I’m not sure if it’s because of the city I live in and the level of crime we have or if it’s because there’s a smaller pool of eligible people from which to draw from, but for the third time in the six or so years I’ve lived in Baltimore, I was called to jury duty. Again.
The subpoena for jury service in Baltimore is for one day or one trial. If on the day you are called in, you don’t get selected for a trial, your service is complete. On the previous two occasions nothing of interest had happened. For the most part I spent the day reading, watching the movies they played in the waiting areas and just biding my time.
This time, I brought my laptop with me thinking I’d find a place in the quiet room to write. A whole day to write. It felt like a gift.
But the quiet room had been full, all the tables taken. I found a good seat in the corner of another massive room. Soon bailiffs were asking people to remove bags and coats from empty chairs so that others could have a seat, it was that crowded.
Each juror is assigned a number. When I learned on this day the juror numbers went from 4200 to 5600, I knew, this time, I’d be called for a trial. I was 4601. The knowledge that there was every chance that I’d be called for a trial, and the worry that this time, I’d actually have to be a juror, made me too nervous to write. My laptop lay idle at my feet. I tried to read, but nothing could keep my attention.
After about an hour, they started a movie. Meet the Fockers. People laughed, and talked throughout the movie. After about an hour, the movie paused, and everyone held their breaths. They called jurors 4200 to 4350 to a courtroom, repeating the message several times. I watched as people gathering up their things, looking resigned to their fate as they left the room.
The movie started up again.
They called one more group before we were released for lunch. I wandered around downtown Baltimore on a rainy day before finding a deli to settle in.
After lunch, I knew if they called another group, I would be part of it. I also knew that if they called a group so late in the day, there was no way they’d select the jury and have a trial that afternoon. I knew I’d be coming back at least one more day. And who knows, what if it’s a big trial? What if it’s days or weeks before I can get back to my life?
But then I thought, what if it’s interesting? What if the jury has someone’s life in their hands? Even if it isn’t a murder trial or some major crime, whatever twelve strangers decide will have an irrevocable impact on whomever is at the defendants table.
It made me nervous. I fell victim to my imagination, wondering what I would see, what would happen next.
At around 2:30 p.m. my number was called. About forty of us followed the court clerk up to the sixth floor of Baltimore’s old, ornate courthouse building. She chose to take the stairs, so we went slowly, some grumbling about having to walk, other’s like me, gazing about, seeing parts of the building I’d never seen before.
We were ushered into the most ornate courtroom I’d ever seen. I gazed up at the rounded dome of the ceiling at least sixty feet above us, where stained glass and elaborate reliefs decorated that massive vault. As we shuffled into the mahogany benched seating, I stared at the judge’s desk which stretched almost from wall to wall at the front of the room, a massive amount of deep cranberry wood, intricately carved, rising high above the rest of the room. There were pink marble columns, names done in stone relief circling the massive dome. This was the kind of courtroom you’d save for important cases. I determined that, whatever was going on here, I wanted to know what would happen next.
The defendant, a thirtyish looking black man with trimmed hair and short beard, wearing a crisp, white shirt that looked as if it had just been pulled out of store packaging, didn’t turn around as we filed in. I tried to get a look at his face. Was he worried? What was he accused of? Was he an innocent man whose life was about to change forever?
His lawyer, a small, thin man in a well-tailored suit, did look us over. Unafraid to stare, he craned his head around, looking at all of us, assessing who he’d have to convince of his client’s innocence.
The judge, an attractive, well put-together black woman never looked up. She seemed busy at her computer, punching away at the keys, focused. Once we were all seated she stared out at us, scanning the crowd as if assessing our worthiness.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we’ll get started as soon as the prosecutor gets here. I’ve sent my clerk to get him.”
The way she said it, made me think I’d hate to be that prosecutor. He wasn’t even in the room yet and she appeared already irritated with him.
Several minutes went by as we waited. I couldn’t stop looking at the courtroom, amazed at the elaborateness of it. Not only was it all marble and wood, everything gleamed as if particular care had been taken. It made me stare at the judge again. Who was this woman that ruled over this place? Two or three different clerks came to her, folders in hand, exchanging a few words with her before being sent off on some mission. The young man sitting next to me, a white dude with big headphones hanging around his neck, wearing baggy jeans and a colorful ribbed sports jacket that matched his overpriced tennis shoes, leaned over and commented in a street accent like he’d been pulled off the block for jury service.
“If they’re all being sent to look for that prosecutor, I wouldn’t wanna be that dude,” he said, which had been exactly what I was thinking.
Then, in strolled the prosecutor. Maybe late thirties, dark hair, thin beard. He walked in empty handed, didn’t seem to be in any hurry and barely glanced as us, the jury who filled every empty seat in the room. He walked to his table and pulled out his chair and began to sit down, but was quickly halted in that motion.
“I’d like to see counsel here please,” the judge said.
The young man next to me made another comment. “Look at old boy. He ain’t got no idea what’s coming,” he said.
I chuckled, enjoying the astute play by play.
The defendant, his attorney and the prosecutor stood before the judge. She hit a button that caused a kind of hissing noise to fill the courtroom in hopes of drowning out the conversation. She focused on the prosecutor, leaning over the bench, intense, and angry. I wondered if he was being chewed out for being late, but it seemed much worse than that.
She pointed at her computer screen, and asked him several questions. He didn’t seem to have any answers.
“DAAAaamn, she’s goin’ all Judge Judy on his ass,” said the young man.
I tried not to laugh. Whatever was going on, it was something serious. The prosecutor had started out with his hands in his pockets. Soon they came out, small gestures, mostly turned up palms and shoulders that creeped slowly up toward his ears.
I heard the judge say things like, “dishonest,” “clearly false,” and then the word that sparked my curiosity in ways I couldn’t control. “Fraudulent.”
“Holy shit,” the young man said, again voicing exactly my sentiment.
Then the judge did something that will forever make me feel disappointed each time I remember this. She turned off the noise cancelling and looked out at us. “Ladies and gentlemen,” she said. “It’s 3:30 p.m. It’s clear we will not seat a jury by the end of the day. You are dismissed. Thank you for your service.”
Young man and I exchanged a look. “Oh man,” he said, clearly as disappointed as I felt. “That could’a been a good one,” he said. “Oh man.”
We filed out. I took one last look around at the dramatic room and wondered what in the hell I’d just missed.