Of Judges and Juries
Photograph: Bob Capazzo
The blockbuster murder series this magazine is running got me to thinking about jury duty and the only time in my life I wasn’t proud to be an American.
It was the moment the O. J. verdict came in. Jack and I were in France sailing on Scott Frantz’s Ticonderoga in the Nioulargue Regatta. Along with other friends of his parents, we were staying in a villa in St. Tropez. It had no television, so people walked to a nearby hotel to catch the end of the trial, while I stayed behind to help another guest, an Italian gentleman, cook dinner for the crew. (I’m good at chopping celery.) When the phone rang with the news, I held my breath. Not guilty? We couldn’t believe it. I was embarrassed for our country.
But never mind the extraordinary criminal cases. Civil lawsuits in the United States cost $200 billion a year, and our graduate schools are teeming with budding lawyers. It is said we have 80 percent of the world’s lawyers but only 5 percent of its population. For them to get by, I guess everybody will just have to keep suing each other.
Which leads to some absurd cases. Take a Mr. Dickson from Pennsylvania who got locked in a garage for eight days. Via the garage, he was exiting a house he had just robbed while the family was on vacation, but the automatic door opener didn’t work and the door to the house had locked behind him. He survived on a case of Pepsi and big bag of dog food he found; but such was his distress that he sued the homeowners, and the jury awarded him a half-million dollars.
Then there was a young Mr. Truman from Los Angeles who got his hand run over while trying to steal a hubcap from his neighbor’s Honda Accord. He didn’t notice someone was at the wheel at the time. But he got awarded $74,000, plus medical expenses.
All this reminds me of the ditty: “There ain’t no justice in this land/I just got a divorce from my old man/I had to laugh at the judge’s decision/He got the kids and they ain’t his’n.”
I served on a jury once—in Stamford—and had a wonderful experience. Just before the statute of limitations ran out, an overweight old lady was suing a supermarket for injuries sustained years earlier when she had tripped over a rail meant to keep grocery carts in check. Her husband, a grizzled and equally large sea captain who only got home once a year, was also suing the store—for her inability to perform her marital duties. The picture was too much.
Our jury room was directly behind the judge’s chambers and when we heard his toilet flush, we knew the bailiff would come for us. After we had reached a verdict and were waiting to be called into the courtroom, I jokingly said, like the Scot and his kilts, “I wonder what the judge wears under his robes.” The toilet flushed, the bailiff appeared, and we ladies and gentlemen of the jury filed into our places in court. The judge was sitting there in a business suit.
Soon thereafter, he announced a ten-minute recess. So we were returned to our quarters, and when the bailiff led us back into court, there sat the judge in his robes. Obviously, if we could hear his toilet flush, he could hear a voice in the jury room if it was loud enough—like mine. By the way, since both the woman and the store were at fault, we awarded the elderly pair a middling amount. The lady cried. Why? Who knows. But the judge invited those of us jurors who were interested to join him in his chambers afterward to discuss the case. He was terrific.
My grandmother would have been jealous. Gammy, a DAR and the most patriotic person I’ve ever known, was furious that she was never selected for a jury. I had to remind her that when she was asked, “Do you believe in capital punishment?”, she should not respond, “Certainly. If they’re guilty, fry ’em!”
But people have made an art of getting out of jury duty. Some of their ploys work; some don’t. You can say you have bladder problems and have to go every thirty minutes; you don’t feel comfortable being in a government building when the nation is on High Terror alert; you think the police in that town are corrupt; you have a sleep disorder and can’t get out of bed before 9:30 a.m. You can look over at the defendant and say, “He looks guilty”; talk in circles when questioned by the lawyers; get drunk before reporting in; grow a beard so you’ll be considered too independent a thinker; bring your kids along and let them tear up the place; figure that your jury summons didn’t come certified mail so how could they prove you even got it?
But in the end, if you have a chance to serve on a jury, my advice is “Do it.” Sure, it takes time, as do most of life’s memorable experiences. But it would really be good for our country to have educated jurors on duty—dare we say “for a change”?