Jury Duty

Until last Thursday…

My plan was wearing two different socks. It was subtle, but I figured one of the lawyers would see my sartorial unbalance, assume my judgement was impaired, and dismiss me back to the waiting area whereupon I’d hang out near the vending machines/power outlets for sustenance and electricity until I was released.

I took the train downtown to 50 W. Washington — The Daley Center. Only I didn’t know it was the Daley Center so I walked around the entirety of the building. No big deal, but it was cold. I set my bag and coat on the conveyor and went through security, but I still had to be wand scanned off to the side. My bracelet maybe?

I took the elevator up to the 17th floor, showed my ID, filled out the form, took my panel number, grabbed a JUROR sticker, and found an empty seat in the very back near the windows where it was least crowded — the sociopath area. I put my coat on one side of me and my bag on the other. I was an island. The sea, if you will, was a square cavernous room with rows and rows of black chairs, like a large library reading room where you have to bring your own books. Although in this case it was mostly people staring into their phones. And I was no different. I creeped Facebook, piled on on Twitter, and added some recent photos to my kids’ Instagram accounts.

They kept calling for panels other than mine. In fact, I saw people return and get saddled with other panel numbers. Finally 21 was asked to come to the front. Maybe there were two dozen of us. We took an elevator to the 14th floor and were led to a courtroom where we were told to sit anywhere we wanted including the jury area.

The courtroom was like a small conference room in a Hampton Inn or Best Western. Only not as posh. There were two wooden benches on either side near the door. The jury was on a riser to the right; two rows of individual chairs bolted down, most with arm rests. To the left, I assumed, were the lawyers with their clients behind two buffet style tables. And at the far end of the room much higher than everyone else behind a tall and imposing desk was the judge in a black robe.

Obviously I was drawn to the individual chairs with the armrests so I sat in the jury area. Turns out by doing this I was A) hidden behind a half-wall so no one could see my socks, and B) in the first wave to be selected for jury duty.

Fun fact: Jury chairs swivel, but only from forward to the right, to better face the witness stand/judge.

The judge read from the forms we’d filled out. “Steve Stein?”

I raised my hand.

“It says, uh, hold on,” said the judge putting on her glasses and doing her best to decipher what I’d written. “You’re a writer?”

I nodded.

“I trust that you type?”

People laughed as I nodded again.

After everyone was called upon and introduced, we were asked by one of the lawyers how we felt about dogs.

“I don’t like them,” said a woman on the end. “I just don’t like animals. I really don’t. My parents didn’t like animals and, I don’t know, I just don’t like animals.”

“I fucking hate dogs,” said the guy in the Deadpool pajama pants. “I can’t stand them. I fucking hate dogs.”

Two gentlemen down from me was a teacher who said he often used dogs for therapy with children and LOVED dogs and would definitely be biased in favor of dogs as there was probably no way he could ever find himself in a situation pitted against a dog.

I’m sure these were honest answers. But maybe it was cunning strategy. Those people did not end up on the jury.

We were further asked if we’d ever been bitten by a dog. I raised my hand and when it was my turn to speak I said, “Once when I was younger, our two dogs were fighting and when I pulled them apart, I got bit. And last year a friend was fostering a dog and when I randomly walked past it, it jumped out from under a table and bit my leg.”

“Did you go to the hospital in either situation?”

“Nope,” I said. “Just some rubbing alcohol and a Band-aid.”

We were also asked if we’d ever ridden a bike. Most hands shot up. Well, pretty much all hands went up. The one hand that didn’t belonged to an older woman with long gray braids sitting in front of me. The judge made a friendly joke about it, but the woman cupped her hand around her ear and simply looked at the judge.

“Are you able to hear me, Debra,” asked the judge.

“Sorry,” said Debra. “I can’t hear you.”

There was polite laughter from the room.

“Can you hear me if I speak like this,” asked the judge in a loud voice.

Debra nodded. “Yes.”

“If you were selected to serve on this jury, do you think you’d be able to hear testimony if you sat here in the first chair,” asked the judge in her loud voice pointing to the jury chair closest to the witness stand.

“I think so,” said Debra. “Yeah, I think so.”

Again, not sure whether it was honesty or strategy (although it did turn out Debra was hard of hearing), but she was selected for jury duty.

As was I.

I had three thoughts after I knew I’d been selected:

  1. Ugh.
  2. Hmmm, maybe I’m special.
  3. Ok, let’s do this.

Those chosen were ushered into the room behind the jury area where we sat around a long table in silence looking at our phones until we were called back into the courtroom. And that’s when the show began.

“Thank you for being here today,” said the judge. “Being a member of a jury is one of the few civil services we as Americans are required to perform. So thank you for doing your duty today.”

Everyone sort of nodded and we were sworn in. Then the lawyers made their opening statements.

In short, Burt Wallace, the plaintiff, was bitten by a dog five years ago and was now suing for medical bills, pain and suffering, and loss of quality of life. Lacie Rodriguez, the owner of the dogs, was the defendant. It was to be a two day trial and we were not allowed to talk to anyone about it, including each other.

The gist was that Burt was biking to the Walgreen’s from his apartment complex. He was on the sidewalk on one end, and Lacie, who lived in the same apartment complex, was on the other end with her two dogs (Goldendoodles). Burt stopped because he said he could see/hear the dogs growling at him from 154 feet away. (He’d measured it.) Lacie, who said they were not growling — just excited and barking, kept walking up the sidewalk and eventually moved her dogs off to the side on the right. Seemingly Burt had words with Lacie as she got closer, and when he felt the dogs were sufficiently out of his way, he proceeded on his bike to the left of the dogs on the sidewalk. But Lacie tripped and the dogs moved toward Burt. Lacie never let go of her dogs, but Burt seemingly lost control of his bike. And when he stood up he had a wound on the back of his right leg under his calf. He called 911 and said he was the victim of a dog bite. We were shown pictures of his injury. It looked painful. It was in the shape of an ice cream cone, rounded at the top just under his calf and tapering in slightly toward the bottom just above his ankle. But it did NOT look like a dog bite. It looked like the skin had been shaved from his leg. It was even, smooth, and flat. There were no puncture wounds. It didn’t look gouged.

The plaintiff’s lawyer claimed that when Burt returned home the same day from the hospital, he was unable to shower for a week because he’d been told not to get the wound wet. Also, because the dog didn’t have tags, he understood he might have to be treated for rabies. And that really upset him because he’d heard rabies treatment involved getting a long needle put right through his abdomen.

The defendant’s lawyer suggested maybe Burt skinned his leg on a peddle or another part of his bike. She further explained the paperwork for the dog was unavailable because Lacie had recently moved into the apartment complex and it simply couldn’t be located. The dog, properly quarantined at a vet for ten days, did NOT have rabies.

When Burt was asked to come to the stand and testify, he walked slowly with a noticeable limp. It was theater. Not unlike the script when it came to his ambulance bill.

Plaintiff Lawyer: Do you know how much the bill was for your ambulance?

Burt: I do not.

Plaintiff lawyer: Is your memory exhausted?

Burt: It is.

Plaintiff Lawyer: If I showed you your bill, would that refresh your memory?

Burt: Yes.

They went through this routine for his medical and supplies bills as well. It seemed like the lawyer could have just shown everyone a copy, but this was how they did it. For the most part, though, evidence played out like this:

Lawyer A: I have evidence X.

Lawyer A shows Lawyer B evidence X. Lawyer B nods, or says, “Ok.”

Lawyer A: May I approach?

Judge: You may.

If a lawyer got in the weeds — saying/suggesting things that were seemingly irrelevant/leading — the other lawyer would shout, “Objection!” If the judge agreed with the objection, she would say “Sustained,” and the witness didn’t have to answer. But if the judge didn’t agree, she’d say, “Overruled,” and the witness continued. However, if the lawyer wandered out way past the weeds and got into the pond, the judge would say, “Sidebar,” and both lawyers and the judge would disappear through the door behind the judge’s desk.

Sidebar was my favorite. It was like a mom taking her kids out of earshot to scold them.

Defendant Lawyer: You ride your bike, as you testified earlier, three hundred and sixty five days a year. Is that correct?

Burt: Yes.

Defendant Lawyer: Because it’s an easy way to get around and it’s a healthy thing to do?

Burt: Yes.

Defendant Lawyer: Do you ever drive?

Burt: No.

Defendant Lawyer: Do you have a driver’s license?

Burt: I do not.

Defendant Lawyer: Can you tell us why you do not have a driver’s license?

Plaintiff Lawyer: Objection!

Judge: Sidebar!

The whole thing felt like TV. Even when the bailiff knocked twice on our door to get us whenever we were in our room, it seemed curiously familiar. Buh BUM!

I’m not into TV courtroom dramas — it’s just not my thing, but I enjoyed sitting ringside to the live storytelling and theater that was being presented and performed in Courtroom 1408. And not that I‘m worried about becoming a courtroom junkie, I can see where it might be a slippery slope. It was truly fascinating to see and hear it all unfold, to watch the lawyers — how they were dressed, the way they spoke, the way they sometimes lost their train of thought and stumbled, then regained their mental footing. Same with the plaintiff and defendant. And the judge. They were all on stage with their individual scripts and costumes.

Also what’s up with the robe? Who designed it? Are there different brands/styles of robes? Or is it always that black billowy thing? Does a judge have to leave her robe at work? Can she take it home? How often does one have to wash a robe? Does the city wash it? Is there a bin one puts them in after judging? Is the robe a nice soft cotton? Is it some kind of polyester blend? Are they free? What happens if you lose it? Are there a bunch of extras in the basement?

Hmmm, I digress.

After closing arguments we retired to the jury room for lunch and deliberations. We could finally talk. The room erupted in chatter.

“How many people believe it’s a dog bite,” asked a millennial woman raising her hand.

But no one else raised their hand.

“Oh,” said the woman. “Well, how many people believe it’s not a dog bite?”

Everyone else’s hand went up.

“That ain’t no dog bite,” said the guy next to me with the homemade tattoos. “A dog bite looks like this.” He rolled up his sleeve to his bicep and pointed to a dark scar the size of a quarter. “It punctured the skin, and took a chunk out. You can’t tell me it’s dark outside when I can see the sun. Y’know what I’m saying?”

“Also,” said the bookish man with Lennon specs who was flipping through his pages of notes. “If a dog is going to bite, it’s not going to bite someone’s leg vertically because it can’t get purchase. It’s going to turn its head to the side.”

There was a solid second of silence in the room as everyone took in the Perry Mason moment.

“Ok,” said the woman who asked the question originally. “I’m still not certain it’s not a dog bite, but I’m less convinced. Is the woman still responsible?”

“Because if the dogs weren’t there,” I said backing her up. “The man wouldn’t have been injured.”

The room took in another solid second of silence.

“Let me say this,” I said. “What if you’re holding your dogs and while they don’t actually bite the person, they scare him and he falls off his bike and gets hurt? Wouldn’t you be like, oh, I’m so sorry, can I help you and pay for some of your injuries?”

There was another moment of silence before the guy in the grey hoodie to my right said, “Well, then you’re pretty much admitting guilt, so, you know, I don’t think you want to do that.”

“Right,” I said. “I think that’s why in certain situations my wife is always like ‘you don’t talk, let me talk.’”

The room laughed.

Within half an hour we had our verdict. The plaintiff hadn’t proved his case. Had he brought in a doctor to corroborate his pain/nerve damage, or a dog bite expert to say, ‘Yeah, that’s a dog bite’, or maybe if he’d admitted that perhaps it wasn’t a dog bite but that the dogs’ actions caused his injury — it could have been a different outcome.

Note to self: If you fail to prepare, you should prepare to fail.

Or in other words: Your submarine best be airtight.

“It’s like his lawyer thought he could be slick,” said the woman with the purple bangs and silver lipstick. “How many times was he gonna tell us how the dude couldn’t take a bath for a week?”

“Even if I don’t shower for a week,” said the gentleman at the end who seemed to be missing most of his front teeth. “I can still use a wash cloth.”

“Exactly,” said the woman with the long gold fingernails and gold sunglasses perched on top of her head. “Or you can just wrap it in a plastic bag or something. I mean come on.”

“I’ll tell you something else,” said the homemade tattoo guy. “I saw him this morning walking into the building. It wasn’t perfect, but it wasn’t anything like when he walked across the room.”

“Really,” I said. “Like Verbal?”

“What?”

Usual Suspects. That movie with Kevin Spacey where-”

“Yeah, like Usual Suspects. I mean he wasn’t walking totally, you know, perfect, but like a lot better than he was in here.”

“Debra,” said the millennial woman who was our foreperson. “Are you ok with all this? We’re finding in favor of-”

“Oh, yeah,” said Debra. “I got my hearing aids in today.”

Next to the light switch near the door was a button. Pressed, the bailiff appeared two minutes later.

“Y’all reached a verdict?”

When we went back into the courtroom, it was only Burt’s lawyer and Lacie with her lawyer, as well as the judge. Not sure if that’s protocol or Burt knew it wasn’t going to work out for him. Maybe he was in the bathroom. In any event the foreperson read the verdict and that was it. We were the law and we’d laid it down. Justice was served. Time to go home.

Oh, but first we went back to our room so the bailiff could give us our check.

Bottom line, I was truly happy to serve. It was a good experience. I’m not saying it necessarily restored my faith in humanity, but I dug that the sum of my peers was equal to the intelligence and understanding of our mission. Seriously. Good job, everyone!

INTERESTING REAL LIFE NOTES THAT DON’T PROPEL THE STORY FORWARD AND ARE ALSO NOT RELEVANT OR SEEMINGLY BELIEVABLE:

  • Burt wore a three button blue blazer but kept the bottom two buttons buttoned. He also wore a polo shirt, khakis, and white Reeboks.
  • The cop who wrote the original police report (and called as a witness for the plaintiff) knew the plaintiff. Not close friends, but they were chummy enough to say hello at the Walgreens, grocery, and liquor store.
  • It was unclear why, but the cop was forced to voluntarily resign at some point in his law enforcement career.
  • Later in the jury room when we were allowed to talk, we wondered why Burt didn’t have a driver’s license and that it was curious the cop mentioned liquor store — of all the places to run into someone.
  • Turns out you can change a police report. Rather, you can call in later and add to it.
  • The defendant produced photographs of her nieces happily ‘riding the dogs’ from the day before the incident.
  • The dogs were 3yo and 1yo at the time. It was the 1yo accused of biting. It was also only the younger one for which the paperwork could not be found.
  • When Lacie crossed the courtroom to the witness stand, it was clear she was several months pregnant.
  • Lacie no longer lives at the apartment complex, but now lives in a different one on a street named Wallace.

Every time you click that clap a puppy gets a belly scratch, an ear rub, AND a handful of super yummy crunchy puppy treats. But if not, it gets the hose again. Just saying.

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