Go Ask Alice: Answering the call of duty
I had jury duty last week and I'm making a federal case out of it — because that's what it was.
During orientation Monday morning at the John Joseph Moakley United States Courthouse in Boston, a court employee explained to the assemble group of prospective jurors just how rare it actually is to be called to serve federal jury duty. Less than half of one percent of the population over 18 years of age in Massachusetts is ever called upon to do so, and a good number of those who are called never sit on a jury.
I beat the odds on both counts.
Now I'm just waiting to be hit by lightning or hit the lottery.
I guess you could consider me among the lucky few, but believe me when the alarm went off at 5 a.m. the rainy morning I had to report to Boston for federal jury duty, lucky was not what I was feeling. And I don't think this was an altogether random twist of fate. It felt more like retribution; a sort of justice system justice.
You see, I was supposed to have jury duty in March. I received the notice asking me to report to Brockton District Court for jury duty and as I usually do when I receive a jury duty notice, I immediately commenced complaining about the inconvenience of having to drive to Brockton, through some not very nice neighborhoods at an ungodly early hour, and then requested to have my jury duty switched to Plymouth District Court. After all, I live in Plymouth, and the beautiful new courthouse is in a nice area just about 10 minutes from our home. What could be more convenient?
To my great delight, my wish was granted. A week or so after I sent the first notice back, I received another assigning me to Plymouth District Court on March 15, just four days later than my previous jury duty date.
But beware the ides of March, some have said, particularly those who knew Julius Caesar, or have attempted to switch, postpone or in anyway evade jury duty.
A few days later, I received yet another notice canceling my jury duty altogether but informing me I could be called again within the year. I was in the clear; or so I thought until the federal jury duty notice arrived two days after that. It came in a bigger envelope with more to fill out and an entire page of directions to the courthouse in Boston, including how to come by bus, boat, train, car, on foot or any combination thereof. There was also information on what to bring and not to bring to the courthouse along with details on reimbursement for mileage and parking. I glossed over most of that because my attention was drawn to my dates of jury duty service, which spanned three weeks. That was just the time I would be on call for jury duty; if impaneled I would have to serve the duration of that trial – which could go well beyond three weeks.
Every Friday, starting with the Friday before I was to report for jury duty, I was supposed to call an automated line and type in my juror number to see if I was headed to federal court.
“If the first three letters of your last name are C-O-Y, you must report for jury duty, Monday, May 3 at 8 a.m.,” the automated voice informed me on my very first call. Incredulous, I called back and typed in the number again, hoping for a different response. No such luck.
I had the weekend to stew about my fate. Saturday’s MWRA water pipe break and ensuing crisis gave me a glimmer of hope that my jury duty duties in Boston, one of 30 communities impacted, might be postponed or called off. But the boil water order didn’t boil down to any such cancellation.
“What are you complaining about?” my husband wanted to know. “I would love to have federal jury duty,” he said. “It would be a fascinating experience.”
His uncharacteristically positive outlook on my situation caught me off guard with only this weak rebuttal;
“Shave off your goatee and dye your hair red and you can go in my place.”
After being granted the very rare opportunity to serve federal jury duty, it certainly came as no surprise I was impaneled – you may refer to me heretofore as Juror # 5 – on the first case of the day. More than half of the two-dozen prospective jurors raised their hands when asked if there was some reason they could not serve on the jury for this case or if they had some hardship. But after learning that this judge ran a tight ship and hearing from her honor that the case would be no longer than four days, I kept my hand down and mouth shut. I’d learned my lesson about rocking the boat when it came to jury duty. After all, those who got out of serving on this trial, could well be impaneled on the other case which could go far longer than three or four days.
As promised our judge kept the trial on track and my fellow jurors and I made sure we were on time each day. By day three we heard closing arguments, received detailed instructions from the judge and were ready to deliberate and come to our unanimous verdict.
My husband, it turns out, was right — for the very first time.
It was a fascinating experience. I found myself engaged throughout the trial, taking notes and listening intently to witnesses’ testimony and the presentation of evidence in the case.
It didn’t always flow like an episode of “Law and Order.” There were long pauses between questions, some of them asked several times, and more than a few occasions where the attorney for the plaintiff couldn’t find an exhibit or stumbled during his redirect. The defense lawyer was chastised for letting out some inadmissible information, which we were instructed to disregard, and there were quite a few sidebars and objections along the way allowing even the most focused juror to flash back and compare this scene to scenes from “A Few Good Men” and “My Cousin Vinny.”
Amid small talk in the jury room, I amused my fellow jurors by asking if anyone else saw the resemblance the plaintiff’s attorney shared with ESPN analyst Peter Gammons and noting how much one of the defendants looked like Al Pacino before launching into,” You’re out of order! The whole trial is out of order!”
Quips and joking aside, I left the courthouse Wednesday afternoon with a new respect for our justice system and a sense of pride for having discharged well my civic duty.
Now I’m off to play the lottery.
Alice Coyle, aka Juror #5, is the managing editor of GateHouse Media New England's Raynham, Mass., office. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.