Since becoming an US citizen, I have been experiencing all kinds of treats previously not open to legal aliens: voting, volunteering in the Presidential election, whipping out my blue passport when re-entering the country, by-passing the immigration lines (alright, I could do that with my green card too but now I am even more official) and I have been eagerly awaiting for the jury duty summons. Yes, the same summons most people go to great lengths to postpone and avoid altogether. I am a sucker for courtroom procedurals and, if I ever went on trial for anything, I would want someone like me on the jury. Or would I?
My first and only experiences with courtrooms were limited to visits to the Old Bailey in London, where, over 20 years ago, I would go to listen to beautiful Queen’s English spoken, trying to perfect my pronunciation, and because how can you resist a barrister in a 18th century wig and black cape? It so very much looked like a tv show.. But not your run of the mill US District Court.
A few days ago, a friend asked me to drive him to his court appearance for a traffic misdemeanour and I accepted both out of friendship and curiosity.
When I walked into the small courtroom, inside the belly of the oversize building a stone’s throw from LAX, one of the DA’s turned around and checked me out. No, he didn’t look anything like Sam Waterston, rather more like John Goodman before the diet. Any other similarities to the TV courtroom dramas I grew up on, from “L.A. Law” to “Law and Order”, ended there.
The public defense benches were occupied entirely by women, while the district attorneys were all male (is there something to be read in that?) Between them, a coterie of attorneys paid to represent their clients rotated in a game of musical chairs, each and every one wearing wrinkled suits and, in my tv mind, addressing the court way too gingerly, brandishing paper cups of coffee, blaming the traffic for their tardiness. The judge was a prototypical blond, blue-eyed Californian lady, with a warm and welcoming demeanor, who seemed to take a recess every 20 minutes or so. All that waiting around would definitely make for poor tv drama.
In between recesses, a disorganized three-ring circus took place. The first inmate to be brought out was a severely mentally ill woman, with no teeth and in dire need of a shower who, upon finding out she was being sent back to the mental hospital, began screaming and jumping for joy, shackles and all, and had to be forcefully removed by the bailiff, who first coreographically paused to don latex gloves, giving us a few more seconds of a sorry spectacle. The second inmate was nowhere to be found because someone forgot to sign the transfer order. His name, Jesus, was left hanging on the lips of his lawyer and the judge. Case adjourned. Recess.
The third was a transient Latino man who had threatened a woman, caused damage to a trash can outside her home, and was sentenced to 90 days in jail and a fine of $145.In his standard issue bright yellow and blue uniform, bound hands and feet, the man veered between trying to understand what was happening and curling up on himself, the look of a scared squirrel in his eyes, while his public defense attorney and the DA squabbled on the practicalities of notifying a homeless person with no known address.
“He lives in a shelter – he can receive mail. You are discriminating and asking him to appear again because he is poor” his attorney protested but lost on that count, and the man was ordered to appear again in six months, in the event he wasn’t able to pay the fine. Which he won’t be. Most likely.
After two hours of witnessing misery, hopes raised and sometimes squashed, inmates hopping in and out as best they could with their ankles shackled (is that really necessary?) I was utterly exhausted. My friend’s misdemenour was dispensed with in 90 seconds, move to the cashier on the third floor please – a mere drop in an ocean of relentless sadness and fear, of personal stories reduced to a case number and a pile of paperwork.
Maybe all the attorneys, on both sides of the fence, trading jokes and week-end plans during each recess, and even when the court was in session, were just a textbook display of coping mechanisms but I found them offensive – if I am sitting in a yellow and blue jumpsuit, bound like a pig on a spit, waiting to hear about my future, I shouldn’t be subjected to hearing stories about houses in Lake Tahoe, no matter what I did.
It turns out that, like Seth Godin recently pointed out, life is not like the movies, or a Scott Turow novel. On tv, the process is more dignified, devoid of case numbers and legal mumbo jumbo. Also, everyone’s hair is coiffed and their suits are nicely pressed.
On my way out, I stopped at the cafeteria for a watered down cup of coffee. Sitting at a plastic table, the woman next to me smiled tentatively, while eating a questionable muffin. A large sticker was stuck to her lapel – in big bold letter it said: Juror # 1. Despite what I had just witnessed, I inwardly envied her.
Image of British barristers from public domain