My Cook County Court Jury Duty summons arrived in the mail a few weeks ago. It marked the 11th time I have been summoned to perform my civic duty. Each time I have received such a notice, my reaction is always the same, “Son of a bitch!”
I know it is a common feeling that jury duty is as welcome as the stomach flu, but come on, I’ve been called up enough already. Examining the summons, there were two hopeful words in the middle of the text that could possibly get me off the hook, “Standby Juror”. Following those words were the details that I was to call the court administration on the day prior to my assigned court date to learn if my service would be required or not; meaning attorneys might want the fate of their clients to be determined by a judge or a coin flip instead of a jury. I immediately put my chances of avoiding jury duty at 50/50 but eventually succumbed to the notion that “Standby Juror” is code for “We’re just messing with you, you’re screwed”.
Sure enough, on the day prior to my assigned court date, the pre-recorded message eliminated all hope for avoidance with the words, “If your last name includes vowels and consonants, you are required to report for jury duty”. I drew a deep breath and muttered to myself, “Naturally”.
Of the many court centers in the Circuit Court of Cook County system, I was being assigned to the Criminal Court Building located at 26th and California Streets in Chicago. This vast complex is a combination university-style campus and jail. The jail part of the campus is a foreboding looking prison/gulag with massive walls and barbed wire. The reason there is such security at this facility centers on its citizenship of murderers, rapists, thieves and your basic, run of the mill maniac and common hockey fan. Moreover, they sure weren’t put there by the fashion police. Add a parking garage to this mix and here was my new home for the day.
I left my car and walked across California Street toward the main building, a boxy tower done up in ’70s office building blah. It is linked via a glass atrium to the old Criminal Court Building, site of many famous criminal cases (mostly in the category of the People of Cook County vs. people who love holding up liquor stores). There were tight security checkpoints that operate with TSA standards (they are not fond of visitors who fail to remove their belts). It is here that criminals, jurors, attorneys and witnesses are all equals and that means no one is to be trusted. I especially kept an eye on anyone who smiled and nodded at non-existent entities. Here’s a hint, they were mostly in gangsta baggies and sported grill-like dental work. I may be generalizing here but I spotted one man in his late 20s that had bullet holes in the back of his jeans. I watched him very carefully. He seemed to walk without any apparent injury. Then, it dawned on me that he must have been wearing the jeans from the victim he murdered. (I’m not joking, he had a gaze that conveyed, “Don’t look me in the eyes or I’ll eat your ass!)
It would seem that a character like this should not be out on bond, but as I came to understand by a long and steady visual sweep, everybody and I mean everybody makes bail (think about that the next time you hand your car keys over to a valet). On the opposite end of the spectrum, female defense attorneys and female prosecutors all seem to wear skirts and purposeful heels. This may be to entice the judge, jury or in some twisted way, the defendant. Whatever the reason, they all apparently shop with a goal of resembling a grade school vice-principal. Equally strident in this visual, male defense attorneys and male prosecutors all seem to dress with a goal of resembling a life insurance agent.
After clearing Checkpoint Charlie, I was directed up an escalator toward the main jury room by several signs pointing the way. A pair of casually dressed female clerks seated at opposite tables greeted me as I entered the jury room. I handed my jury summons to one of them and she a handed me a panel slip. I took the slip from her hand and flipped it over. It read Panel 1. The only thought running through my mind was, “Son of a bitch!”
Scanning the vast room, I made my way toward a four-top table and took a seat. The jury room was made up as a combination study hall, Greyhound Bus terminal and hotel front desk. The front desk ran approximately 45 feet long. I could not figure out why it was this long, it was completely clear and unattended. Unless there was an unadvertised happy hour about to take place, I must say the front desk was a waste of taxpayer money (SURPRISE!)
The Greyhound Bus terminal part of the jury room was broken up into three separate wings, each facing the main entrance of the room. Gradually, prospective jurors began to file in. They fit the textbook appearance of the American landscape. There were business people, housewives, retirees, blue-collar workers and students representing every race and ethnic background, perhaps 200 in all. They each had one thing in common, as best as I could tell, not one of them wanted to be there.
At precisely 9:30am, a sharply dressed male clerk entered the room and walked behind the front desk. He pulled out a lounge singer’s microphone and announced, “Good morning everyone. At this time, I would like all of you assigned to Jury Panel 10 to take a seat over here to my left. We are going to show you a short video about jury service. This will tell you all about what you can expect today, so please join me over to my left. That’s Jury Panel 10, one-zero”.
With that announcement, about 40 people stood up and made their way toward the area. I breathed a sigh of relief and took this as a good omen that I would not be on one of the selected jury panels.
Jury Panel 10 took their seats in front of a large flat-screen TV. After they settled in, I could hear the annoying strains of training video music, a meandering orchestral melody that seems to convey that you are about to lose 20 minutes out of your life. I must commend Jury Panel 10; they gave the jury training video their utmost focus and attention, despite several no shit Sherlock moments. I half-expected a round of applause as the closing strains of the training video music faded out.
Suddenly, the sharply dressed Jury Room Master of Ceremonies popped out with a bounce and with microphone in hand, came ever so close to asking, “Hey, how many of you are from out of town?”
Instead, the Jury Room MC said, “Thank you and please return to your seats. We will provide further information as we wait for instructions from the courtrooms”.
Members of Jury Panel 10 slowly stood up and found their way back to their seats throughout the Jury Room. I mentally nicknamed the Jury Room MC, ‘Scooter’, as he disappeared to parts unknown and unseen. Calm soon returned and my fellow prospective jurors continued with their solemn, efficient manner of ignoring each other, like strangers on a city bus to nowhere. After a mere five minutes, that calm quickly evaporated as Scooter came bounding back.
He brought the microphone up to his mouth and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, may I have your attention, please? There has just been a request for a jury panel given to us. At this time, we would like Jury Panel 1 to come forward and form a double-file right here at the entrance. That’s Jury Panel 1. Yes, if you have been assigned to Jury Panel 1, please come forward and form a double-file up here”.
“What the fuck???” I thought to myself. “You make Jury Panel 10 watch the video and you call Jury Panel 1 instead!” I continued my mental protest, “This ain’t right, Scooter. This ain’t right”.
I got up from my chair and walked toward the entrance to take my place in line. The two female clerks had all the difficulty of herding cats just to get the rest of Jury Panel 1 to form a double-file. Perhaps they never learned this in kindergarten, or perhaps they were in shock by the mind-fuck Scooter had just pulled on us.
A female sheriff’s deputy made her way to the front of the assembly and said, “Two lines please! A double-file is two lines!”
The members of Jury Panel 1 avoided any further scolding and began to form an orderly double-file as they took in the sight of the deputy’s handcuffs and service revolver. Once the Jury Panel was in place, she said, “I’m going to lead you out of the Jury Room. You are all going to follow me to Courtroom 326, which is located in the Criminal Court Building. We’re going to walk through the Atrium and take the elevators to the third floor. We’ll assemble just outside the courtroom. Please wait for me before we enter. Are there any questions?”
There were no questions.
Our group followed the deputy’s orders and walked silently through the atrium and up the elevators to Courtroom 326. Just outside the courtroom doors, the deputy gave us a once-over, the way a mother gives her children a once-over before entering grandma’s for Thanksgiving dinner. With that, she flung open the doors and instructed us to take seats in the visitors’ gallery.
The courtroom had the appearance of an old Hollywood movie set. I don’t think there had been any remodeling since the court building first opened in the 1930s. There was heavy wood paneling throughout. Solid dark oak railings and balusters separated the gallery from the attorneys’ table, jury box, witness chair and the judge’s massive desk. I almost wanted to count the stars on the courtroom’s American flag to make sure there were 50 instead of the 48 when the courtroom went into service.
The presiding judge, a woman in her mid-fifties, was already seated. She had dark hair and smiled as she welcomed our group. She said, “We’ll get started shortly”.
I took a seat in the second row, very close to the attorney’s table, a long L-shaped desk shared by the defending and prosecuting attorneys. Each consisted of male and female teams. Seated next to the defending attorneys was a man dressed in a white dress shirt and black dress slacks. I presumed him to be the defendant, or the man perpetually chasing me in my nightmares. I began to speculate as to the charges that were being brought against him; it certainly wasn’t for jaywalking. Was he a car-jacker, break-in artist, murderer, rapist or hold-up man? I mentally bet myself that he was a hold-up man.
The judge soon gave everyone an overview of the court proceedings and declared that the trial was to decide the defendant’s fate on the charges of armed robbery, an armed robbery of a liquor store.
“Yes!” I celebrated silently, “A hold-up man!”
The judge also described that the proceedings would require a jury of 12. The court admin would call out 24 prospective jurors who would be interviewed by the judge. My odds at being selected for jury service were about to reach death and taxes certainty.
I took a quick count of my jury panel and came up with a tally of exactly 40 people. As I inspected their faces, it was obvious that they were all doing the same. However, my inner-jerk began to presume that I would easily win an election as jury foreman and I calmly began to formulate a jury campaign staff.
The court admin’s voice shook me back to reality as she began to call out names from a jury candidate print-out. The names of the prospective jurors had an air of familiarity, as if we had known each other in a former life. The momentum of the court admin’s rhythm was only broken if a jury panelist failed to rise with a speed to her liking. Only then, would the name be repeated. As each name was called out, my heart raced to the thought that the next name would be mine. The seats of the jury box began to fill with panelists. Soon, the additional seats in front of the jury box began to fill.
I counted 21 jury panelists had taken their seats as the roll call was about to end. The court admin called out three more names, but my name was not one of them.
I did it! I managed to fly under the radar with 15 other lucky panelists!
Not all was over; the judge wanted us to remain in the courtroom while she interviewed each prospective juror. Call it paranoia, but I swear she was looking right at me while she explained this.
The judge’s interview questions were the same for each jury panelist:
• “What area of the county are you from?”
• “What is your occupation?”
• “What is your favorite television program?”
• “Have you ever been the victim of a crime?”
• “Are you currently involved in any type of court proceedings?”
This started as a very fascinating process. However, after the fourth prospective juror was questioned, I lost all hope that any panelist was a racecar driver or tuned in regularly to “Masterpiece Theater”. Instead, I was treated to 2 hours of monotony. Most people were in retail sales or marketing and most people tuned into “American Idol” (coincidentally, perfect for being a juror).
When the interviews were concluded, the judge had a private conversation with the defending and prosecuting attorneys. Had I been the defendant, this is when I would have made a run for it.
The judge then granted the rest of us trial-less jury panelists a 20-minute break. We were cautioned to return on time and we left the courtroom without much delay.
A 20-minute break is not a lot of time. You could make a cell phone call, stretch out for some air or check Facebook to see if one of your “Friends” has just posted a picture of their child or a meal they’re about to consume.
I recalled seeing a sign for a café on the way to the courtroom, so I thought I would head in that direction. Once I got there, I realized the café was merely just a small counter with a cashier and a cook. The choice of food was limited to what you would ordinarily find in a vending machine or perhaps the jail cafeteria.
The beverage dispensary was out of order and had it been working, I doubt that it would pass any type of health code inspection. I walked out and took a stroll around the atrium. Here it was fun to observe several informal lawyer/client conversations about accepting or declining plea bargains for jail time. This would be an easy decision for me. There is no way in hell I would do jail time in this place. I’m sure they don’t offer room service or put chocolates on your pillow at bedtime.
With a few minutes to spare, I found my way back toward the courtroom. Much to my surprise, the sheriff’s deputy was greeting the returning jury panelists with our paychecks. She informed us that we were being dismissed and we had fulfilled our civic obligation for jury service. I received my check and studied my payout. It was $17.50. Not a vast sum and I probably would indeed spend it all in one place.
As I walked away with my fellow panelists, we all shared a knowing grin. Once we left the building, we dispersed and I made a beeline for the parking garage. Any fantasy of knocking off a liquor store had suddenly vanished.