America the Beautiful, Sitting in the Juror Lounge

Photo by The Georgetown Dish
Prospective jurors wait to be called in the Juror Lounge, Room 3100, at the H. Carl Moultrie Courthouse of D.C. Superior Court
Prospective jurors wait to be called in the Juror Lounge, Room 3100, at the H. Carl Moultrie Courthouse of D.C. Superior Court

I've often been abroad on July 4. There is a special poignancy to appreciating your country from afar. Singing “God Bless America” with the sweetness of missing your country, this amazing land, from across the Pond, or further away.

But this year I celebrated from the H. Carl Moultrie Courthouse in Washington. Yes, jury duty. Superior Court.

Celebrate, you ask? Doesn't everyone hate jury duty?

They do. They dread it. People send you condolence notes, as though you've fallen ill. "I'm so sorry!" they say. “Try to have a good 4th of July anyway.”

Friends and colleagues tell you how to avoid it:

"If he didn't commit this crime, he probably committed another. Lock him up," they tell you to say during the jury selection process.

"Tell them you come from a family full of police officers," a friend suggested.

"Act crazy. You'll get off."  

H. Carl Moultrie Courthouse of the D.C. Superior Court (Photo by: The Georgetown Dish) H. Carl Moultrie Courthouse of the D.C. Superior Court
But I love jury duty. It's a trip, a journey, an unpredictable treat. First of all, it's so interesting. The assembled masses are well, the assembled masses who didn't ask for this. People assigned to do this by lottery. Elegant Georgetown ladies who lunch, to impatient young tech types, to young men from the streets who have themselves been in court more than a few times. They might tell you about their pasts, if you listen long enough.

You see, in jury duty, there is plenty of time to listen. First you sit in the juror lounge, as CNN streams the latest election chatter or plane crash news. Then, your number is called and you line up. Everyone is a number.  The court doesn’t sugarcoat it. It’s purposeful, to protect your privacy, they say. They hand out pencils for the inevitable form. Then, you sit a lot. You meet the defendant, the prosecution, the lawyers involved. The judge and the lawyers interview each of 60 jurors, to get to the chosen 12. It takes, well.....hours.

Meanwhile, you chat with people you don't know, people you would never otherwise meet.

I sit between a young female editor in "the intelligence community," she says, and a Metro mechanic named “Nathan.” Did you know, Metro’s problems are really with the tracks, not the trains? The trains themselves don't break down much, Nathan says. It's usually a quick fix, he said. You know when a train sputters and jerks to a stop sometimes? That’s an electrical problem, not the brakes, Nathan says.

Nathan likes his job. He said he’s not a fan of the newest trains, though. They’re so heavy, they are doing damage to the tracks.

Jack Evans, are you listening?

Nathan lives not far from the scene of the crime this jury will be judging. I notice he spends a lot of time with the judge and counsel as they interview us, one by one. "I was talking about my past,” he answers when I ask why. He looks down as his voice trails off. "I said I could be objective."

But really, Nathan needs sleep. His shift at Metro starts at midnight, every night. Train maintenance takes place while we riders sleep. He slumps in his chair next to me. 

Everyone is number in jury duty. It's intentional, for privacy reasons. (Photo by: The Georgetown Dish) Everyone is number in jury duty. It's intentional, for privacy reasons.
The crime this jury will hear is an alleged assault and property damage by a young man who looks like Nathan, but is staring into space. He has a public defender. The prosecutor is an elegant African-American attorney with a slight accent. West Indian, maybe, or recently African.

I’m emailing and keeping up with work. "Oh, you D.C. people are so funny, you're always getting called for jury duty," a Virginia colleague says to me. She's right. Because of the overlapping jurisdictions, D.C. residents get summoned a lot. In 2014, the D.C. Superior Court sent more than 150,000 jury summonses. A study said 70,000 people didn’t respond.

If you’ve ever been sued, you know how important the jury is. When I was 21, I was driving to my aunt’s house in Cleveland Park, when I scraped a Metrobus. I was sued for $2 million. There were a lot of ambulance-chasing lawyers involved, even though there were no ambulances and no one was seriously hurt, beyond a cut finger. We offered to settle for $80,000, but the plaintiffs lawyers, representing the bus driver, Metro, and one passenger, laughed at us.

The jury voted to award the plaintiffs $6,000, only.

See, juries are important.

Also, look at how well our justice system works, compared to most. Cops can get a fair trial in Baltimore despite the legitimate anger in the community over Freddie Gray’s death.

In the movie adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird, Gregory Peck, playing Atticus Finch, represented a black man accused of raping a white woman in 

Gregory Peck in (Photo by: Universal Pictures) Gregory Peck in "To Kill a Mockingbird" produced by Alan J. Pakula. Peck won best actor for his portrayal of Atticus Finch.
1950s Alabama, based on the premise that justice was possible. "If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you'll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks,” Finch tells his daughter Scout in the Academy Award-winning film.  “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it." 

In America, each one of us is blessed with the chance to participate in a system that bests almost any other country’s. And, by caring, by climbing inside of other people’s skin, to make it work better. To try to be fair and put one’s biases aside -- even this is a magnificent challenge that jury duty provides.  And it’s free!
 
No, jury duty isn’t perfect. One of my seatmates suggested that the introductory video be replaced. No question.  

Also, when the judge and counsel talk with the prospective jurors, the judge turns on a “noisemaker” that emits the sound of static from the sound system. In the age of iTunes and Spotify, couldn’t it be the sound of a waterfall, or the ocean?

That aside, jury duty is a wonderful opportunity to play a small yet critical part to uphold that precious idea we call democracy.  With all its tedium, lines, and opportunity to be bored, jury duty is also a chance to tune into the beauty and range of humanity, the problems that afflict us, and the realization that we are all threads in the same piece of cloth, a beautiful tapestry called the U.S.A.

Happy Birthday, America. 

2 Comments For This Article

David Rothman

Kudos, Beth--a real-life Atticus Finch would have loved your essay. And your observation about D.C. vs. Virginia is absolutely on the mark. The jury system doesn't always work--consider the $115 million awarded to Hulk Hogan--but on the whole it beats alternatives. Happy Fourth plus 1!

Anonymous

Great essay! Thank you Beth. I have never met anyone who served on a jury who didn't think it was a life changing event.