It was the first full day of summer, a balmy Monday morning as more than a hundred people waited outside the county courthouse in Greensburg, Pennsylvania. Their ages ranged from early twenties to well past retirement. Silently they stood there until the doors opened at 8:30 and deputy sheriffs guided them through security screening.
Then it was down wide marble steps carpeted in red to the jury assembly room. Some 150 people sat elbow to elbow as a clerk explained the procedure and then called off names. Sixty people were sent to one courtroom, fifty-six to another, and the rest to a third.
In that second group, it was a new experience for me, and it arrayed before me like a great adventure. The last time I had been called for jury duty was a generation ago and in another county. It was 1988, and the date I was to appear would have been in the week of final exams in my last semester of college. Stating that awkward timing, I wrote to be excused, and I was.
Of course, the patriotic idealism of the classic film Twelve Angry Men notwithstanding, everyone knows the old joke, “My fate’s in the hands of twelve people too stupid to get out of jury duty!” A friend once told me he had been summoned for jury duty. “But I won’t get picked,” he assured me, “because I’m a tie-wearing white guy.”
So, there we were, fifty-six strangers filling a small oak-paneled courtroom. Venetian blinds drawn tight kept out the morning sun. Built in 1907 and refurbished in 1982, the courthouse soars five stories in that hilly little city, a gilded Baroque palace of marble and mosaics, a gold dome glistening atop it all.
After the judge swore us in, he told us that serving on a jury is one of the highest duties of a citizen. He then read to us a brief history of juries in Anglo-American jurisprudence. He was a photogenic man in his early fifties and for some reason smiled a lot. “People have been dying for this right to a jury trial,” he informed us, “since the fourteenth century.” He paused. “Since the fourteenth century,” he underscored, “ever since the signing of the Magna Carta.”
No, I wanted to say, Magna Carta was in 1215, thus, early thirteenth century. If he has that bit wrong, I wondered, what else will be get wrong?
He went on to tell us about the Sixth and Seventh Amendments to the United States Constitution. Those sections of the Bill of Rights guarantee American citizens the right to trial by jury in cases criminal and civil. Here I thought of a short-tempered national politician recently declaring, “No Amendment is absolute,” and, since constitutional amendments can be repealed, the future of a citizen’s right to a jury trial suddenly seemed precarious.
After his historical lecture, the judge said he would walk us through the three-page questionnaire we were required to answer. Before doing so, he turned off his microphone to say something to his tipstaff, what in other states is called a bailiff. Then the judge resumed addressing us. For those of us in the back rows, it was just smiley mumbling. Two elderly ladies next to me muttered to one another that they couldn’t hear him.
“Your Honor,” I said, standing up, “we can’t hear you.”
He smiled more broadly and turned on his microphone and apologized.
The first question on the forms on the clipboards in our hands asked whether we had any religious, moral, or ethical objections to serving on a jury in a criminal case. The judge smiled that this question was self-explanatory and moved on. It could be, I considered, some people would balk at sitting in judgment of another person, and, if it were a capital offense, others, myself included, would in principle be against imposing the death penalty.
Another question asked if we understood that just because someone has been arrested, that does not mean he is guilty. “Charges are not evidence,” the judge said. Here I remembered a ruddy-faced District Attorney in another county who insisted, “If there’s enough evidence for the police to arrest somebody, there’s enough evidence to convict them!” In his black-and-white world, a jury finding the accused not guilty was a miscarriage of justice.
The last question asked if the end of restrictions adopted as a reaction to the Chinese coronavirus would make us too uncomfortable to serve on a jury. For a month, the judge noted, the courts in our county had been back to normal functioning, with no more mandatory masks or social distancing. In that courtroom the only people wearing masks were the defendant and four folks with white hair. A fifth was a skinny young man with tattoos and earrings. Before we entered the courthouse, another thin young man paced around, frequently pulling down his turquoise mask so he could vape.
Once we had completed our questionnaires and a clerk had collected them, we waited. For hours we waited as one by one forty-four jurors were privately interviewed by opposing counsel. Some of us had brought books to read. Most absorbed themselves in their phones.
Around 2:30 in the afternoon, the attorneys came back into the courtroom and took their seats. Then the Assistant District Attorney got up and walked to where the defense attorney sat. He said something to her, and they went outside the courtroom. When they returned, they asked the tipstaff if they could speak to the judge in chambers. As they went in to see the judge, murmurs rippled around the room, jurors speculating that a deal was being cut and the whole day would have been for nothing.
Before too long, the lawyers returned and sat down. Then the judge came in, and no sooner had a clerk intoned “All rise” than the judge smiled, “Be seated.”
He then asked us to stand when he read our numbers. He went down a list, finally coming to, “and Jurors Number 45 through 56. You are all dismissed,” he beamed, adding, “Thanks for your service today.”
My number was 45, so my jury duty was done. A clerk ushered us out of the courtroom and gave us each a paper signed by the judge saying that we had been excused. She told us we would be eligible again in three years. Given my track record, I mused on the possibility that my next summons to jury duty might not be for another thirty-three years. It would be worth the wait.