Monday, April 23, 2012

jury duty

I received a summons for jury duty at the beginning of the month and I wasn't looking forward to it.  I have never been called for jury duty before, and it really didn't sound like my favorite way to spend a hectic work week (i.e. away from work, locked in a sad windowless room, etc).  I was instructed to call a certain phone number after five on the evening before I was supposed to report.  I'm not sure why it all had to be so complex, but whatever.  I called.  And they told me to report at the Shawnee County Courthouse at 8:30 the next morning.

So I showed up this morning, baby at the sitter and coffee in hand.  I was perfectly on time, and then proceeded to sit in a big waiting room with sixty other people all facing one direction and not talking.  We must have waited an hour.  We watched a DVD that was reminiscent of senior-year AP politics.  One thing that caught my eye immediately was the disproportionate whiteness of the group.  Shawnee County is 9% black.  In that group of sixty, I saw two persons who appeared to be African-American (I understand that racial preference can be signified in ways other than outward appearance, of course).  Folks, that ain't 9%!  My wheels immediately started turning about what would cause this skew toward whiteness:

1)  Sitting on a jury requires you to have the sort of employment or home situation where you can either request off in advance, call in the day of and not have negative consequences, or find a babysitter or relative to watch your kids easily.  Or perhaps you're unemployed and have no children.  During the fun of voir dire, I discovered that many people there seemed to be in this category.

2)  The little video stated that names for jury duty were pulled from the rolls of registered voters, those who hold driver's licenses, and those who carry state-issued identification.  All I can gather is that perhaps these sources are disproportionately white as well.

Anyway, before I had too long to think about why everyone was so white, we were split up into smaller groups of about twelve and subjected to the sort of invasive questioning that I thought was reserved for actual suspects of crimes.  I'm serious.  Everyone there was expected to state:  name, current address, any past addresses in the last five years, occupation and time at place of employment, whether you're married, where your spouse works if so, if you have kids, and what ages they are if so, and if you belong to a church or other public institution.  All of this in front of perfect strangers, attorneys, and the defendant in the case.  So, you know, if you find them guilty, they can send a hit list back to their colleagues with nice, specific information.

After the show and tell session, we were asked a bunch of questions that pretty much filled in the details of the case for me.  Had anyone ever gotten a DUI?  How do people feel about law enforcement officers?  Have you ever been tazered (my personal fave)?  Is anyone in your family alcoholic?  Do you think the legal blood alcohol limit of .08 is reasonable?  Does anyone here not drink?  Do you have a bias against people who don't speak English well?  Do you think people who use derogatory language and racial slurs are bad people?  If anyone shook their head differently than the rest of the group, they were singled out and questioned more specifically.  I learned SO many fun facts about our group.  One lady volunteered an embarrassing amount of information about her alcoholic brother, whom she had to remove from a group home because of his chain smoking (??).  Another man thinks that anyone who drinks is stupid and he won't associate with them.  My favorite was the THREE different guys who had been tazered at some point because "in high school a buddy was messing around with this tazer he bought."  And then, of course, learning the minutiae of everyone's DUIs took up a significant amount of time.  Turns out they give these things out like candy at Halloween. 

I myself got caught in the line of fire after being asked about whether I thought law enforcement officers were any more or less trustworthy than any other person.  I said I thought so, because we afford them extra respect and courtesy in our society because of their training and vocation.  This was not a popular answer.  Turns out NO ONE else there felt this way.  So, like, if a police officer walked in and told you to leave the room because it was unsafe, you would just disregard them?  After I persuaded a few people around me that they actually did feel this way, the attorney stopped asking.  No surprise, I was dismissed after that round of questioning!  I don't think attorneys want anyone who could possibly be more persuasive than they are to sit on a jury.  It just makes sense.

I had always heard that religious officials are not usually impaneled for juries.  I didn't really understand why, but now I do.  When I had to state upfront that I'm a pastor, and where I pastor, people looked at me.  When the women on either side of me stated that they belonged to United Methodist churches in town, they saw me as some kind of leader (I hope!).  They were among the two who changed their minds and agreed with me when I was questioned further about law enforcement.

All in all, much food for thought from my first brief jury experience.  Sadly, since pastors seem to make unpopular jurors, I'm not sure that I will ever get to sit through a whole trial.  As much as I hadn't wanted to be there in the first place, I did begin to get curious about what the outcome might be.  And you know, civic duty, blah blah blah.  I'm 'Merican, by God.