The last time I did jury duty-sometime during the Reagan administration, I believe it was-I found the experience rather dissatisfying. I really wanted to get picked for a trial, but didn’t. This may not sound extraordinary to the average, law-abiding American. But I’d been brought up in a household where avoiding jury duty-even if you had nothing better to do-was considered your patriotic responsibility. Only losers couldn’t get out of it.
I actually subscribe to the notion that serving on a jury is the most direct way we have of participating in the democratic process, especially these days, when one’s vote counts for little unless it comes wrapped in a $100,000 check. Also, I get along well with people, and I’ve noticed that at some of the trials I’ve covered as a reporter-that of former Sotheby’s honcho Alfred Taubman comes to mind-the jurors, at least those who managed to stay awake, seemed to hit it off. The trial had the feel of a house party, with jurors returning from breaks laughing at each other’s jokes.
I could easily imagine making lifetime friends on my jury and renewing their acquaintance at annual reunions where we’d reminisce about our 15 minutes of fame, the satellite trucks parked in our driveways, and the nationally televised interview with Ted Koppel or Larry King where we deigned to pass judgment on $500-an-hour Harvard-trained lawyers with American flag pins in their lapels.
Unfortunately, I had to open my fat mouth during my first tour of jury duty. The only case to which I was dispatched-and managed to get as far as the voir dire-involved a cop who’d allegedly slugged a little old lady in the face.
The cop’s lawyer asked whether any of us believed that police officers should be held to a higher standard than the rest of us. Like a fool, I raised my hand and waxed poetic about how, ever since we were toddlers, we’ve been taught to look up to cops. Needless to say, I wasn’t invited to join that jury.
So when I was called back a couple of weeks ago, I vowed to myself to keep my mouth shut. I’d been coached by successful jurors that the closer you appeared to brain-dead, the more attractive you were to both the prosecution and the defense.
Jury duty seems to have improved all around since the last time I was summoned, starting with the instructional video hosted by Ed Bradley and Diane Sawyer, and continuing with the stylings of Walter Schretzman, the court clerk who presides over the festivities from a podium at the front of the cavernous jury room at 100 Centre Street.
I’m not breaking any news when I report that Mr. Schretzman has a comic’s sense of timing. Since starting the job in the early 90’s-and with a captive, ever-changing audience that, this being New York, includes writers at every point along the food chain-his clips file has grown almost as fat as Hillary Clinton’s.
I fully enjoyed Mr. Schretzman’s opening remarks, a pep talk that focused less on having the privilege of our company than on possible fines and punishments lest we decide not to return from lunch. “Every now and then, if I think of something different, I’ll throw it in to see if it flies,” he told me later.
On my first day of jury duty, a Wednesday, it seemed as if everybody in the room-approximately 150 people or so, by my rough count-got called to a courtroom.
Luck was with me the following day, however: I was among the first group of jurors called to audition for a trial involving the possession and sale of drugs-crack cocaine, I believe it was.
The judge, a gentleman by the name of Zweibel, asked my fellow potential jurors the standard questions about their professions, whether they’d been the victim of a crime or convicted of one, if they were single or married and whether they had kids.
Unfortunately, when the judge got to me, I never even got to mention my children or the time I was arrested for hitch-hiking in Denver back in the 60’s. When the judge heard how I supported myself, he wanted to know what I wrote about. I mentioned about three dozen things, hoping that crime would be buried so far down the list that he wouldn’t notice. But, of course, he did.
He assumed I came into occasional contact with police officers and wondered whether I’d be able to keep an open mind regarding the guilt or innocence of the defendant, a rather aged-looking fellow who stared at me with philosophical eyes, as if he’d seen enough of life not to let a little setback like this ruin his day. I assured the judge I’d be able to keep an open mind, and he moved on to the next juror.
When we returned from lunch, I assumed that my elimination from this jury was already a foregone conclusion. So I was surprised to discover myself on the hot seat once again, with both the prosecution and the defense peppering me with questions. The defense lawyer, a handsome fellow in a brown suit and dreadlocks, wondered how I determined whether the cops I dealt with were telling me the truth. I mumbled something about intuition.
Barbara Thompson, spokeswoman for District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, who works in the same building-and to whom I paid a visit during one of my lunch breaks-said that contrary to popular mythology, lawyers are actually looking for sentient jurors with the balls to convict or acquit. She always gets on juries, she said, albeit in civil court.
So tell me, what did I do wrong? When the list of selected jurors was called-including one guy who believed that cops routinely plant drugs on suspects-my name wasn’t on it.
I returned to the jury room and spent Friday, my third and final day of duty, reading the paper and visiting with Mr. Schretzman. The four walls of his office and the corridor leading to it are filled with eight-by-10 glossies of celebrities who have graced the jury pool during his tenure. These include Gwyneth Paltrow, Matt Dillon, Stephen Jay Gould, Jane Pauley, Kevin Klein and Tricia Nixon Cox, who signed a family portrait from the White House years with the note: “With appreciation to all who serve the nation.” Apparently, she’s still smarting over the way her dad was given the bum’s rush.
“I remember she was sent to a courtroom,” Mr. Schretzman said. “She went through the voir dire and everything.”
He didn’t seem to think that she had gotten onto a jury, either.
So, in the end, did my jury service nudge the democratic process one step closer to fulfillment? I fear it’s going to take more than a demographically representative jury pool to prevent us from spiraling further into plutocracy. Besides, I didn’t see one person who looked like the C.E.O. of Goldman Sachs. Mr. Schretzman said that maybe they all live in Greenwich, Conn., and do their jury duty there. I couldn’t tell if that was one of his laugh lines, or if he was being serious.