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Trial by Jury Duty
By Mimi Friedman

I am attending to my serious habit of cashews and dried papaya, chewing absentmindedly and sifting through the day's mail. It's just the usual collection of junk mail, bills, and about eighteen catalogues. Most of it has very little impact on me except the Harry and David Catalogue which is hard core porno to a nut and dried fruit addict like me.

Then I see it. Oh no. Oh, yes. There is no mistaking the pink envelope with bold black writing. JURY SUMMONS. The mere sight of that thing makes my heart race and my breath erratic. Immediately I think, "How can I get out of it?" A red box in bold type warns that the courthouse does not permit any sharp pointed objects, pen knives, or protection sprays. I am instructed to leave all my various weapons at home. They don't mention my eyelash curler, which in my hands is a dangerous weapon. The deceptively colored amiable pink document also mentions that failure to respond will result in a hearing and penalties including a fine of up to fifteen hundred dollars. The summons makes me feel like I am the one on trial.

In a sense, I am the one on trial. I am the defendant in the court of my own conscience. The lightning speed of my reaction to avoid civic duty is suspect and yet somehow I feel it's completely justified. At times it really was justified by my contractual commitment as a writer to the sometimes irrational demands of television production. The show must go on. And on. And on.

But now, I am not in production. I am essentially without a legitimate excuse. This is the perfect time for me to serve. Apparently, the Superior Court has better timing than Jack Benny.

I write in my calendar when and where I'm supposed to go, put the summons into my desk drawer and for the moment, lull myself into the belief that if you forget about it, it doesn't exist.

The day before I am due to appear at the Criminal Court building I am reminded that this jury duty thing does indeed exist and I have to deal with it. I take out the summons and read all the possible legitimate excuses. Being self-employed is no longer reason enough for exemption. A signed affidavit is required from a physician for a medical excuse. I don't know any physician well enough to ask them to lie to the government for me. There is a section indicating extreme financial burden. Truthfully, it wouldn't be an extreme financial burden for me to serve on a short term jury. In our society, for some inexplicable reason, sitcom writers make more money than teachers.

Okay, now I have no excuse. I will serve. And frankly, I do have a real curiosity about what happens in the court system. So it's settled.

Then, I look at the summons and realize I have to be downtown at seven forty five the next morning. I hesitate, and then quickly call the automated jury telephone system and touchtone my way into postponing my service until next month. I remember that in a month's time I will hopefully be working. No, I have to do it now, and only now. I call the jury number again and opt to speak to a real human being, who easily reestablishes my original service date for tomorrow. I hang up and see the words "attach death certificate" on the summons under legitimate excuses. You have to be dead to get out of jury duty. I am alive, but that will be seriously in question when I'm driving downtown at seven a.m. the next morning.

The eleventh floor assembly room is a large utilitarian room with many rows of chairs facing a lectern. There is a front office with a window where one of the civil employees acts as a kind of grocery story checker who scans your juror's badge as if you are a bottle of ketchup. I wonder if there will come a time when we will all have a bar code stenciled somewhere on our bodies that will be scanned for all of Big Brother's needs. (The book, not the show.)

I sit in the only empty chair on the front row next to a very pale man with long straggly gray hair who has a persistent dry cough and wears sandals with thin black socks. On my other side sits a big haired red-headed woman with a fondness for heavy floral perfume and sour cream and onion potato chips for breakfast. I clip my juror I.D. tag to my jean jacket and look at the number. 2193. My new identity. I wait to hear the first panel of potential jurors being called to a courtroom. And I wait. And wait. And wait. I read a novel that I had started and never finished. I take a short but deep nap, until I'm jolted back into consciousness by my next door neighbor's dry cough. The P.A. system clicks on and a woman's monotone voice tells us that she will be announcing the first panel of the day. She apologizes in advance for mispronouncing names. She then proceeds to massacre more ethnicities than Attila the Hun. Eventually, I hear the monotone voice say "Mini Fried-non, #2193" and I move as if in a large chain gang with the others to a courtroom on another floor of the building.

As the bailiff asks us to raise our right hands and swears us in, I find myself suddenly in awe of this process. It instructs that this disparate and motley group gather and objectively hear, and ultimately pass judgment on, another human being in trouble. I look at the young black man accused of the crime in the case and am struck with that awesome task of deciding someone's fate. I wonder what he is accused of. He looks at his potential jurors. He stands awkwardly in his off white loafers and blue suit. His hair is combed in a way that seems as if it had never held that particular shape before. He looks down at the floor and so do I.

Every juror is asked if they had ever been a victim of the type of crime that is on the docket or any type of crime at all. One by one, people tell their dark tales in solemn, angry and/or resigned tones. An elderly widower tells of being held up at gunpoint by a group of teenagers in his pet store. His beloved deceased wife was ordered to lie on the ground as they pistol whipped him and took the small amount of cash from the register. I look at him talking in profile, his anger giving way to profound loss. He works hard to hold back tears. He isn't the only one.

All the jurors are asked if they have ever been accused or convicted of a crime. A middle aged Asian woman wearing a purple sweatshirt with Janet Jackson's picture air brushed on it asks for a side bar. She and the judge and lawyers move to the side and whisper amongst themselves for a minute or two and she is excused. Everyone on that jury panel is thinking, "What was that about?" We would never know and it was just as well.

This case involves spousal abuse and one of the potential jurors explains to the court that she had been a victim of an abusive husband and has counseled hundreds of abused women since that experience. Her face tells the story without having to hear the details. She is thanked and excused.

After listening to all the mini-life stories and being questioned by both lawyers and the judge, I, along with about half of the original jurors, am thanked and excused by either the defense or the prosecutor. I can't help but wonder why I didn't make the grade and find myself feeling a little rejected. I can't really come up with anything that I said that might have given them just cause to excuse me. Is it because I am a white female Jewish Hollywood comedy writer who they felt couldn't relate to a young black man from the 'hood? How dare they! Didn't they know I had been a writer on In Living Color? I knew the 18-24 year old black inner city male demographic. Shouldn't that account for something?

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