Monday, December 10, 2007

Jury Duty

My poor husband has jury duty today. He's not happy. It's the one time in his life where being a middle-aged white guy is a huge disadvantage. Plus, he wears glasses which makes him look smart. He's not smart, but he looks smart. Middle-aged white guys who wear glasses always get picked to serve on a jury. He doesn't stand a chance.

I feel his pain. In order to cheer him up, I decided to go all June Cleaver on his ass and make him a tasty chicken salad sandwich for lunch. He still looked miserable. "Honey," I said, "you're making the Beaver sad." Apparently, he wasn't in the mood for double entendres.

In honor of his service, I have decided to post a column I wrote for a few years back when I was called for jury duty. Perhaps some of my luck will rub off on him.
There's a reason they call it "jury duty." They call it jury duty because it is indeed a duty and duty of course implies that it's something you must do and not something you want to do. The reason no one wants to be called for jury duty, obviously, is because jury duty is not fun. If it was fun they would call it Jury Camp or Jury Jamboree or, at the very least, Howdy Duty.

The courts are well aware that the majority of Americans would rather have root canal surgery during an IRS audit than serve in a box with eleven of their fellow angry citizens. That's why they use vaguely threatening language in the jury notices. "You must report," "Subject to fine," "Use of cattle prods" or some such nonsense. If folks really wanted to appear they would simply say "Congratulations, you are the lucky winner of a seat on a jury!" and the envelope would have on it a picture of a smiling and bloated Ed McMahon. Apparently, intimidation is the only way to get people to show up against their will. Have you ever seen the movie Twelve Angry Men? The men were only angry because they were all too stupid to get out of jury duty. That bit about injustice was all just filler.

California is a great place to be an entertainer who needs to get out of jury duty. The showbiz friendly state would only require that I fill out a card explaining that "financial hardship would result" and within days a lovely "Get Out Of Jury Duty Free Card" would appear in my mailbox. California not only understands the realities of the self-employed but they also realize the danger of having entertainers seated in the jury box. Instead of listening to the testimony the jurors would be thinking, "Hey, isn't juror number two the guy in the Fruit of the Loom commercial? He looks thinner when he's not wearing that apple suit."

New Jersey-- bitter that it's not New York-- wasn't so understanding. My current home state just sent me a card with the word "Tough" written in large red letters. So, off to jury duty I went. And I wasn't too happy to go.

I was to appear on a Tuesday and on the Monday before I spent 13 hours in a car driving home from Atlanta. I was tired. I was cranky. I was ready to sentence someone to death. Even if it was just a civil case.

At precisely 8:30 AM I was one of 100 jurors to be selected to drown in the first jury pool of the day. Imagine my delight when I learned that the trial would be the death penalty sentencing phase for an already convicted murderer. You mean, I may actually be able to sentence someone to death after all?! To quote Stimpy--or is it Ren?--"Joy!"

I liked the judge. He was Dick Cheney-esque. He explained in dad-like tones the facts of the case and the difference between aggravating and mitigating circumstances. If memory serves me--and it rarely does--"he killed a woman with a knife" is an aggravating circumstance, while "you shouldn't put him to death because he's close to his mother" is a mitigating factor. (Yes, that was floated as a real-live mitigating factor. I think I may have actually laughed out loud on that one.)

The judged then introduced us to various people in the court. It was a bit like being at a rock concert. "And now I'd like you to meet the band. On drums, the prosecutor...on bass, the defense attorney." But, wow, oh, wow, I did not expect him to introduce the actual murderer guy himself. There he was, sitting at the table, wearing a suit that his lawyers no doubt bought for him, looking more like a Mitsubishi salesman than a cold-blooded killer. He turned to us and calmly said, "Good morning." I half expected him to make a toast. He was sitting three feet from me-- tops. I mean, as a comic, I've killed before, but I've never, you know, killed before. It was weird.

We were then informed that the trial would last approximately three weeks, beginning at the end of June. Since I am scheduled to be in Arizona during that time, I knew that I would have to talk to the judge and asked to be excused. Eighty or so of the jurors were taken to another room to fill out questionnaires and be interviewed by the attorneys. I stayed behind with the rest of the quivering masses awaiting our time with the judge.

One by one we were called to the bench. We had the hot babe prosecutor on one side and the two defense attorneys on the other. We were to give our name and badge number and then tell the judge why we wouldn't be able to serve.

"Well, your honor," I said somewhat tentatively,"I'm a standup comic,"

All four of them started laughing.

I turned to the prosecutor and said, "It's worse than telling people you're an attorney."

More laughter.

The judge said, "Miss Skene, we could use a little levity in this court. Is there any chance we could make you a better offer?"

I explained my situation, he acknowledged possible financial hardship and then we just chatted a bit. I can't remember the exact order of the conversation but I did learn that the prosecutor used to be an actress, I told them that being in court is far more intimidating than being on stage, someone suggested that I could get material out of the situation and then I was asked if I would be appearing locally in the near future. It was all very pleasant.

Then I remembered that the murderer was sitting only a few feet behind me. What must he have been thinking? This was the beginning of his death penalty sentencing phase and we're in the front of the court making jokes. It certainly was surreal for me, I can only imagine how surreal it must have been for him. I mean, as a comic, I've died before, but I've never, you know, died before.

Later that day, I was thrown into another jury pool but wasn't picked for that one either. I drank diet peach Snapple, read The Nanny Diaries (which I found depressing) talked to some very nice strangers and was out of there by 2:30. Except for the talking to the strangers part, I probably would have just done the same things at home. In other words, it could have been worse.

It'll be three years until the state of New Jersey can forcibly park my over-sized butt into another jury room. Hopefully, by then, I will still be a standup comic, which will ensure that I will never be picked to serve as a juror. There's not a court in the land who wants a comic in the juror's box. Sometimes being misunderstood is a good thing.

Judge for yourself at


Liz said...

My depressing response to this is that I had to serve jury duty last year. I was chosen for the jury and made jury foreman. We found a local mayor guilty of many federal charges. Since I am a high school teacher I welcomed the break from annoying adolescents to sit in a room of annoying public servants (except the defense team and reporters, still annoying but not public servants.)

Suzy said...

I learned something here. I will use the "I'm a comic" line the next time I'm called. Thankfully, they never call me.

Traci Skene said...

Hubby just sat in the waiting room all day but was never called. He finished the Don Rickle's book by 11 (I told him he would) and then went to a local Goodwill for lunch to buy something else to read. He was home by 3:30. He's now safe for another three years.