At 8:30 a.m. Monday, 40 people trudge up the courthouse stairs into Courtroom No. 1, waiting in line to hand over their jury summonses like boarding passes.
I’m afraid to ask how many more summoned Del Norters didn’t show up to fulfill their legal obligation to the American justice system. In sparsely populated areas such as these, jury duty is a common distraction — I’ve been called four times in four years.
Still, in the end only 12 plus one alternate will be needed — if that. We take our seats in the audience portion of the courtroom and wait. And wait. Some last-minute plea bargaining is going on, in all likelihood. There’s nothing like a deadline for motivation.
We keep waiting. Some people chitchat with neighbors. I’m sitting in the front row, and about 45 minutes in, a guy next to me announces how many triangles he counted in the metal latticework that separates us from the rest of the courtroom.
That’s why I brought some work along, I tell him, and go back to compiling the list of things I won’t have time to do when I get back to my office.
If there are 11th-hour negotiations, they fail, because the lawyers take their places and the judge enters at 9:40 a.m. A man will be tried on a charge of domestic violence this day. First a jury must be seated.
Twelve names are called and the jury box is filled, but the lineup is far from set.
The judge tells the rest of us to listen closely because we may soon be answering the same questions, then begins to interview those in the box.
Do you know the defendant, the lawyers or the witnesses expected to testify? Are you close to anyone in law enforcement, and if so would you be prone to embarrassment if you helped to render a verdict in a criminal case?
Have you ever been accused of, or a victim of, domestic violence? Is domestic violence a personal matter that should not be brought before the court? If the alleged victim declines to proceed, should the prosecution stop?
Unfortunately, the crime du jour is one that many people have brushed up against, at least through acquaintances. Are they still capable of rendering a fair verdict? The judge dismisses a couple of people based on that concern, and new names are called.
We take a 15-minute break, and then the real attrition begins. Over the next hour, eight more potential jurors are dismissed at the request of the attorneys — most by the defense.
What was wrong with that one, the rest of us wonder as someone exits the box and a new name is called.
There’s drudgery now, because each new person is asked the same round of questions. It occurs to me that the jury-selection process is probably the only criminal courtroom activity most of us ever see, which is too bad because the trials themselves have to be more interesting.
Still, there are moments. Like the potential juror who says he barely made it to the first break because he has to go to the bathroom every 20 minutes (he’s dismissed). And the guy who asks if it’s true that even though all trial witnesses are sworn in, police officers have the exclusive right to lie on the stand (it certainly is not, the judge responds, and somehow the questioner stays on the jury).
Finally, at 11:51 a.m., there are no further challenges and the 16 us who remain in the audience seating area are dismissed.
The morning is pretty much gone, but at least those who spent it in Courtroom No. 1 know we did our duty.