Jurors as they bustle back and forth to their new stations.

As I waited to be called into a courtroom, an ”excused” juror pushed out of the door muttering, “That’s the fourth one I’ve been excused from.” At the time I thought she was taking it a bit too personally, but then, I had not yet been excused.

I was one of a group of 30 that had been called to this courtroom because they had exhausted their pool, still lacking one juror and the two alternates. I sat through all the information in the courtroom only to be dismissed before the questioning when the attorneys accepted three of my group to complete their panel. I went back to the pool awaiting the next roll call.

At this point I was within two days of my service being over. In the beginning I had thought it would be interesting to serve on a jury panel, but I had no idea how many times I would be called only to never make it to the questioning stage. Now I dreaded hearing my name called. I knew I could not take any more time off work.

As it happens, I was called out the day before my service would end. And this time I was sitting in the jury box for the questioning. The key question for this jury selection seemed to be hinged on whether a juror would give equal weight to testimony from a police officer and that of a convicted felon serving time.

After about two hours of the prospective panel being questioned in turn, I was the second one to be excused by the prosecutor. I have to admit, I was shocked. I thought I would be a perfect juror, listening to both sides, no preconceived notions or prejudices. I was surprised that I too felt a pang of rejection as I clambered out of that jury box and exited the courtroom. Upon finding out later that they had exhausted our group of 50 jurors, selecting just one person, I felt a bit better.

Those of us who sit and wait for our $5 a day can ponder why. Not so much why citizens are to serve, but why lawyers can excuse so many. Why put people through the agony of the waiting, questioning, ejecting, and waiting again? Why allow so many excused jurors? I no longer wonder that we watch years go by as the accused in our society await trial. It also seems an unfair advantage to take of the citizen who would do his duty and take a turn on a jury.

As lawyers and clients exercise their rights, I have to believe they shun their responsibility to uphold the basic tenet of our judicial system, and that is to speedy trial for us all.

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