Recently called for a month of jury duty, I showed up at the various appointed times, and actually made the next-to-final cut for two different cases, but never got the nod to actually sit on a trial jury.
Not to say I didn’t leave my mark in Orleans Parish Criminal Court.
My second day there, I got the call to go upstairs as part of a pool of fifty potential jurors. We were escorted to the courtroom in groups of twenty-five, and for the questioning, I was seated in the top row of the jury box – an interesting comfortable vantage point to the whole voir dire process.
This particular trial was not a typical situation – it was a cold case; nearly twenty years had passed since the crime, and both the prosecution and defense told us they would be relying on the reliability of possibly degraded DNA evidence, and two-decade old memories for testimony. Both sides acknowledged up front that testimony via hazy recollections and recalled memories presented a variety of challenges.
The defendant sat stoically through the proceedings as the prosecution took their turn at interviewing us. He remained that way through the early part of his defense team doing the potential-juror questioning, though by then he had started making more notes on his notepad – adding a few doodles at times.
The prosecution had moved us through all the basic stuff – occupations, background, our attitudes about a variety of issues, what television crime shows we watched regularly. That part surprised me, but apparently this is standard procedure these days in cases of this nature due to the proliferation of the ‘crime show procedurals’ as one of the prosecutors put it. Both sides said they want juries to understand the science of crime fighting via DNA and other forensics is not as cut-and-dried as on ‘CSI and shows of that ilk’ s one of the attorneys phrased it. When asked, most of my fellow jurors and I were in agreement that was all a very reasonable line of questioning, though a few seemed expressed bewilderment that watching TV would be a factor.
It was interesting.
As this was a cold case, both the prosecution and defense took great pains to note that this trial would hinge primarily on witness testimony – twenty-year-old memories and changed relationships. Both sides also asked a series of questions focusing on how we judged people’s trustworthiness, especially after a lot of time had elapsed. When the lead defense attorney got his crack at us, he said right at the start that we may not find some of the defense witnesses to be particularly likable or even all that supportive of the defendant they were testifying for. He was very pointed in asking us if we felt we could still believe what someone had to say, even if our personal opinion of that person was not very high. Some of my fellow jurors-in-waiting were very uncomfortable with the prospect.
Me? Not so much.
The defense attorney, an African-American man of about thirty-five who had pretty much stuck to confirming questions about my background and neighborhood of residence to that point, finally got around to asking me about how I viewed people and their credibility.
“Mr. Lucker” he intoned calmly, “Would it be possible for you to accept and believe the testimony of witnesses who may not seem at first glance to be all that credible, and decide the case on that testimony if you didn’t always find them credible?”
“It depends. I guess a lot of it would depend on the rest of the equation, how much I did or didn’t believe the other side’s witnesses. ”
He looked at me intently, and his tone turned somewhat quizzical, and very pointed. “Mr. Lucker, are you saying you could foresee a trial situation where you didn’t necessarily believe anything that anybody had to say?”
I shrugged. “I teach high school. I deal with that, evvv. ry. -DAY!”
The place erupted in laughter; even the judge was chortling. The court stenographer actually turned and looked at me. The bailiffs seemed especially tickled, as did all four attorneys. The defendant was chuckling as he scribbled away on his yellow legal pad. The defense attorney smiled, shook his head, looked down at his notes briefly before looking back at me, making eye contact and giving me a little ‘good one’ salute before moving on to one of my partners-in-jurisprudence, still smiling and shaking his head.
I made the initial cut down to ten out of our pool, but did not make the final jury. Nor did I get in the last word.
Wrapping up his juror questioning, the defense attorney revisited a few of us who had made the cut down to ten with a series of final questions – though in my case it was more his pre-follow-up-question salutation that was noteworthy: “One more question, Mr. Lucker. We have already established…” he paused dramatically. “That you teach high school….”
Touché. I had been Perry Masoned during jury selection.
So while I never did get to provide much service-to-society in the way of fulfilling my civic duty, I did get a good taste of both sides of our judicial system:
I got to deliver the punchline and play the straight man.