At 8:45 in the morning on a hot August Thursday, I reported for jury duty in New York last summer. A week earlier Mayor Michael Bloomberg had made headlines by reporting for jury duty flanked by his aides. The mayor served two days before being sent home. I went three days before I was sent home.
Since my last service four years earlier, the large jury room at 111 Centre Street in Manhattan has changed. The city has added softer, more comfortable chairs, improved the air conditioning, and made it easier to plug in a computer. Even the orientation movie on jury service has gotten better. Narrated by the late CBS newsman Ed Bradley, the film provides a brief history of juries. It is an impossible challenge for a film that runs for less than half an hour, but by emphasizing jury duty as a way of protecting all of us from losing our rights, the film avoids feeling like it’s trying to teach a high school civics lesson.
I was not optimistic about getting on a jury. As a college professor from the Upper West Side and thereby a presumptive, softhearted liberal, I am looked on with favor by defense attorneys and as the enemy by prosecutors. This time, too, I never made it onto a jury, but once again I left Centre Street admiring the way the jury system works in New York City.
The case I never got to sit on was, the presiding judge told us, going to be a short one. It involved a defendant who was accused of trying to sell drugs to an undercover detective. But neither the judge nor the attorneys involved treated the case as routine. They listened carefully as jurors told them what they did for a living, and when during the voir dire jurors said they thought they should not serve on this case, the judge asked them to approach the bench so he could question them in private.
When one potential juror asked about the Rockefeller drug laws, which carry with them particularly stiff sentencing guidelines, the judge did not try to defend the laws or treat the juror as a bleeding heart know-it-all. He explained that if she served on a jury, she could not think about what the penalty for the crime might be. Her sole task was to determine guilt or innocence based on the evidence presented. “Could she do that?” the judge gently asked. “Yes,” the juror, who was later excused from service, replied.
I do not know what the juror who asked the question about the Rockefeller laws was really thinking, but I was impressed by how my fellow jurors sized up the case during voir dire. The assistant district attorney told us that we were not going to be witnessing a Perry Mason-style trial. There would be no forensic evidence presented. There would be no secret tape recording of what the undercover policeman and the accused said to each other.
“In other words, they want us to take the cop’s word that the guy’s a drug dealer,” the man who had been sitting next to me said as we left the courtroom for lunch. Then he laughed...
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