Of course, I was not picked for jury duty this morning. I’m never picked. That’s my third time in the same magistrate’s court. Basically, they see you coming with a coat and tie on, and you’re free to go. Or rather, they see me coming in a coat and tie, and they can’t get rid of me too soon.
But that’s not what I wanted to tell you about. Yes, I was let off the hook. So was everybody else, except the defendant, who I assume still faces the charge.
Magistrate Scott Whittle sent us all home without a trial. I was scheduled to be there at 9, and I was getting back into my truck to leave at 9:27. In between, taxpayer time and money (I’ll get a $13 check for showing up) were wasted, and justice was undermined. Why? Because of you, the jurors who did not show up. (Well, maybe not literally you, but pass it on; eventually the message will reach a guilty party.)
Supposedly, 30 or 40 (note that my numbers are going to be sketchy here, as I wasn’t there as a journalist and had even neglected to bring a pen) jurors had been summoned. The magistrate said only 13 or 14 showed, although I counted only 11 people who seemed to be there in that capacity. But only six were needed to try the case.
It was a DUI case. The defendant was a 30ish young woman, and she had retained counsel. Of course, we who might have been jurors checked her out. I did, anyway. She was well-groomed, attractive, with a nice figure — although there was a certain haggard look around her eyes. For lack of information, I was left to guess that was a result of a) her present circumstances; b) having lived an unusual stressful life for her age; c) heavy drinking; or d) all or none of the above. I don’t know about you, but at times like this, forced to sit still with no immediate task before me, I start constructing a biography for a person, based on nothing of substance. I saw her as a person of a certain promise, perhaps a hard worker, who had had disappointments in her life, perhaps an unpleasant divorce, which brought her to a local tavern where she either did or did not have one too many. (I suspect that all jurors do this to some extent, and the job of counsel is to infer whether a potential juror has constructed the right narrative, from his client’s point of view.) If I had observed her longer, I would likely have come up with an entirely different portrait; my mind doesn’t object at all to switching to diametrically opposite conclusions without notice, given new evidence. And officially, not a bit of evidence had been presented.
The voir dire went through the usual questions. We were supposed to stand up and explain if any of the statements applied to us. I puzzled over whether to reply when the judge asked whether any jurors had friends or family member who were cops. I thought of all the local, state and federal cops I know, and was wondering how the court might interpret "friend," and had decided that my relationships with cops were irrelevant since I would not be prejudiced by them…. and by this time, of course, the court had moved on. One guy worked for Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott. A lady had religious objections to drinking. Since there was no question to the effect of, "Do you have strongly held, and widely published, opinions regarding the inadequacy and slackness of the state’s DUI laws?" it looks like I might have a chance, and I was beginning to look forward to examining the evidence (I purely love the chance to apply my mind to something outside of my usual routine; it strokes some sort of pleasure center in my brain, which is probably why I blog), including the videotape I saw on the prosecution table… but of course that was not to be.
When I was called, I stepped to the front of the courtroom and eyed both the defense and prosecution tables as neutrally as I could (the very first lady called up had smiled ingratiatingly, in a way that seemed to say "Will you be my friend?" to the defense table, and she was of course promptly seated). I gave my name and occupation. And then, something happened that actually surprised me: The trooper, who was the only person at the prosecution table, asked that I be excused. The defense never even got a chance to dump me!
Anyway, my experience was the common one, and when we had run through the pitiful pool that was present, there were only four jurors seated. There was that first lady — middle-aged, heavy-set, nonjudgmental-looking, caucasian. Then there was this really big white guy — well over six feet, probably somewhere between 300 and 400 pounds; I think he said he worked for a local government planning office, but I’m not sure. Two black women, each about the age of the defendant or perhaps a bit younger, neither of whom had set herself obviously apart in the voir dire — no religious objections or experience with DUI or cops as friends, as near as I can recall.
As soon as it was obvious we had run out of (acceptable) jurors, the magistrate gave us a little talk that he had apparently had occasion to give before. He said this kept happening in this court — plenty of jurors summoned, not enough showing up. He kept saying, "It may sound like I’m fussing at y’all, but I’m not;" it was all those who hadn’t showed. He allowed as how the court might have to start getting tough with people who didn’t show, which was in itself a revelation to me. I had gathered that there were automatic, swift penalties for not showing. I had not thought not showing was an option. After all, the letter I had received at my home (indicating they knew where to find me) had said, in bold capital letters:
** FAILURE TO APPEAR MAY SUBJECT YOU TO PUNISHMENT FOR CONTEMPT OF COURT.
I guess the operative word there was "MAY."
Anyway, the thrust of Mr. Whittle’s homily was that we should to home with his thanks, but once there we should tell friends, family and neighbors that it’s important that they show up when called to duty, that the wheels of justice could not turn without them, and so forth.
I would have written this post anyway, but it’s nice to have the judge’s imprimatur on my message. And I’ll go him one better. I’ll say that this is precisely what’s wrong with this country: We’re a nation of slackers. Our theme song is that obscure ditty by Creedence Clearwater Revival, "Don’t Look Now:"
Who will take the coal from the mine?
Who will take the salt from the earth?
Who’ll take a leaf and grow it to a tree?
Don’t look now, it ain’t you or me.
Who will work the field with his hands?
Who will put his back to the plough?
Who’ll take the mountain and give it to the sea?
Don’t look now, it ain’t you or me.
Don’t look now, someone’s done your starvin’;
Don’t look now, someone’s done your prayin’…
Don’t look now, but someone else is fighting our wars for us, and we’re perfectly happy to let someone else pay for them, too. And someone else is showing up for our — ahem, your jury duty. We live for our own convenience, and elect people who tell us we’re right to do so. "Duty" might as well be a term from a dead language, as far as most Americans seem to be concerned.
In my Sunday column, I pleaded for a leader to step forward who would at least try to tap into something better in us, but I well know the odds against this. David Brooks enumerated the problem (although he didn’t describe it as a problem) in a column this week — a column I would have run in today’s paper, but it didn’t lend itself to art, which I need to make the page work out (I ran Samuelson instead).
So you see, everything’s related. And for that matter, everyone, in South Carolina at least, is no more than a degree or two of separation from everyone else (which suggests to me at least that we have a certain duty to one another). As I was leaving the courtroom, the defense counsel introduced himself, saying we had a mutual acquaintance. As it happened, that acquaintance is a longtime SLED agent. So if the trooper hadn’t dismissed me, I guess I might have heard a question like, "Mr. Warthen, you did not acknowledge during voir dire being acquainted with any law enforcement officers. But is it not true…"
But that never happened. In fact, nothing happened. It was just a waste of time for everybody.