I’ve not had jury duty for at least a dozen year. A jury summons used to arrive in the mail every three years and then–nothing. Last year the jury commissioners rediscovered me but the date, October 9, conflicted with teaching. (That conflict existed only in my eyes. It would not likely have excused me from serving.) I rescheduled to today, March 9, the first Monday of spring break. The numbers worked in my favor. Most of those summoned for jury duty are not seated on a jury and if I were to be seated the average trial in Middlesex Superior Court lasts four days. I could satisfy my civic responsibility and not miss any class time. I would like to be a juror. In recent years my wife and two of our three sons have sat on juries and they all thought it was interesting and rewarding. I’m jealous.
Then a hitch developed. Judy wanted to visit her father this spring in Florida, I have this week off from teaching, so why don’t we go? We dealt with the potential conflict with jury duty by scheduling the trip for the end of the week and next weekend. Not much margin but how likely was it that I’d be selected for a jury? I’m a lawyer, a college lecturer, once a defense counsel used a peremptory challenge to bounce me from a criminal case because family members have been victims of crime–the numbers made actual jury time unlikely. I approached today with an odds-maker’ s confidence.
I drove through fog, heavy wet snow, and morning rush hour traffic to arrive on time at Middlesex Superior Court in Woburn. After passing security–my hip set of the metal detector–I checked into the jury assembly room with 143 other souls. After the obligatory judge’s welcome and instructional video I opened the privacy text I’m using in a seminar starting next Monday and read while I waited for something to happen. We were told that eight judges had jury trials starting today–that would be 112 jurors at 14 jurors (12 +2 alternates) per panel. With conflicts, challenges, and excused dismissals and factoring in the number gaps caused by absentees my #131 looked vulnerable.
The court officers made an announcement: 40 jurors were needed upstairs for a criminal trial. Numbers were called out, ending at 48 because of absentees, and the pool walked up two flights. I returned to reading about digital searches and seizures. Twenty minutes passed. Another announcement: 70 jurors were needed upstairs for another criminal trial. I packed my bag before they called my number. Seventy of us climbed two flights of stairs to Judge Fahey’s large, light, and airy courtroom and I took a seat in the first row on the visitors side of the bar. The Woburn courtooms are much nicer than those in the old courthouse in East Cambridge. Judge Fahey entered, we all rose, the judge sat, we all sat, and then she told us about the case. Three counts: attempted murder, assault with a deadly weapon, assault. She read the list of prospective witnesses: there were more than 20. Uh-oh. There go Florida and maybe the first few days of post-break classes if I am chosen. The judge questioned us aboutour potential bias, conflict of interest, difficulty understanding the proceedings, and substantial hardship if selected for the jury. With a dozen others I raised my hand on the last question, prepared to mention my non-refundable airline tickets to visit my 88-year old father-in-law. The clerk recorded our numbers–if we were called we could explain our hardship to the judge and counsel, and the judge would decide whether to excuse us from this trial.
The clerk called the first number. The juror rose and took seat #1 in the jury box. The clerk called another number, and another, repeating the process until jurors filled 14 seats. The judge excused a few before they were seated. Her sidebar conversations with the jurors were out of our earshot. The prosecutor and defense counsel studied the juror questionnaires for five minutes, then approached the judge with their peremptory challenges. The judge excused the challenged jurors and new jurors were called in sequential order, seated in the box, and subjected to the same scrutiny. In this fashion it took almost an hour to select a jury. The last one chose was juror #88. Plenty of warm bodies before they would have gotten to me. I was disappointed because it looked like an intersting trial, but relieved not to have to explain to Judy that I couldn’t come to Florida. All of us not chosen returned to wait in the assembly room.
Twenty minutes later there was another call for jurors, 70 for a civil case. I did the math. 28 jurors had been selected for two trials, they needed 70 more, there were a number of gaps in the number sequence–I might be called for another impanelment. The court officers read out the numbers: “44 . . . 48 . . . 49 . . . 52 . . . ” I cheered when a string were called in sequence: “90, 91, 92, 93, & 94.” The numbers rose from 100 to 110 to 115. It was getting close. “120 . . . 121 . . . 122 . . . Okay, that’s it. The 70 jurors called report to the 6th floor with the court officer.”
I returned to privacy law and read for a while, until another court officer spokeinto the podium microphone. “Two more judges upstairs need jurors. Unfortunately, there are not enough of you left to fill the pool so one trial is put over to tomorrow and the other is putover to Wednesday. This completes your jury duty for three years. Thank you.” Two minutes later the room was empty. It was 11:50 AM, unprecedently early to be excused from jury duty in my experience.
Writing this and watching heavy snowflakes fall through gray mid-afternoon light, I’m happy to be home. I have much work to do before next Monday and will enjoy a few days by the ocean in Florida weather. Part of me would like to be seated in that criminal trial hearing the prosecution’s case. Not the most part, but a part.