FRESH YARN presents:

By Alan Olifson

My initial reaction was, "How the hell can I weasel out of this?" Of course, that's my initial reaction to most social obligations not involving an open bar. In this case, though, I think my weaselness was justified: I was summoned to jury duty.

You see, like many Americans, I cherish the rights and privileges afforded me by this great democracy—7-11s, SuperSize Fries and pizza delivery, to name the most important. And I will not hesitate to fight and die for these liberties—when I can do so rhetorically, from behind my computer, wearing reindeer pajama bottoms. But, given the opportunity to actively serve democracy in a real and time consuming way, well, you know, I'd love to, but I've got a, um, thing with the guy down at the, uh, place, so—hey look over there.

Unfortunately, getting out of jury duty is no longer as simple as claiming you have a lasagna in the oven. So, on a beautiful Thursday morning, I found myself in downtown Los Angeles, which, as a native of L.A., has happened only about four other times. After twenty minutes of being lost in my hometown, I dutifully reported to the L.A. District Court—a high-water mark in the form-follows-function school of architecture. From the moment you see the slab of Soviet-era concrete riddled with tiny slit windows rising up over the 10 Freeway, the L.A. District Court makes it very clear no fun will be happening within a five mile radius. Which I guess is appropriate. Justice is not fun business. Contrary to popular belief, Lady Liberty isn't blindfolded so she can do tequila shooters.

No, Justice is serious stuff, to be delivered cold and swift. Which made it all the more odd when jury duty began like my first job at K-Mart: with a video orientation. Nothing screams "What you are about to do sucks," louder than a slick video explaining why, in fact, what you are about to do does not suck.

After the video, I began what is the cornerstone of jury service: sitting. Sitting and waiting. This went on for seven hours, pushing the limits of even my exceedingly high tolerance for inactivity. Then, at 3:45 p.m., I was summoned—much to my surprise. After about hour 3, I had forgotten jury duty could actually involve more than just sitting in a room for 8 hours—that it could involve getting put on an actual jury.

Thirty of us were ordered to leave the cushy confines of the Jury Room and report for active duty in Division 75. Entering the courtroom, I was overwhelmed by the sheer volume of mahogany, nature's most somber wood. Court would be a different experience if everything was made from balsa, I'll tell you that. For starters, there'd probably be a lot more little cocktail weenies.

The bailiff herded us into the audience section where we were introduced to one honorable Judge Goldberg -- a man way too close to his 30s for me to feel comfortable with my station in life. As young Goldberg ran down a list of courtroom instructions, my mind uncontrollably rattled off lines from Law & Order episodes. I think I had made it up to the season where Benjamin Bratt replaced Chris Noth when a charge was finally leveled: DUI. Sweet. No prosecution lawyer in his right mind would want me on DUI jury. Hell, I almost got a DUI on the way over here.

Now, in theory, the jury selection process is simple enough: the judge and each lawyer question potential jurors to determine if any are biased or otherwise unable to render a just verdict.

In practice, this process works about as quickly as plate tectonics.

Goldberg got the ball rolling with the deceptively simple "Occupation?"

Seeing this more as an essay question, Potential Juror #5 jumped in, "I mean, mostly I write, I'm also doing some PA work, big budget stuff, no independents, and, um, sometimes I work at Buzz Coffee, just, well you know, to help out with the cash flow, but probably not for much longer. I've got my script out to a couple good agencies right now, and I've gotten some good feedback. I really see myself writing and directing…"

Now, granted, this is L.A., so I wasn't surprised to hear people playing, "justify your existence" when asked what they do. But as the questions moved on, the elaborations just got worse.

"Have you had any prior jury experience?" Ahhh, finally a "yes" or "no" question. The first, "yes" came from a middle-aged, middle-class woman, non-descript to the point of it being a defining feature.

"And did this experience cause you to form any opinions about juries, or the legal system in general?" Goldberg added. Damn you, Goldberg. He might as well have said, "Please elaborate until it gets unbearably awkward for everyone in the room." Who the hell wants to admit that any experience hasn't caused them to form some kind of opinion about something?

"Well, yes," she searched, "um, let's see. Well, it was certainly more trying than I had expected. And, um, well, I realized that my religious convictions wouldn't allow me to pass judgment—on anyone. As far as I'm concerned, that's really God's decision."

It was four-thirty, we were on the second question and it became painfully clear why jury selection is never prominently featured on Law & Order. Why the Lifetime network hasn't jumped on it, though, I am not sure.

The deceptively innocuous question, "Do you think California's DUI laws are too harsh, too lenient, or just right?" somehow prompted Juror #6 to reveal her father was an emotionally distant and abusive alcoholic. Later Juror #1 confessed his friends had been brutally beaten by the police, while Juror #17 exposed her utter contempt for the opinions of others.

This went on for two days. We may never get to trial, but damn it, we'd at least get to the bottom of Juror #3's intimacy issues.

The prosecutor didn't help speed the process along. She was a somewhat shrill woman who held her hands like a nervous T-Rex, and had a horrible habit of taking the absolute longest route between the start of her sentence and her actual point. "A lot of people think reasonable doubt is this impossible standard, that it's like completing a marathon or climbing Mt. Everest. That I have to prove beyond all possible doubt. Is that what you think? That reasonable doubt is beyond all possible doubt?"

Unbelievably, through the whole two day selection process, not only did no one have an emotional breakthrough, but three people with law degrees somehow came to the conclusion that I was fit to judge a DUI case. On the late afternoon of day two, I was sworn in as Juror #7.

Now I didn't ask for this job. I didn't want this job. And, regardless of the court's opinion, I am probably not qualified for this job. But once it was foisted upon me, I took the job of being an impartial juror seriously. In no small part because being falsely accused is one of my biggest fears. At least once a day, I get mistaken for somebody else. "Hey, Bill, missed you at the party…oh, I'm sorry, you look just like my buddy Bill." Well, what if Bill pops a cap in someone's ass, huh? Where does that leave me? So, yeah, I have a vested interest in believing juries are comprised of serious people making judgments based on facts, provable facts. I'm Juror #7, and I'm ready to judge.

As we rose to take The Oath, though, I looked around and thought, wow, "peers" is really being interpreted loosely these days. "Jury of people with a similar circulatory system" is about as far I would go. Juror #14 was especially bringing down the average. At first he looked like your standard issue bad-ass: bulky, shaved head, goatee and too much flannel for the heat. But he had the constant blank smile and nod more associated with people who wear helmets to the park. Luckily, he was an alternate, so the chances of having to deliberate with him were slim—assuming Juror #2, who had to be pushing eighty and looked like her smoking habit pre-dated the Philip Morris Company, could hang onto this world for another few weeks.

Before I could finish casting unwarranted aspersions on all fourteen of my fellow jurors, I was distracted by the actual oath. It occurred to me that I had never taken an oath before. And, while we recited our pledge, in unison, a sense of pride overcame me. We were no longer average citizens; we were "Jurors." Men and women sworn to mete out justice in the sacred halls of U.S. District Court. To hell with these rinky-dink laminated badges, we need capes. Capes and spandex. "Juror powers, activate."

As opening statements began, I hunkered down for some serious justice meting. Armed with my trusty (and state provided) Notebook of Justice™, I vowed there would be no one more impartial than I.

On the surface, the defendant had no case. He was a frumpy guy in his early thirties who worked as some kind of vague computer professional and always wore khakis and a white shirt—presumably from the Gap, but not in any size featured in their ads. His expression was kind of a constant half-frown. Like he was trying to look chipper and brave, but couldn't quite muster the energy. As the prosecutor explained to us in her excruciatingly roundabout way, this guy not only failed the field sobriety tests, he failed the breathalyzer. And not only did he fail the breathalyzer, he failed it spectacularly—blowing twice over the legal limit. I mean, if it weren't for the fact that he was driving a damn car, I'd have to say "Huzzah," to his dedication. That is a serious bender. What in the world his excuse could be, I had no idea.

Well, his attorney was no public defender, and he had a plan. Always arriving in a wrinkled yet sharp double breasted suit, he was slick enough for a late-night commercial, yet not quite cheesy enough to do it. And he came at this seemingly open-and-shut conviction with a two-pronged attack. First, he went after the field sobriety tests—painting them as unprofessionally administered by overzealous rookies and, due to the defendant's considerable weight, even invalid. Second, he attacked the breathalyzer results as contaminated. The defendant, he claimed, suffered from a medical condition known as Gert, a kind of a chronic acid reflux situation, which causes the sufferer to regurgitate constantly. "Wet burps" the attorney called them. You can bet that phrase went down in my Notebook of Justice. And, the defense continued, as if anyone were listening after he said "wet burps," the breathalyzer is not even a valid test for someone who suffers from constant regurgitation.

In short, the defense built a compelling case resting on the fact that his client was a fat, gaseous pig.

To my disappointment, a novel defense strategy does not necessarily translate into an entertaining case. Hearing people in suits say "wet burps" is, amazingly, only funny the first five or six times. I was beginning to fade when I remembered I was not here to be entertained. I was here to absorb and weight the facts. So, I stopped drawing "wet burps" in big, three-dimensional block lettering, coming out of stick figures' mouths, and returned to paying attention. This was a Notebook of Justice, after all, not a PeeChee Folder. "Alan [heart]s Justice" is not an appropriate note. Focus, Olifson, focus.

Being impartial, as it turned out, was not as easy as I had thought it would be. Sure, they gave us the tools: the Notebook of Justice, the Pen of Integrity, Bad Discount Coffee of Righteousness. But, as the case unfolded, emotion kept creeping around the edges of my logic. I felt sorry for the defendant.

Here's a guy who, to hear him tell it, had a few beers and some fried food at a TGI Fridays in the Valley to kill some time, then got pulled over for going eighty on an empty 405 Freeway.

Granted, if I was having a few beers alone at a TGI Fridays in the Valley, I'd more likely be pulled over for a murder/attempted suicide spree than a DUI. But, besides our obvious difference of opinion regarding chain restaurants with overly accessorized waiters, I could see myself in his situation.

This is not to say I'm sympathetic to someone who gets behind the wheel with a .16 BAC. But the validity of that number was in question here. Three beers would put the defendant's Blood Alcohol Content at .04. If we were to believe the breathalyzer readings, our guy would have had to have had, not three, not even five, but fifteen beers.

As it turned out, that's exactly how many beers I would have needed to make the following day-and-a-half's worth of breathalyzer testimony remotely interesting. By the time the third expert went to the flip chart to graph how, exactly, and in three colors, the breathalyzer's slope detector mechanism works to alert administrators of a contaminated sample, I think I really mastered the art of the three-dimensional box illusion (it's really all about the shading).

The only interesting information that came to light during the breathalyzer testimony marathon was that our government engages in "drinking studies." Apparently they pay people to get drunk in "simulated party situations," and then drive. Why the hell didn't I get that call? Where's my "L.A. Department of Drinking Studies: Party Summons?" I'm getting paid fifteen bucks a day to sit in a windowless room listening to testimony about "plastic regurgitation particle filters" while other people are getting schnookerd on the government's dime? I don't feel like I was given all my civic duty options, here. And what does a situation simulated by the government to resemble a party even look like? I pictured shag carpeting, horned-rimmed glasses and hi-balls.

OK, so my mind wandered a bit.

Still, as closing statements wrapped up, I was confident I had done due diligence. I understood the facts of the case and I was ready to pass judgment. True, I had a certain amount of empathy for the defendant, but the facts supported my gut instinct: there was reasonable doubt. We had to let him walk.

The jury room was a sparse affair. Everything you'd expect from watching Twelve Angry Men—which, as we moved into the actual deliberation process, replaced Law & Order as the fiction I used to benchmark my reality. Our new home had a table, twelve chairs, two bathrooms, an intercom system and an alarming lack of snack food. It wasn't like I was asking for a wet bar, just some cheese doodles or something. (Though, I bet they had wet bars in Twelve Angry Men. Or, at least a glass cart with a crystal carafe of some sort. The '50s were cool that way. "Here's why I think he's guilty [rises]. Scotch?") In lieu of a snack basket, evidence—documentation, official records, random print-outs and breathalyzer-related flip charts—sat on the table, in what could only be described as a heap.

The bailiff gave us our instructions, left the room, and, for the first time, we were alone. That's when I realized I had not said more than three words to any of these people in three days. During breaks I had pretty much kept to myself. I'm sure there are sundry elementary school incidents which could account for this reaction to the bailiff's calling, "recess," but, regardless of my motivation, I opted for reading the paper at a hole-in-the-wall Mexican restaurant over getting-to-know-you chit chat with my peers. "So, Monrovia. Wow. Gets pretty hot out there, huh? Oh, I see you go for the Sweet & Sour sauce on your McNuggets, interesting choice."

Despite my isolationism, when it came time to choose our foreman, I secretly hoped for the nomination, recasting myself as the "charismatic lone wolf." My fellow jurors, though, couldn't quite make the creative leap, leaving me as, "quiet guy with coffee stain on his shirt"—this being the second day the lone wolf had had a little balance problem in the elevator. Instead, we unanimously went with Juror #3, the mild physics professor. He was a trim, forty-something Hispanic guy who spoke in something that walked the line between accent and speech impediment. He had kept to himself during recess, too, but I guess he did so with more dignity than I, reading "Gould's Book of Fish" instead of spilling coffee.

We began deliberations with a brief go-round just to see where everyone stood. As we went around the table, my gut instinct was validated by the others: the Gert raised enough reasonable doubt about the breathalyzer results, and, without those results, there was no case. Eight to four, "innocent."

Two "guilty" votes were on the fence, including Juror #2, the 80 year-old. She had survived this long, but turned out to be in her 60s, so it wasn't quite as impressive. The other two "guilty" votes were adamant— Jurors #4 and #12. Both women, one a retired lawyer in her late forties, the other some kind of office manager in her thirties. What really surprised me, though, was that almost no one, not even those ready to vote "not guilty," trusted the guy. And the conversation quickly turned to what a shady character he was. How there were discrepancies in time and there's no way he was really just at TGI Fridays all night, and B.S. that and bullshit this.

Speculation ran rampant, and I found myself defending not only the defendant, but our legal system. "Not guilty" votes were being turned based on arguments like, "Well, why didn't he just show us a receipt for the three beers? I mean, if that was me, I'd be pulling out credit card statements and stuff." I became a broken record of, "the burden of proof is on the prosecution." I agreed, it was weird there was no receipt, or phone bill, or waitress testimony, but the prosecution didn't produce those things, either, so, I argued, we couldn't attach any meaning to their absence. But, like an avalanche, opinion started to turn.

We took another poll: Eight to four, "guilty."

Holy crap, what was going on here? Discussion had stayed pretty calm, but the two original "guilty" votes were losing patience with us "not guilty" hold outs. Terms like, "sucker" and "naïve" were being thrown around, occasionally hitting me.

I held my ground, defending this man's honor. In retrospect, I was too invested. In some way I felt as if his conviction would translate into retroactive convictions for all my past transgressions, of which, trust me, there are plenty. And I didn't want to go to the pokey for—well, never you mind what I could go to the pokey for. The bottom line is, I committed the cardinal juror sin: I empathized with the defendant. They could've taken my Notebook of Justice away for that.

Being so invested, the discovery of his medical records came as quite the blow. Sitting amongst the evidence heap was a simple manila folder holding, as many manila folders do, hard truths. According to the defendant's medical records, he had been seeing the same doctor for seven years, had repeatedly complained about his weight and asthma, but only once mentioned the symptoms of Gert—at an appointment exactly one day after his arrest. It took two more rounds of votes for the implication of this to sink in, but, really, it was undeniable—the guy was a liar. I'd been bamboozled and, quite possibly, hoodwinked. I put myself out on the line for this guy, and he was nothing but a shyster with a slick lawyer.

We convicted him. He deserved it, and I'm glad we did. But I also understand his thought process. And that scares me. I understand the thrill of a good excuse. I mean, here's a guy who got busted, blatantly busted for something. But did he give up? Did he admit defeat, pay the fine and call it a day? No. He got the ticket, went home and thought, "How the hell can I weasel out of this?" And I am in no position to fault him for that.

The whole thing gave me a bad case of Gert.

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